Theme of Brooklyn Heights Association Annual Meeting: Change vs Preservation
The theme of the Brooklyn Heights Association’s 2015 annual meeting, held at Grace Church Wednesday night, was the inevitability and necessity of change.
Paraphrasing the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said, “You cannot step into the same river twice,” BHA President Alexandra Bowie told the crowd, “In New York, we’ve learned that you never walk on the same block twice.”
While the neighborhood owes “a huge debt of gratitude to the residents of the 1960s” who won the passage of the New York City Landmarks Law, “what we love comes at a cost,” she said.
“There’s not enough of our neighborhood to go around. Now that the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn rezoning has resulted in a large amount of residential construction, and Brooklyn Bridge Park is open, we are a quiet corner no longer,” Bowie said. “A lot of people want to share what we have, and who can blame them? Change is not just coming; change is here.
“How do we balance change with preservation? How do we change to meet our times?” she asked.
Bowie lauded Brooklyn Bridge Park, and said BHA has always recognized the necessity of housing there. “But we have always argued that only housing necessary to support the park should be built. At this moment, we are not convinced that housing is needed on Pier 6.
“Mayor de Blasio, Pier 6 is one of those places where skyscrapers do not belong,” she said.
Likewise, BHA believes the buildings going up at Pier 1 are “larger than they should be, and that their height contravenes agreements that were made in the community many years ago.”
She said BHA remains “cautiously optimistic” about the Brooklyn Public Library’s plans to redevelop the site of the Brooklyn Heights branch. She emphasized the developer’s promise to provide interim service during construction, and said BHA accepted the off-site placement of the affordable housing component as a tradeoff that would result in a less bulky tower.
Citing overcrowding at P.S. 8, which is at 140 percent capacity, she asked Mayor de Blasio to invest in schools “immediately – not in 2017, 2018, 2019.”
Bowie welcomed “friends and collaborators” from several advocacy groups, including People for Green Space Foundation (PFGSF) board member Henry “Ren” Richmond. PFGSF is working to block the construction of two residential towers at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
“There’s just no reason for a 31-story condo in a flood zone, in a park, especially when our local schools are already massively overcrowded and the park just doesn’t need the money,” Richmond said. New circumstances require a new analysis of the environmental impacts of the developments at Pier 6, he added.
PFGSF has been granted a temporary restraining order for the Pier 6 development, Richmond said. He thanked BHA for preparing an amicus brief. “We’re confident of our case and look forward to our day in court in March.”
BHA Governor and Save the View Now (STVN) representative Jen Donaker delivered a presentation for STVN, which is concerned with preserving the view of the Brooklyn Bridge from the Promenade. This view is partially blocked by a hotel/residential project at Pier 1. (Steve Guterman, the more familiar spokesperson, was away on business.)
Donaker said that a stop work order previously issued by the Department of Buildings on the smaller Parcel B was lifted last week.
“We have not received any copies of the new plans. We’ve made multiple requests,” she said. “The [Brooklyn Bridge] Park Corporation (BBPC) committed to getting those to us immediately – they acknowledged that time was of the essence. But we still haven’t received it . . . there is no transparency.”
As to Parcel A, the tall hotel portion that is already built out, “[BBPC] continues to maintain that 30-foot mechanicals are permitted to be on the rooftop, and the reason they cite is New York City zoning law. In fact. NYC zoning regulations don’t even apply to this project,” she said.
She thanked Sen. Daniel Squadron, Councilmember Stephen Levin, the Historic Districts Council and BHA for their support, and announced that the group has recently incorporated.
Bowie also welcomed to the meeting members of the group Citizens Defending Libraries, who hope to block the sale and redevelopment of the Brooklyn Heights branch. No one from this group spoke officially, however.
“We share a common view of Brooklyn Heights as a quiet, leafy neighborhood, home to a magnificent waterfront park that contributes sorely-needed greenspace to our neighborhood, to the borough of Brooklyn and to the entire city of New York. Sometimes we disagree with you about the best way to achieve our ends. Of course we welcome discussion,” she said.
The annual awards
Channel Thirteen/WNET announcer and regular BHA award presenter Tom Stewart presented BHA’s annual Community Service Awards with his usual aplomb.
New York City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) was recognized for public improvement to the Brooklyn Heights Historic District for supporting BHA’s efforts to reinstall early 20th Century cast iron “Bishop’s Crooks” and “M-Poles” light poles. With the backing of then-Borough Commissioner Joseph Palmieri, Borough Planner Zephreny Parmenter, Councilmember Stephen Levin and other officials, an agreement was negotiated to install the lighting with LED illumination that meets city standards. Parmenter accepted the award on behalf of DOT.
