Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Commissioners of The New York City Planning Commission: From The Human-scale NYC Viewpoint of Lynn Ellsworth, They Are The Foxes Guarding City Planning Henhouse

 Top row left to right: Mariso Lago, Kenneth Knuckles, Joseph Douek, Alfred Cerullo, Richard Eaddy,
Middle row left to right: Allen Cappelli, Hope Knight, Anna Hayes Levin, Orlando Marín, Larisa Ortiz
Bottom row left to right: Michelle de la Uz, Rad Rampershad, David Burney, Carl Weisbrod

We've grown bleary eyed seeing it on the federal level since Donald Trump took his trip from NYC's real estate world and started appointing his cabinet and top government policy officials: It seems like there isn't a single such appointment made where the inherent conflicts-of-interest and the effective capture by private interests of federal public agencies doesn't seem the carefully crafted intention of the appointment, rather than a gawd-awful mistake, incompetence or general obtuseness about what is in the public interest.  (It was right from the beginning.)

Where might Mr. Trump have learned that such a cookie-jar approach to populating government could be accepted as routine and par for the course?  Maybe from the way that New York City "government" puts the real estate industry in charge of "governing" all things real estate.  probably the most egregious example is New York City's City Planning Commission Commissioners.  There are tons of other examples in this city (like the revolving door at the Landmarks Preservation Commission for those who then lobby).

Villager op-ed
Lynn Ellsworth of Human-scale NYC recently addressed the question just how totally the City Planning Commission is captured by industry interests with an op-ed in The Villager, back up with her research that provides  gallery portraits of the Commissioners and the allegiances to the real estate industry that laden them.  See: OPINION: Foxes guard City Planning henhouse, by Lynn Ellsworth, May 22, 2019.

Her opinion piece represents points Ms. Ellsworth made at a May 15, 2019 press conference recently on the steps of City Hall speaking about the current developer practice of grabbing the sky for luxury condo units by building "void" buildings launched upwards to new heights on stilts to be taller than the rest of the city. 

May 15, 2019 press conference
Ms. Ellsworth's gallery is also reminiscent of a similar round-up of suspect commissioners that Citizens Defending Libraries put together in 2015 when the Planning Commission was hellbent to approve the shrink-and-sink deal that would sell Brooklyn's second largest library in order to turn the site over to the developer of a luxury tower.  Full disclosure: As a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, I was involving in putting that round up together as well as requests that various commissioners recuse themselves, only a few of which did (there was an opinion of no conflict of interest).  See:  Report on Tuesday, September 22nd City Planning Commission Hearing On Proposed Sale and Shrinkage of Plus Testimony of Citizens Defending Libraries, and Open Letter To NYC Planning Commissioner Cheryl Cohen Effron Respecting Her Vote About Selling & Shrinking the Brooklyn Heights Library, Other Libraries The Revson Foundation, Center for an Urban Future, And More.

Alicia Boyd of MTOP (Movement to Protect the People) is another activist who, in concert with a coalition of others, has sought to ventilate these conflicts of interest that usually go unremarked upon.  That has included demonstrations and press conference outside of the Planning Commission.

Lynn Ellsworth with Citizens Defending Libraries outside City Hall, December 2015 protesting library sale.
Ms. Ellsworth's gallery and the research it represents is a beautiful piece of work and valuable to have at hand.  She indicates that it may be subject to some refinement with some future revisions, but it is too extraordinary a resource not to be look at now.

Does Noticing New York publish the work of others?: Seldom, but sometimes.  In this case, veteran Noticing New York readers will find themselves in very familiar territory.   Enjoy, and file away for future reference.  Oh, and as you read, you will see references to NYC library sales.

* * *    
The Fox Guards the Henhouse at the Department of City Planning
Part 1: Profiles in Complicity

Communities Cannot Get A Fair Hearing when the Regulatory Agency is Captured by the Industry it is Supposed to Regulate.

