FDNY Suspects Fire in Chetrit Warehouse Was Set Intentionally

Crain's New York Business - July 10, 2018

Blaze gutted Red Hook property as locals sought to landmark it

The fire that gutted a Chetrit Group-owned warehouse in Red Hook last month is considered suspicious, a Fire Department spokesman said Friday. The property went up in flames weeks after locals began pushing for it to be protected under the city's landmarks law, raising the eyebrows of the area's City Council member.

On the night of June 14, a two-alarm blaze tore through 595-611 Smith St., which was built in 1886 and known as the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse. The property was purchased for $14.5 million in 2007 by the Chetrit Group and Chera family's Crown Acquisitions, property and building records show. Chetrit attempted to demolish the structure last year but was denied permits.

In the weeks before the fire, locals had noticed unauthorized work being done at the property, and had intensified a push to landmark the structure as part of a larger preservation effort in the area. After the conflagration, City Councilman Carlos Menchaca issued a statement calling the inferno "highly suspicious."

The FDNY said last week that the fire has been deemed incendiary, meaning it was intentionally set. The investigation is continuing.

Six days after the blaze, another city agency, the Department of Buildings, placed a stop-work order on the property after finding that illegal demolition had been done.

Menchaca said that Chetrit Group has allowed the property to fall into disrepair for years. The councilman suggested that the neglect was a deliberate attempt to trigger a rezoning by making the warehouse unsuitable for industrial tenants.

"I will not allow demolition by neglect or fire to prompt zoning changes that allow residential or other non-manufacturing uses at this site in Red Hook's Industrial Business Zone," he said in the statement.

The Chetrit Group did not respond to a request for comment.

In some cases, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has moved to protect a structure before it could be torn down, according to Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a nonprofit advocacy group. Generally speaking, however, the commission will not protect historic properties that have been damaged beyond repair or are the subject of an existing demolition permit.

In this case, the warehouse has not been approved for demolition. And the building’s hearty construction means that much of its outer structure likely remains intact, potentially leaving the door open for a local preservation group to push for landmarking status.

“Those are load-bearing walls that are meant to act as insulation,” Bankoff said. “They can take fire.”