Landmarks commission sends Heights Cinema building back to drawing board

November 29, 2012 Linda Collins The Daily Eagle
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Saying they had given an excellent presentation and noting that some serious ques- tions had been raised about their project and the site itself, Robert Tierney, chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), sent the development team for the Heights Cinema building in Brooklyn Heights back to the drawing board.

“Some re-thinking is needed,” he said, suggesting that the team work with the staff and commission on a new proposal.

As the Eagle has reported, the building owner plans to demolish the existing one- story cinema building and construct a five-story, 13-unit rental building with one commercial space to be occupied by the Heights Cinema at street level (theater lobby) and basement level (the movie theater itself).

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The building owner, the cinema’s owner/operator and the architect, Gerner, Kronick + Valcarcel Architects, all said they have been working together to ensure the theater remains.

Among the issues raised by members of the commission were the desire to retain the existing building as a commercial building that contributes to the historic district; the desire to demolish it entirely; and the possibility of retaining the original building but adding residential units above it.

The question of whether it was “a commercial building that contributed to the Brooklyn Heights Historic District” was also raised in response to a report by historian Gregory Dietrich who described the building as “a purpose-built poultry and butcher shop” but was then altered to house three retail stores, then six, then five and was ultimately converted in 1971 — with LPC approval — into the multi-level theater structure with alterations that included moving the main entrance to Henry Street and replacing the various windows and bays. These were changes that removed much of the historic interest, he said.

Architect Randy Gerner, in his presentation, noted that 58 percent of the original buildng had been altered.

He further described the development as having an L- shaped design with a 1,200- square-foot inner rear court to allow light to the windows of the neighboring building on Orange Street.

The large windows of the proposed building will make use of delicate steel-frames, the exterior will be of brick and Indiana limestonen and the residential entrance will be on Orange; the cinema entrance will be on Henry, he said.

Public Testimony

Nine people spoke during the public testimony, four in favor, calling the existing building an eyesore and praising the developer for making the Heights Cinema a part of their project.

Among those strongly opposed were the following:

• Otis Pearsall, who called the application unprecedented and the first attempt to take down a commercial building in the historic district since the Norwegian Club came down in 1967.

“We’re at a watershed moment. Stop and weigh the inevitable irreversibility of your action,” he told commissioners, urging them to reject the application.

• Jane McGroarty, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, who said the BHA was in “strong opposition.” She noted that the building was an historical commercial structure, a substantial commercial building, one of the oldest in the district and had a special feature: a wrap-around storefront.

• Councilmember Steve Levin, who wrote in a letter read by Ashley Hobson that architecturally and culturally this is “a contributing building” to the historic district.

The Historic Districts Council (HDC), while noting that 70 Henry St. does not jump out as a classic Heights building, said it, like other small buildings in historic districts, does have a role.

“If restored, the building would further enhance the district’s diversity,” said the HDC’s Nadezhda Williams.

Of the new building’s design, she said, “It is better suited for one of the TriBeCa districts.”

“A less industrial design would be preferable with more masonry and a greater solidity — vertical masonry piers would certainly be welcome,” she concluded.

Commissioners’ Comments

One commissioner Fred Bland said he was “vehemently against destroying” the original building but suggested it could be the base of a taller building.

Of the design, he said there was “too much window” and it was “too beefy and muscular.”

Another commissioner said that with all the alter- ations to the original building over the years, she did not see an historic need to retain it.

Of the design she said it was “not out of scale,” she doesn’t mind that it’s “glassy,” but believes that with a little reduction in the window massing it would work for her.

A third commissioner said she also preferred the integration of the existing building into the overall project.

A fourth said the scale is wrong.

A fifth commissioner said, “What’s there is not a profound contribution.”

A sixth noted that it did fall into “the category of buildings we’ve allowed to be demolished in the past.” And, responding to a staff member’s statement about the historic district’s 50-foot height limit, noted that to build on top of the original building (which is 18 feet tall) could mean the loss of a floor.

He also said a redesign “could recall the corner entrance” of the original building as well as some of its historical texture.

“It bears further investigation,” he said.

It was also noted by Chair Tierney that the Community Board 2 Land Use Committee had voted to approve the project, 11-1 (plus one abstention), and the Executive Committee voted to approve, 5-0 (with three abstentions). 

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