By Lynn Ellsworth, of Human-scale NYC, May 16, 2019
(Contact: lynnellsworth [at]
In 1976, sociologist Harvey Molotch wrote a famous essay describing an "Urban Growth Machine" consisting of a coalition of large property owners, developers, realtors, industry-dependent elites and politicians whose economic interests aligned to push for insatiable real estate development they dubbed "growth".  Many years later, Rutgers economist Jason Barr studied high-rise development in Manhattan and described a "Skyscraper Industrial Complex" of real estate developers, real estate advisors and financiers, construction unions, architects, construction and engineering firms whose economic self-interests aligned to demand never-ending and unregulated high-rise construction.  

These forces have crystalized in New York City in the most powerful special interest lobby New York has ever known, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) whose Board of Governors is dominated by an elite group of spectacularly wealthy oligarchic families, some of which have become feudal dynasties with thousands of tenants paying rent to them. It is a situation not seen since the medieval period. REBNY's financial and lobbying power is a matter of common knowledge.

This power is only a problem and a matter of public interest when the real estate industry comes to control the institutions that are supposed do the regulating for the public good. The Department of City Planning is a case in point. There, the Fox has come to guard the henhouse and communities can no longer get a fair hearing.*  The Commissions hearings have become a kind of Kangaroo Court for communities, for even the Commissioners at City Planning who aren't directly involved in real estate development are all clearly members of the "Skyscraper Industrial Complex".
(* Part 2 will discuss how to repair the situation in the City Charter.  This article will be subject to possible revisions- Please send typo alerts or any new facts to the attention of the author.)
To be specific, of the 13 members of the Commission who control the Department of City Planning:
-    One is a real estate investor, a donor to the Mayor and runs a $75 million "opportunity fund" for Brooklyn (Douek)
-    One is a former lobbyist for the real estate industry (Cappelli)
-    Five are real estate developers of various types, ranging from an employee of Bluestone to CEOs of Development Corporations to the head of the Fifth Avenue Committee (de la Uz, Knuckles, Eaddy, Knight, and Marín)
-    The current Chair's professional history is that of running the notorious corporate subsidy-granting Empire State Development Corporation, a real estate development entity for the state.  It has seriously abused eminent domain to the detriment of black and low-income communities. One academic notes that the Corporation acts as "Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich" (Lago)
-    Only one has a degree in urban planning, but alas, runs a consulting firm advising city agencies and developers how to "optimize" their retail tenant mix so that it fits the owner's "goals" (Ortiz).
-    At least two have serious conflicts of interest with the current rezoning project on the table at Gowanus (Bluestone and Fifth Avenue Committee).  At least one had a clear conflict of interest with the East Harlem rezoning (Knuckles).
-    Two are architects with high-rise projects under their belts (Burney and Rampershad).
-    One has long been a cheerleader for the Hudson Yards project and whose spouse is a partner at the  ‘Big Law' firm of David and Polk that advises the developers such as Extell who are involved in the Hudson Yards project as well as many other major real estate players in NY (Levin).
-    One is CEO of the real estate controlled BID, the Grand Central Partnership, whose board of directors reads like the Who's Who of the Board of Governors of the Real Estate Board of New York and who has pushed for multiple upzonings in Midtown(Cerullo)
Is it any wonder these Commissioners, the majority of which represent the real estate development community, mistake upzoning, real estate profit-making and high-rise projects for actual urban planning?  We call on the City Charter Commission to repair the situation (see Part 2 for details).

Profiles of the Real Estate Industrial Complex at DCP:  with citations.

