Schermerhorn project is outside landmark district lines, has Chinese heritage issues

Neighbors concerned about height, Transit Museum about depth

August 10, 2015 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Jack Seng (left) and Leng Tan of the Hainan Association are in a group that spearheaded opposition to the association's sale of 86 Schermerhorn St. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
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This is a tale of two townhouses standing side by side on Schermerhorn Street.

First comes the story of 86 Schermerhorn St., where kids once came from all around the city for Saturday Mandarin classes while their parents played mah-jong and drank tea.

It houses elderly immigrants from the island province of Hainan, China for minimal rents.

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This bow-windowed, four-story Downtown Brooklyn building belongs to the Hainan Association.

Developers who already own the townhouse next door offered to buy 86 Schermerhorn in a deal valued at $11 million. They wanted to make 86 and 88 Schermerhorn into a single development site, tear down both townhouses and construct a condo tower.

But some of those kids who studied Mandarin, who are now in their 50s or older, successfully spearheaded opposition to the sale during the association’s board elections in June.

“The building belongs to the rank and file,” association member Jack Seng told the Brooklyn Eagle. “We forced the board to look at bylaws and see majority support is required before the building can be sold.”    

Seng, 53, who grew up in Park Slope, is one of about 25 association members in a group called the Hainan Association Private Instigators (HAPI) created by his brother Ken Seng, 52, and Leng Tan, 57.

The group wants the association to improve its financial strength and renovate the run-down building where two dozen elderly tenants live — and only consider selling it as a “last resort,” Jack Seng said.

The group members’ dads got together in the 1950s and pooled their money to buy 86 Schermerhorn, which became a haven for penniless recent arrivals from Hainan.

This was the McCarthy era, when immigrants were sometimes suspected of being Communists simply because they were Chinese. The building was a place that protected Hainanese from police raids, Seng said. The police needed a warrant to be allowed inside.

Many of the men who founded the Hainan Association had come to America before World War II, and had served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during the war.

Multiple offers in no time flat for 88 Schermerhorn St.

There’s more to the story of the two Schermerhorn Street townhouses than the real estate deal that didn’t happen. The developers who wanted to buy 86 Schermerhorn recently put the townhouse they already own, 88 Schermerhorn St., onto the sale market.

City Finance Department records and a written project summary prepared by the developers identify them as Alain Kodsi’s Heights Advisors, Louis Greco’s Second Development Services (SDS) — both Brooklyn Heights-based firms — and Midtown Manhattan-based institutional investor Rockwood Capital.  

An LLC with Kodsi as managing member bought 88 Schermerhorn for $11 million in 2014 from another developer who had paid $3.75 million for it in 2013, Finance Department records indicate.

The development team, which refers to itself as SDS|Heights, is “testing the waters” by putting 88 Schermerhorn on the market, Kodsi told the Eagle.

“We’re very diligently moving forward in the development process,” he said.

The city Buildings Department has approved demolition plans and is examining filings for a proposed 27-story building with 23 condos.

“If we get a really big number, we’ll consider selling it,” he said. “I’m not sure what the number is — we want the market to tell us.”

Massey Knakal Realty Services, a unit of Cushman & Wakefield, is serving as sale broker, a marketing flyer indicates.

There have been “an enormous level of inquiries and multiple offers already” though the property has just barely come onto the market, Kodsi said.

The fact that the developers have put 88 Schermerhorn up for sale doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that they were unable to buy 86 Schermerhorn, Kodsi said.

They’ve made a “profitable plan” for condo construction that would be done solely at 88 Schermerhorn, he said.

‘Like moving the Statue of Liberty to California’

A key concern of Seng and other association members who objected to the sale of their building was that it would be hard on elderly residents to move away from Schermerhorn Street, where they have lived for decades.

“It’s like taking the Statue of Liberty and putting it in California,” Seng said.

If SDS|Heights had bought 86 Schermerhorn, it planned to build a 25-story building with 18 condos on the combined 86-88 Schermerhorn site, according to the written project summary that the development team gave to the Hainan Association.

There were going to be twelve full-floor condos and six condos with two full floors each.

In the potential deal outlined in the project summary, the development team would have paid the Hainan Association $5 million cash “for relocation purposes.”

The Hainan Association was going to have approximately 8,452 square feet allocated to it on the first, second and third floors of the building and about 2,100 square feet in the basement, according to the project proposal.

The association planned to rent out its space in the new condo development and use the rental income to defray the costs of operating a new headquarters, which would have been in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, said Seng.

He has fond memories of Chinese New Year’s Day celebrations at 86 Schermerhorn during his childhood — and said it was great to get to know other Hainanese immigrants’ kids in the association’s Mandarin classes.

He admits that as a kid, he was less than thrilled about going to Saturday school: “I had wanted to be home watching Scooby-Doo cartoons,” he said.

The Hainan Association’s board chairman, Hsin-Yuan Cheng, didn’t want to speak about 86 Schermerhorn.

“I don’t have anything to say,” he told the Eagle. “We are still sorting this out.”

‘Rising tide of anger’ about development, a community group says

Numerous residents on the Schermerhorn Street block between Boerum Place and Court Street where the townhouses are located worry about construction safety at the planned development at 88 Schermerhorn — and object to its “sliver building” design, which would be twice the height of the tallest existing building there.

“The buildings on this block were compromised by the 2002 construction of Brooklyn Law School’s dorm,” which is right behind the block, at 205 State St., said Meryl Salzinger, a co-chair of Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors.

“Why does it have to be 27 stories tall — and so out of context with the rest of this block?” said Jessy Levy, a member of the community group.

City zoning gives the developer the right to build a tower of this height at 88 Schermerhorn. The townhouse is located just outside the Brooklyn Heights Historic District and the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, so there is no preservationist prohibition against tearing it down.

Levy noted that 86 and 88 Schermerhorn, along with neighboring townhouse 82 Schermerhorn St., were built in the 1920s as faculty housing for St. John’s University School of Law. The school was located next door at 96 Schermerhorn St.

While SDS|Heights decides whether to sell 88 Schermerhorn, the Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors group is mulling over its next moves.

“We are working towards a much bigger fight — about the justice or injustice of zoning regulations,” Salzinger said.

“There’s a rising tide of anger and dismay in this city about development. Everybody feels so powerless,” she said. “Somehow public officials need to be made aware of this.”  

The Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors group has scored one victory on Schermerhorn Street.

Salzinger alerted the Transit Museum, which is in an active subway tunnel beneath the street in front of 88 Schermerhorn, to SDS|Heights’ development plan.

Transit Museum engineers examined the development plan for 88 Schermerhorn and got planned excavation set back 10 feet, Salzinger said. The excavation had been planned five feet from the subway tunnel. Also, vibration detectors must be set up in the tunnel that houses the museum. There can’t be any heavy pounding during pile driving at the site.  

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