NYPD Detective Salvatore Ferrante of the 84th Precinct was recognized as being “an integral part of our community, in our schools, our houses of worship, our businesses, our neighborhood organizations.” Ferrante – known as “Sal” – called compassionate, fair and practical, was praised for being committed to the neighborhood’s welfare and “being available at any time of the day to assist and protect us.”
Grace Church was awarded for its multi-year effort to restore the Gothic Revival structure to its former glory. The congregation replaced the “inappropriate” asphalt shingled roof and its masonry and restored it “to a thing of beauty and superb function.” The vaulted ceiling was restored to its “dazzling blue and gold sunburst pattern” using sponges, rags and a little water and a gentle detergent by conservation specialists. The Rev. Stephen Muncie accepted the awards on the church’s behalf.
The Martha Atwater Award: BHA Executive Director Judy Stanton
One of the biggest changes coming to the BHA is the upcoming retirement of long-time BHA Executive Director Judy Stanton. Stanton received a standing ovation – and shouts of “four more years!” — as she was praised for her tireless efforts, her role as BHA’s “institutional memory,” her “encyclopedic knowledge” of the BHA, and her “determined ability to get things done.”
For her 30 years of exemplary and altruistic community service, Stanton was honored with the Martha Atwater Award. She is the second recipient of this special award, named after the BHA’s talented and beloved late board member Martha Atwater.
Noting that Stanton was listed as one of the “50 most influential people who have shaped Brooklyn neighborhoods” by Brownstoner.com, called “the godmother of P.S. 8” by Principal Seth Phillips and named “the mayor of Brooklyn Heights” by former borough president Marty Markowitz, Stewart had tears in his eyes as he presented Stanton with a special engraved vase honoring her service.
“This year, we would like to honor someone whose dedication, hard work, knowledge, perseverance, and attention to detail are unmatched. Her tenure as executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association has been a long run of incredible achievement,” Stewart said.
Guest Speaker Justin Davidson
In keeping with the mood of the evening, Justin Davidson, New York magazine architecture and classical music critic, described the sometimes unintended consequences of preservation efforts.
To see what preservationists have achieved, “just look around,” he said. There is “a deep and widespread acknowledgement that the new city is intertwined with the old one. On a philosophical level, preservationists have won.”
But preservation can sometimes “denature” a neighborhood, he warned. “If you turn a working class district into a historic district, it is unlikely to remain working class. You cannot preserve a living thing.”
He described examples of three instances — all pedestrian thoroughfares — in which preservation has yielded rapid change: Rome’s Via dei Fori Imperiali; Mexico City’s main plaza known as Zocalo; and the High Line in New York City. Each preservation effort yielded “very different results,” from the stultifying to the reinvigorating. To achieve the best outcomes, Davidson said, developers need to work with bureaucratic planners.
Davidson maintained that preservers and developers have much in common. “Preservation is an empty pursuit if it doesn’t contribute to a vibrant city,” he said.
Q & A sampler:
Claude Scales, a reporter with the Brooklyn Heights Blog, asked Davidson if there would ever again be a true Bohemian neighborhood in New York City, as Greenwich Village once was.
Davidson theorized that Bohemias of the future might be dispersed “mini-Bohemias” – sometimes as big as one apartment. He also opined that the dispersal of young people to other cities like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Boise and Salt Lake City “is a really good thing.”
Michael D. D. White, co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, questioned what he called BHA’s “highly suspicious” and rapid support of the decision to redevelop the Brooklyn Heights Library branch.
“What will it take for you to reconsider your support to sell and shrink the library?” he asked.
“I will take that up with our library committee, which is how we operate, and if the library committee feels that it wants to revisit the question, then I will take it to the full board,” Bowie said.
In response to a related question, Bowie said that BHA supported the library plan as long as three conditions were met: that the proceeds go back to Brooklyn Public Library; that interim service was provided; and that the new library be of “adequate” size.
Local activist Jeff Smith expressed safety concerns in allowing oversized, “poorly-secured towers” to ring the small residential neighborhood. “If you’re increasing the density of the area, you want more cops, you want more fire, and you want more EMS,” he said.
In this age of terrorism, “Why can’t there be basic policy to have background checks for anybody [i.e., developers] who want to come in here?” he asked.
“We certainly are in support of more police officers and fire officers and traffic enforcement,” Bowie said. “I’m not an expert in building design, I’m not an architect. So I’m going to suggest you talk to one of the architects in attendance.”
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