Mariso Lago, Chair of the DCP.  One of her claims to competence for serving as Chair is her experience as CEO of the Empire State Development Corporation. Part of the stated mission of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) is to support economies though "real estate development" across New York State.  The current Chair is Howard Zemsky, a real estate developer who owns the Larkin Development Group. ESDC mostly organizes public subsidies for big developer-run projects (such as the Amazon project.  It also issues public bonds to pay for them and awards contracts to developers.  Current NYC "signature" and "large-scale" projects include the redevelopment of Penn Station and of the Javits Convention Center.  ESDC specializes in creating interlocking boards of subsidiaries to carry out its work. It is famous for the abuse of eminent domain to impose its vision.  It used those powers for the disastrous Atlantic Yards Project that demolished a swathe of Brooklyn as well as the Columbia Manhattanville Project that destroyed an immense stretch of West Harlem for Columbia University's new glass-filled campus. One of ESDC's subsidiaries was also responsible for building luxury housing in Brooklyn Bridge Park - even when it become clear that housing was not needed to subsidize the park. One of the ESDC's subsidiaries still manages a portfolio of 20,200 housing units in New York City. ESDC bonds were used to build a network of 32 adult prisons to accommodate people arrested under the Rockefeller drug laws.*  "Good Jobs First" a national good government group, accuses the ESDC of "awarding lavish subsidies with little accountability."  An Institute for Justice report by Dr. Dick Carpenter found that ESDC's "eminent domain abuse disproportionately targets those who are less well off and less educated" and acts as "Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich."  The Brooklyn Bridge Park redevelopment was particularly ridden with conflicts of interests and scandal during Ms. Lago's tenure at the Empire State Development Corporation. The architect of one of the governor's biggest deals at the ESDC was found guilty of bid rigging. E.J. McMahon, Director of the watchdog group ‘Empire Center' has fretted over misplaced priorities at the ESDC with the comment: "What roads could you build, what bridges could you build with the money you are spending on factories [then handed over] for private corporations?" Gotham Gazette describes ECDC-supported entities as "scandal-plagued."  Ms. Lago has publicly supported a high-rise, glassy, Dubai-on-the-Hudson vision for New York City in a video interview with the real estate press , calling it a ‘win-win-win'.  She mentions that the only real strategy DCP has it to define areas to "take more density" and in the same interview she expresses to be one with REBNY's desire to do away with the State FAR cap on height and bulk.  She has no training in urban planning.
(*King, Ryan S.; Mauer, Marc; Huling, Tracy (February 2003). "Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America" (PDF). The Sentencing Project. Archived from the original (pdf) on 2010-07-10.)
Kenneth Knuckles, Vice Chair of the Commission.  He has been on the Commission since 2002 and has no training in urban planning.  He was the longtime CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation (known as UMEZ) and only retired from there at the age of 70 in April of 2018.  UMEX is a real estate development organization that does a few other small business support activities under the heading of "economic development."  Substantial funding for UMEZ comes from New York City, meaning UMEZ has an internal incentive not to bite the City hand that feeds it.  Under Mr. Knuckles, UMEZ provided $87 million in loans to real estate development projects and was the key player setting up the controversial East River Plaza that benefited big developers (specifically, Ratner, Blumenfeld, and Canyon Capital Advisors).  That plaza is a vertical mall for big box stores and features a bizarre $64 million parking lot that as of 2012 was nearly empty, with less than 5% used of the spaces actually in use.  A senior accountant who worked at UMEZ wrote about his experience there on Glassdoor, saying "the only successes I saw while I was there were in funding large corporations to develop areas in Harlem." Mr. Knuckles is quoted in Crain's thus: "I would like to say we created the environment that was conducive to stores like Whole Foods [now owned by Amazon] coming to Harlem."  The role of Whole Foods in the "whitification" of Harlem was called out in 2016 in Michael Henry Adam's moving opinion column in the Times, "The End of Black Harlem" in which Adams wrote: "Whole Foods might as well be Fortnum and Mason…To us our Harlem is being remade, upgraded, and transformed, just for them, for wealthier white people."

