Brooklyn Heights

10-year fight continues: Trees vs. garage at historic Riverside Houses

July 12, 2019 Mary Frost
Residents of Riverside Houses in Brooklyn Heights are fighting their landlord in court over his plans build a 90-car underground commercial parking garage in the courtyard, shown above. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Residents of the historic brick Riverside Houses at 24 Joralemon St. in Brooklyn Heights have started an online fundraising effort to fight their landlord’s plan to build a roughly 90-car underground commercial parking garage in their courtyard.

Tenants at the five-building complex have been battling the garage since 2008, and the case has been in and out of court several times. Last month, the city gave the landlord, the Pinnacle Group (operating through Joralemon Realty) permission to excavate the tree-filled courtyard.

The Riverside Tenants Association hopes to raise $19,000 so their attorneys can file an appeal to stop the project. By press time, the fund had raised $1,770.

The century-old trees “not only shield our buildings from 140,000 cars that pass through the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) each day, but [the] roots help protect our buildings’ foundation,” fundraiser building resident Dino Dvorak wrote on gofundme.com.

The tenants have been paying court fees for 10 years, “and it’s reached the point that we have to now reach out to outside sources for help,” Lenore Mitchell, a member of the board of the Riverside Tenants Association, told the Brooklyn Eagle on Thursday.

“An order came down from DHCR [Division of Housing and Community Renewal] just last month, ending the stay on that action which now also allows the landlord to dig,” she said. “Our attorneys are now in the process of putting in additional court papers attempting to further stay the digging permit.”

The entrance to the garage would be just a few feet from the wall of the BQE, which looms over the courtyard, perhaps causing complications during its upcoming $4 billion reconstruction, Mitchell said. “There is also no adequate fire egress as the fire escapes are in the courtyard, and if any digging starts, there will be no access to fire/emergency vehicles.”

Once the trees are chopped down, “there goes half of our foundation,” Mitchell said. “Then once any digging starts, the buildings, which were built around 1900, will most likely crumble and fall. These buildings are not kept up and are held together with glue … The community should be outraged that buildings of this historic value have been under siege for so long.”

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Pinnacle’s attorney Kenneth Fisher says the tenants’ fears are without basis.

“We are pleased that the state Commissioner of Housing recently affirmed the decision to approve our application. The Department of Buildings had already signed off on, as did the Landmarks Commission, and the state DOT, city DOT and MTA all had no objection. In other words, all the professional construction experts who reviewed it. It’s unfortunate that someone has been feeding misinformation to scare the tenants about safety issues,” he told the Eagle on Thursday.

If built, the garage would be roughly 350 feet from Brooklyn Bridge Park, and would present a lucrative opportunity for Pinnacle Group’s owner Joel Weiner.

In 2014, a judge denied Pinnacle Group’s Article 78 Petition to build the garage, but the Department of Buildings permit remained in effect.

At that time, the developer claimed that the coming and going of 100 cars a day would not be bothersome to the tenants in the courtyard, as it would hardly be noticeable in light of the 140,000 vehicles a day (now 153,000) driving past on the adjoining BQE. Pinnacle also said that the underground parking lot would be covered by a new garden-courtyard, which would benefit the tenants.

Stephen Dobkin, representing the tenants, said it was ridiculous to think that removing old-growth trees and installing a garage in the courtyard would benefit the tenants. He also pointed out that having so many vehicles near the play area would be dangerous for children and unobservant adults.

An analysis by the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, a nonprofit public interest group, proposed in 2014 that the excavation of the lot, once part of the East River, “could disrupt sandy riverbank soils and landfill, negatively effect [sic] the water table below the property, increase the risk of flooding and threaten the structural integrity of the adjacent ‘triple cantilever’ BQE highway segment.”

In 2009, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the excavation, pending archaeological testing.

The Riverside complex was built in 1890 by philanthropist Alfred T. White as a healthy, cheerful residence for the low-income working class. The tree-filled courtyard was chopped in half, however, when Robert Moses ran the BQE along the edge of Brooklyn Heights.

While the Department of Transportation has approved the project, Mitchell says the BQE’s right of way extends some distance into the courtyard. “We have measured, we have sent pictures to the BQE committee, all to be ignored,” she said.

Fisher did not express concern about the right-of-way.

“As far as the BQE is concerned, we’ll have to see like everyone else what they are actually going to do — and when. Like every property owner and resident in the neighborhood, we support coming up with a better way than the original DOT proposal,” he said.

Last week, a neighbor walking her Anatolian Shepherd, Fifi, in the courtyard said the dog would miss the greenery. Fifi, on the alert for squirrels, rats and other urban game, was clearly at home in the tall grass.

Fifi’s owner says she would miss the courtyard if it disappeared. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
Fifi’s owner says she would miss the courtyard if it disappeared. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

“Fifi drags us here every time we go for a walk,” her owner said.

The Brooklyn Heights Association has asked residents to contribute to the fund. “Your contribution will help protect this historic Brooklyn Heights landmark, which is home to its diverse mix of tenants,” the group said.

Riverside is located in the shady southern portion of the Heights known as Willowtown.

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