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.