Joseph Douek, Commissioner.  He is Chair and CEO of an investment and hedge fund called Viceroy Equities which is "betting big on Brooklyn with a $75 million Opportunity Zone fund".  Recall that opportunity zone investors will pay zero capital gains taxes if their real estate investments are held for ten years.  Opportunity zones are pure subsidies to real estate investors.   He has no training in urban planning.  Opportunity zones in Brooklyn overlap with proposed upzonings.

Alfred Cerullo, Commissioner is the President and CEO of the Grand Central Partnership, a big real estate Business Improvement District (BID). That BID drove the recent upzoning for the Vanderbilt Corridor and Midtown East, as both upzonings directly benefited members of the Partership. Of course, the Board of Directors of the Grand Central Partnership also reads like a who's who of the Real Estate Board of New York, with REBNY's CEO John Banks literally serving as the official secretary of the BID.  Cerullo is a Republican and former actor with a law degree, but no training in urban planning.  SL Green, a big real estate firm, owned 1 Vanderbilt and spearheaded the shocking upzoning for that area.

Richard Eaddy, Commissioner.  Mr. Eaddy's work prior to government service was with ET Partners, a real estate development and consulting firm.  He had previously been Chief Financial Officer of the real estate company "L & M Equity Participants" the precursor of L& M Development partners, a firm which brags on its website that it has "over $7 billion in development, construction, and investment".  He was also development manager at the real estate company Olympia and York.  His master's degree is in real estate development.  He has no training in urban planning.  It is safe to consider Mr. Eaddy to be a member of the real estate development community.

Allen Cappelli, Commissioner  A lawyer without training in urban planning who appears to be a professional board member, although according to the New York Times he was once a lobbyist for the real estate industry.  He is a former member of the board of the MTA where he served for 8 years overlapping with John Banks, current president of the Real Estate Board of New York (Cappelli was appointed to the MTA in 2008, while Banks was already on it while Banks continued to be on the MTA with Cappelli until 2015).  As a resident of Staten Island, Cappelli "was the only [MTA] member of the board to vote against increasing tolls and fares."  Note that the New York Times has called the MTA "one of the most unwieldy bureaucracies in the state" with an infamous amount of "bloat."  After leaving the MTA, De Blasio put him on the Civil Service Commission for three days a week of work at $412 a day.

Hope Knight, Commissioner is President and CEO of a private entity known as the "Greater Jamaica Development Corporation" whose mission is to "plan, promote, coordinate and advance responsible development" and is specifically responsible for glassy towers in the Jamaica neighborhood known as "The Crossing" and the "Hilton Garden Inn" and is now actively promoting to builders property lots containing 99,000 and 84,000 square feet respectively.  The Chair of the Board of the corporation is Peter Kulka, CEO of KJL Management Corporation, a real estate property management company in Queens." The Corporation's job of cheerleading new development includes the breathless phrase on their website "Jamaica makes new development happen!  $3.7 billion worth!" Ms. Knight's prior work had been on the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zones" from 2003-2015, (an entity described under the paragraph for Commissioner Knuckles.)  Ms. Knight does not have a degree in urban planning but instead an MBA from University of Chicago and considerable prior experience in banking with Morgan Stanley.

Anna Hayes Levin, Commissioner.  Her degree is in law, not urban planning. She served for many of the Empire State Development Corporations subsidiaries  such as those for the redevelopment of Hudson Yards and the Javits Center.  For example, she was  "alternative director" of the Hudson Yards Development Corporation. She had been chair of the Land Use Committee of CB4 during the tumultuous and controversial approvals for the Hudson Yards project between 2001 and 2009. At the time, she was also on the Javits Community Advisory Committee and on the Penn Station Community Advisory Committee, all ESDC projects.  Ms. Levin is married to a senior counsel and long-time partner at the law firm of Davis Polk, a firm which claims (in their words) to be ‘'at the center of the real estate marketplace." Their clients include major real estate players in NYC including SL Green, Slate, Naftali, Related, RXR, and Extell.  Their website specifically states that the firm advised Related on the Hudson Yards deal.

