OPINION: Pineapple Walk sell out
There are many reasons for the community to oppose the cash-rich proposal to build a huge new building in the middle of the Cadman Plaza urban renewal site in Brooklyn Heights. The juicy location — from a developer’s point of view — bordered on one side by Pineapple Walk, the unique low-lying walkway between Henry Street and Cadman Plaza West, and on the north side by the tall apartment building at 75 Henry St., is about one block wide.
But what a block! You can’t beat it for location. To the west is the historic district of Brooklyn Heights. To the east is a heavily treed, popular park. Any eager builder, with money jingling and good connections, doesn’t stop to question why it’s there. He sees Money, with a capital M. But there is an explanation for how this extraordinary bit of precious open space, with sky, light, air and location, location, location came to be. And who paid for it, in the first place.
In the beginning was Robert Moses and a federal law that allowed New York City to condemn and take over land that Moses and company had declared suitable for ‘slum clearance.’ For Cadman Plaza, the next step would have been to auction off the 10 or so acres to the highest bidder. With the approval of Moses, the winning bidder was going to build a huge, wall-like apartment building full of mostly small rental apartments. It would have stretched from the tip of the property at Middagh Street to just past Clark Street. It was a big plan and the one heralded in the colorful brochure put out by Moses.
But the residents of Brooklyn Heights had other ideas. They wanted Cadman Plaza to be developed in an altogether different way. The neighborhood, including all of its leading ministers of the time, wanted family-size, middle-income cooperative housing to help repopulate and rebuild the area and reinforce the existing drive by the urban pioneers of the time. In addition, they wanted any new buildings to respect the exceptional concentration of low-lying, historic pre-Civil War townhouses. Moses had not been sympathetic to any of these ideas, but luckily for the embattled neighborhood he was on his way out, along with his narrow views of what makes a livable city.
Change was in the wind, and in the summer of 1961 the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA) opened up an opportunity to help build the kind of moderate-priced housing that the groups in the Heights wanted. HHFA had decided that in order to provide for “moderate” cost housing, a city could negotiate the sale of the land condemned and taken over by the city. No longer would it be required to seek the highest possible price for Cadman Plaza land. Rather, it stipulated that cities can negotiate a lower price for the land provided that the bargain price will ensure “moderate” rents. And, with that, a promising new social goal for housing subsidies had been embraced by the national government.
HHFA and the young, growing families in the Heights were actually in sync after three years of wrestling with Moses over the ultimate use of the condemned land. The timing couldn’t have been better. The days of Robert Moses having singular dominance over slum-clearing were over. In its place, a new authority called the NYC Housing and Redevelopment Board was set up. The board, which reported directly to the mayor, was headed by Milton M. Mollen, Walter S. Fried and Robert C. Weaver, three highly regarded New Yorkers with experience in planning and housing policy: In contrast to the brush-off the Heights had been getting, they paid attention to the arguments and facts marshaled by the Heights groups and were favorably impressed. The plan the community laid out to the board, after two years of intense preparation and community organizing, proposed that the affordable housing concept of the State Mitchell-Lama program be used. Now the feds and the state and the city were linked together. An outstanding architectural and planning firm and a sponsor were put in place.
The development went ahead, and the results, 50 years after, are the physical development you see today. Four large buildings were fitted in with ample open space between them. The Clinton Street building was linked by a bridge over Clark Street. Town houses were built facing Monroe Place and Clark Street to help soften the impact the very large 101 Clark building. Pineapple Walk was created. One remnant of the original Moses idea was the retention of Philadelphia developer Sean Pierre Bonan, who had somehow been grandfathered in resulting in the other two large buildings on the site, with the addition of the copy-cat group of town houses near the High Street subway entrance.
To this day, the buildings at the south end of the project, 101 Clark St., Monroe Place and 10 Clinton St., reflect the community’s influence. It won design awards and despite its size, fitted quite smoothly into the community along with its new population. The incorporated town houses were part of the design by the community-picked firms of Conklin & Rossant (designers of Butterfield House in Greenwich Village) and Mayer, Whittlesey and Glass.
Thus, the community’s plan embraced co-op housing, outstanding architecture, human scale layout, open sky, light and air and maximized, to the extent feasible, overall harmony with the neighborhood. These much-desired elements were made economically possible by the combination of land-cost write down, limited profit development, limited equity for the residents and long-time tax relief. The quid pro quo was an income limitation for new residents and a limit on the amount of money the new owners would be entitled to in the event of a sale. These various incentives and subsidies were justified as public policy by Commissioner Robert Weaver who described the plan as rooted in the concept that “Urban renewal is not simply a program to improve land values; it is, first of all, a program to improve living values.”
Of course, Brooklyn’s outstanding gains in real estate values over the past 10 or 20 years have vastly increased the value of the lucky property owners in the Mitchell Lama houses. Whether, in the past, they took advantage of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in windfall money by voting to go private or stayed on at reduced rates, the owners have benefited. And so has the community, until now. Such beneficence does come at price. Today, for those who cash out and sell off the Pineapple Walk legacy, it’s like winning a lottery game where everyone else loses.
On the other hand, those who choose to maintain the housing and its spacious arrangement as originally conceived will continue to benefit themselves and all those living at Cadman Plaza as well as all the neighbors across the street. In that case, Cadman’s many residents can thank the community’s long-ago success in promoting the plan, and they can thank New York’s tax payers and progressive city leaders for the wonderful quality of life they have experienced for the past half-century. They can also safely look forward to having many more years of the same.
—Martin L. Schneider
Martin L. Schneider has lived in Brooklyn Heights with his wife since 1957. A graduate of RPI and Iowa State University, he has worked as a producer for television in public affairs and as a writer and executive in public relations in the health, education, city planning and high technology fields.