Orlando Marín, Commissioner.  He is currently employed by the Bluestone Organization, which is "a private developer" and which describes itself on its website as "a real estate development company."  Bluestone's website says it is developing projects with the ‘Fifth Avenue Committee" (a real estate development corporation whose Chair is also on the Commission).  Mr. Marin also once worked at the Empire State Development Corporation. He has a BA in architecture and a diploma in ‘Real Estate' as well as a Master's in public administration.  He lives in the Longwood area of the Bronx, an area that Crain's describes as a place where investors "clamor to rezone."  Bluestone's website describes its investments in areas where upzonings have been or are now on the agenda, including Bushwick, Jamaica, Gowanus, Crown Heights and Rockaway.  Some of these are in partnership with developers such as the Fifth Avenue Committee, Hudson Properties, and Jonathan Rose.

Larisa Ortiz, Commissioner.  Ms. Ortiz does have a degree in urban planning, but her principal job is working as a consultant (Larisa Ortiz Associates) to real estate developers and government agencies. She specializes in how to optimize their retail rents. Many of her clients are either large shopping center developers and New York City agencies and BIDs.  She markets herself as (from her website) a "commercial district advisor."  Her firm's mission includes to "develop market-based strategies for the redevelopment of urban places."  One of her clients is the New York City Economic Development Corporation where she advised them on the miserable "Fulton-Nassau Crossroads" program for retail in Lower Manhattan and the similarly controversial retail destruction of the Essex Street Market.

Michelle de la Uz is a Commissioner and Executive Director of the "Fifth Avenue Committee" which is unequivocally a real estate development firm, notwithstanding its status as a "community development corporation."  It's website claims real estate assets of over $100 million and has buildings in the works that will cost more than $400 million.  The committee does specialize in "affordable" housing, a term whose definition is obviously contested throughout the city and Uz does have a record of voting against rezonings that she thinks do not have deep enough levels of affordability, but she does not question the high rise or skyscraper character of De Blasio's policies. She does not have a degree in urban planning.  The Fifth Avenue Committee was instrumental in the demolition of the Brooklyn Public Library in Sunset Park. They received a no-bid contract to take on that particular development project.  The village of Sunset Park hotly contested the arrangement, pointing out that the Fifth Avenue Committee had given heavily to De Blasio's non-profit "Campaign For One New York."  Her organization in 2017 got $2.945 million in revenue from "government grants" and spends over $5 million for salaries, nearly all of its total revenue. Part of its revenue comes from $385,000 in rents from the buildings it owns. The Fifth Avenue Committee founded the "Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice" to advocate for certain groups during the planning for the Gowanus upzoning, a group that has pushed in favor of the rezoning.*  De la Uz wrote an op-ed in the Daily News in 2018 advocating for a spot rezoning for the community-contested project at 80 Flatbush Street in Brooklyn that favored a single developer, saying ‘we need to build bigger' and says resistance to developers is just "a regressive reality that must change" echoing the unproven fantasy REBNY p.r. line that not building skyscrapers might "impact job growth." She then fantasizes in the op-ed that the 80 Flatbush project was going to happen "without public subsidies" which indicates a weak grasp of reality.  Last, her organization partnered with another developer, Hudson Properties, to advocate for building a child care center next to the spot on the Gowanus canal that emits coal tar fumes that are so toxic that even the Environmental Protection Agency is concerned.
(* See the audit and 990 forms for Fifth Avenue Committee that Propublica has kindly made available.)
Rad Rampershad, Commissioner.  Mr. Rampershad is an architect, not an urban planner. He is resident of the low-rise, heavily down-zoned neighborhood of Richmond Hill, Queens, where Gary Barnett the CEO of Extell also lives.  He is a Senior Project Manager at the Gerald Caliendo architecture firm in Briarwood, Queens. His firm designed the glassy high rise "Four Points by Sheraton" in Long Island City and the similarly massive glass tower known as the "Z Hotel" in Hunters Point north of Long Island City. Architects like this are courtiers and dependents to the real estate industry.

David Burney, Commissioner.  Mr. Burney does have a degree in urban planning and is director of the Urban Placemaking and Management program at Pratt Institute School of Architecture, all of which definitely makes him not a real estate developer and not a deep part part of the "Growth Machine."  He was Director of Design and Capital Improvement for NYCHA for 13 years under Bloomberg, a worrisome aspect of his professional life:  as we all know there has not been adequate capital improvement in NYCHA for many, many years during the Bloomberg era. Mr. Burney was also one of the architects who did the massively over-scaled 29-storied Zeckendorf Towers in the Grammercy neighborhood while he was at the firm of Davis, Brody, & Associates.

Carl Weisbrod, former Chair of the Commission.  He is a senior advisor at HRA, a consulting firm that advises real estate developers and government agencies on big redevelopment schemes. The Real Deal credits Weisbrod for turning Times Square into the tourist zoo that it has become while he was in a "series of government positions."   He was for example president of the Economic Development Corporation for some of that period during which time he used "eminent domain aggressively to help the city take-over much of the land in the 42nd Street area."  While at HRA he led the rezoning of Hudson Square on behalf of his client the real estate division of Trinity Church.  That rezoning is resulting in the subsequent demolition of many a historic property in that area. He is a lawyer, but has no degree in urban planning.  He was for many years head of the Alliance for Downtown, a big real estate BID (developer Bill Rudin was one of the founders) that dominates much of the politics of Lower Manhattan.  As head of City Planning, he pushed through De Blasio's upzonings, over the opposition of  90% of the community boards in the city.  In that position, he also green-lighted the massive Extell tower in the Two Bridges area of Manhattan, claiming that the developer's requests amounted to a "minor modification" of the permit he granted, thus Carl Weisbrod, former Chair of the Commission.  He is a senior advisor at HRA, a consulting firm that advises real estate developers and government agencies on big redevelopment schemes. The Real Deal credits Weisbrod for turning Times Square into the tourist zoo that it has become while he was in a "series of government positions."  He was for example president of the Economic Development Corporation for some of that period during which time he used "eminent domain aggressively to help the city take-over much of the land in the 42nd Street area."  While at HRA he led the rezoning of Hudson Square on behalf of his client the real estate division of Trinity Church.  That rezoning is resulting in the subsequent demolition of many a historic property in that area. He is a lawyer, but has no degree in urban planning.  He was for many years head of the Alliance for Downtown, a big real estate BID (developer Bill Rudin was one of the founders) that dominates much of the politics of Lower Manhattan.  As head of City Planning, he pushed through De Blasio's upzonings, over the opposition of  90% of the community boards in the city.  In that position, he also green-lighted the massive Extell tower in the Two Bridges area of Manhattan, claiming that the developer's requests amounted to a "minor modification" of the permit he granted, thus allowing the developer to avoid going through ULURP. The Manhattan Borough President has sued the city over Weisbrod's decision.  Weisbrod has since become Chair of the Trust for Governor's Island which is overseeing a major plan to allow developers to have their way with the island. Cityland describes Weisbrod at the time of his appointment as having a "continuity of a pro-growth outlook" (with "growth" referring to real estate development.)  When he was appointed to City Planning, Cityland also noted that "his commitments to curtail the limbo of the pre-certification process, loosen the shrink-wrapping nature of some building envelope controls….. will be welcome news for developers."  Cityland concluded with obvious satisfaction that he would get those things done for the developer community.

Part 2:  What is to Be Done?

The Fox Guarding the Henhouse situation can be fixed with tighter conflict of interest rules in the City Charter. 

To be continued…

Monday, April 1, 2019

Un-Change That You Can Believe In?: Is The Brooklyn Heights Association Going To Endorse Greater Density In The Neighborhood As A Way For Its Neighborhood To Regain Historic Character? (It’s Being Discussed.)

The corner of Montague and Henry Streets: On left, the current problematic vista; On right, the view as some Brooklyn Heights Association trustees may hope that it will be approved, restoring the neighborhood's historic flavor. (Click to enlarge for better consideration)  Note: The rendering of this proposal triples the office real estate brokerage space of Brown Harris Stevens, a not unlikely result of the addition of this much real estate to the neighborhood.
Nothing is official or publicly disclosed yet, but rumors are out that there is dissension and disagreement at the Brooklyn Heights Association as a result of an idea proposed by an emergent faction of the board that is raising hackles with the others.  It all stems from the fact that there is a sense that the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, the first neighborhood in New York City to be designated an historic district, has fast been losing its historic character.  - Oh for history’s sake!

How can Brooklyn Heights regain, restore and reestablish the historic flavor and character that has made it so deliciously revered as one of the city’s most special areas to stroll through and that invariably attracts and is recommended to tourists and to visitors coming from everywhere?
Brooklyn Heights historic area boundaries.
The reason the question has presented itself in a nagging way that is far from easy to sidestep is because of the visual intrusions of the tall glass towers shrieking modernity that have recently been built ringing the perimeter of what is officially the protected historic part of the neighborhood.  The protected part of the neighborhood is actually smaller than many presume, ending, for example on Montague Street at the boundary of Clinton Street. The poster child for such “back to the impending future” intrusions is the super-tall luxury condominium tower, replacing what was once Brooklyn's second most important library at the corner of Tillary and Clinton where they intersect at Cadman Plaza West.

That tower, developed by David Kramer and his Hudson Companies, was endorsed and promoted by the Brooklyn Heights Association.  Destruction of the public library to create the tower also created a financial windfall for the neighborhood’s elite Saint Ann’s School, which was, no doubt, influential in the politics that sent the tower soaring up to dominate the skies of the historic neighborhood from all sorts of vantages.  It is possible that when the BHA endorsed the luxury tower they never realized just how visually dominant it would be in so much of the neighborhood.

But now, according to the rumors, one emerging faction of the Heights Association is pointing out that, while the tower is seen looming from many of the key streets and intersections of Brooklyn Heights, there are places where it can’t be seen because view of it is still blocked by the older historic buildings making up the fabric of the neighborhood since it was officially designated historic by the Landmarks Commission on November 23, 1965.  The same faction of the BHA (basically the core group that lobbied to sell the library) are pointing out that the visual intrusions of the tower are not always that bad, and are they are saying that there is, in this observation, the seeds of a solution to make the unsightly tower less “sightly” . . . Or, if you will, make the tower less Brooklyn Heights Historic District “sitely.”

Other candidates for “historical enlargement”: At left, the creamy white Supreme Court Appellate Division building on Pierrepont and Monroe Streets; and, at right, a series of townhouses on Monroe Street that no longer feel cloistered away from the bustle of the moderns age. ( The Supreme Court building attracted film crews for many an episode “Law and Order.”  If the success of “Law and Order” can result in six spin-off series, which it did, why can’t recognition of the attractiveness of the Supreme Court building equally justify addition of another half dozen similarly beautiful floors?  The demand will be to fill those extra floors with condos, not more justice manufacturing.)
The answer being proposed is to bring greater density to the Brooklyn Heights and allow the truly historic buildings of Brooklyn Heights to express their historic influence more fully by building extra floors matching and multiplying the same historic flavor those buildings contribute to the neighborhood now.  If those buildings rise up enough extra floors they can blot out the visibility of Kramer's One Clinton luxury condo tower and perhaps also diminish the conspicuousness of the other glass-glazed luxury hulks that have bounded up into the skies elsewhere on the neighborhood’s periphery.

With nobody currently on the board of the BHA officially talking, the internal politics and arguments being exchanged are, as yet a little unclear.  However, Hank (Henry) Gutman, a former BHA board member and currently on the board of the Brooklyn Bridge Park corporation and on the board of the Brooklyn Public Library that sold the Business, Career and Education federal depository library to create Kramer's luxury tower, seems to have an inside line on the development oriented thinking that is behind the proposal.  Gutman says “allowing the extra density unlocks the real estate value historic neighborhood designations invariable trap unused in their neighborhoods, and that unlocking of value will serve as an engine for quick restorative development that will assist the Heights neighborhood to regain its historic flavor.”

Gutman said that, if the Heights Association proposes this solution, he strongly believes the de Blasio administration will accede and work with the BHA to implement it.  Among other things, says Gutman:
This is consistent with other goals of the city.  The city needs to grow and become more dense.  It’s a city policy to add density along subway lines and at the transit hubs where those lines converge.  Right now Brooklyn Heights, sitting atop the convergence of a huge proportion of the city’s subway lines, is hogging our subway lines without giving any density back.  It’s time for the neighborhood to give back! 
Gutman is hopeful about the future of similar proposals in the future: “If implemented successfully in Brooklyn Heights, I am sure it’s the kind of thing that can be programmatically replicated in other neighborhoods throughout the city,” says Gutman.

Another thing to think about says Gutman is how this would address what he considers the almost inherently elitist nature of historic neighborhoods.  “Nobody is making historic neighborhoods anymore,” says Gutman, “yet, given the crap people are building these days [Gutman wouldn’t comment on Kramer’s work], everybody wants to live in them.   Given the automatic scarcity that results, the neighborhoods become enclaves for the wealthy who outbid everyone else.” . .

. . . “This is the solution,” says Gutman, “now, by adding greater density, we will be building more historic places where people can live.”  . . . . And, says Gutman, it sort of goes along with something else he has always liked to say, which isif you know how to create history, you'll be a winner when it's all said and done.

Is this a proposal that the Brooklyn Heights Association will be promoting?  As far as anyone knows, it’s only being discussed at this point, but what may the clincher for endorsement by the BHA is another related proposal that would be combined with it . . .

. . .  The extra density to hide modern towers proposal would create multiple extra tall buildings of a historic character throughout the Heights neighborhood.  They would all have additional steel columns to ensure support for the extra floors, and could perhaps also have more.  There is a feeling that, if done right, the new taller-than-average historic character towers scattered throughout the neighborhood could also become the supports upon which to rest a new, but temporary overhead bypass for the BQE to allow the repairs to the BQE's existing structure without tearing down the promenade.  That would substitute for the Department of Transportation’s (hard to believe) plan for repair and modification of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade that involves six years during which a six-lane highway would run along the Heights in place of the promenade.
A red line tracks how a BQE bypass over taller "extra historical" buildings could cut through the historic district to save the promenade from the DOT plan.  Once upon a time, Robert Moses wanted to run the BQE through the middle of Brooklyn Heights which would have involved tearing down much of historic Brooklyn Heights.  In contradistinction, this plan, with a similar BQE route, builds up and creates more of the historic district.
The BHA has said it very much opposes the reviled DOT plan.  Gutman thinks the historic towers supporting a bypass would be a much better plan.  And City Councilman Steve Levin, who usually keeps his constituents guessing about his actually stance on development issues until the very last minute (and who says he opposes the DOT promenade plan) has, in this case, already said, it's “exactly the plan to replace the DOT plan” that he has been “on the look out for.”

I wanted to get this article out as soon as possible to let New Yorkers know what is being considered as soon as possible, but this publication may be a little premature.  Gutman thinks the BHA factions are about to resolve their differences and says he thinks the BHA may come out to announce a more definitive proposal, as soon as today, April 1st.
Example of how "extra historical" buildings could support BQE bypass.