Brooklyn Heights

Rare new construction planned in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District

Shake Shack’s president wants to build a clapboard house on a vacant lot.

November 22, 2019 Lore Croghan
Shake Shack exec Tara Comonte plans to build a new house on the parking lot at right. She also owns the house just to the left of it. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle
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In the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, where houses have been protected from demolition for a half-century, there are just a handful of vacant sites — for the most part parking lots or parking spaces — where new construction is possible.

So it’s noteworthy news for preservation-minded residents when construction plans surface for one of those sites.

Such is the case with 56 Middagh St., a property that consists of a clapboard house constructed in 1829 plus a 25-foot-wide lot where homeowner Tara Comonte parks her cars. 

Comonte, who is Shake Shack’s president and chief financial officer, wants to use the lot to build a new four-story townhouse that would harmonize with the existing homes on the block and fill a void in the streetscape. She wants the new house to look like it was built at the same time as her existing gray clapboard home.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

“We were not trying to push the envelope here,” Elizabeth Pratt of Pratt + Black Architects said at a presentation to Community Board 2’s Land Use Committee on Wednesday night. 

The committee voted to approve the new-house construction. 

The next step towards construction will be consideration of the plan by CB2’s Executive Committee on Monday, Nov. 25. This committee will decide whether to recommend the new-house design to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission. The preservation agency will hold a public hearing about the design  which hasn’t yet been scheduled  and the commission will vote on it.

In many of Brooklyn’s historic districts, empty lots are relatively rare and plans for new construction are newsworthy. They’re especially noteworthy in Brooklyn Heights, whose historic district is the oldest one in New York City. It was designated in 1965.

There are two other vacant Brooklyn Heights Historic District sites where house construction is planned. Developer Lou Greco owns both of them.

This drawing depicts the existing house at 56 Middagh St. (at left) and new construction that’s proposed for the property’s parking lot (at right). Rendering: Elizabeth Pratt
This drawing depicts the existing house at 56 Middagh St. (at left) and new construction that’s proposed for the property’s parking lot (at right). Rendering: Elizabeth Pratt

In October, the Landmarks Preservation Commission gave a thumbs-down to his design for a house at 27 Cranberry St. Critics called it a “McMansion.”

Greco has yet to develop a vacant lot at 295-299 Hicks St. that had been used as an open-air parking lot. Almost five years ago, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved his plan to construct three brick townhouses on the site.

A few details about Pratt’s new-house design for the vacant lot at 56 Middagh St.: It has a ground-floor garage with old-fashioned doors that look like they could have been carriage-house doors. In contrast, the existing house on the property has a front stoop and a front door with a portico and columns.

Pratt designed the new house to be 40 feet tall like the existing house, although the height limit for new construction in the area is 50 feet.

She and her client decided not to base the design for the new house on a 1940s photo of a home that stood on the site, which looked like it belonged in a “shantytown,” Pratt said.

The city Buildings Department doesn’t allow brand-new houses to be built out of wood. So the clapboard in 56 Middagh St.’s new-house design is actually fiber cement board.

Pratt said her client hasn’t decided whether to use the new house for extended family or rent it out or sell a portion of her property.

At left is the existing house at 56 Middagh St., with its parking lot where a new house will be constructed. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle
At left is the existing house at 56 Middagh St., with its parking lot where a new house will be constructed. Photo: Lore Croghan/Brooklyn Eagle

Comonte owns 56 Middagh St. through an LLC, city Finance Department records indicate. She originally purchased the property under her own name for $3.2 million in 2011, those records show.

After the CB2 Land Use Committee’s vote, the Brooklyn Eagle asked Pratt why Comonte decided now to build on the property she has owned for eight years.

“The timing was right,” Pratt said.

Comonte didn’t respond to an email query from the Eagle about her plans to build the house.

Pratt told the Eagle Comonte was traveling and unavailable for comment, and that she “cares deeply about the neighborhood and is committed to doing anything she can to continue to add to its beauty and history.”

Comonte joined Shake Shack as chief financial officer in 2017, her LinkedIn profile says. The publicly traded upscale burger chain is expanding quickly in the United States and internationally. Her previous work includes stints as chief financial officer at Getty Images and McCann Worldgroup.

There has been other construction activity on the Middagh Street block between Hicks and Henry streets in recent years — but it was renovation, not new-house construction.

The developer team of Brenda Walker and Jennifer Robertson of 522 Capital Partners remodeled nearby 59 Middagh St., which is now for sale through brokerage Douglas Elliman. Australian real estate investment trust Dixon Advisory is renovating 72 Middagh St.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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    • Philip Wilentz

      That man was my father. Thanks for the pic, I thought the property at 54 was gone by 1940. As you can see, it extended out fully to the property line, leaving 56 somewhat lost between the adjacent buildings.

      • Andrew Porter

        Ted Wilentz. A legendary figure in bookselling. Here’s his obituary from Publishers Weekly (there are many on line, from the NY Times, Wash. Post, etc.):

        I used to go into the store on my book buying expeditions when I was a teenager, 50+ years ago. I still have some of the books I bought there.

  1. Philip Wilentz

    I sold that property to Comonte and, unless she also bought the property behind the lot, it is only about 15’ deep if she aligns it with the facade of 56, which is set back from the property line. I suspect that the plan is to build out to the property line, which will leave 56 set back between the new building and 58. Comonte may “care deeply” about the neighborhood but could care a fig about historic preservation…she gut renovated the property and tore out every single original detail from the interior, one which was still in its original state when purchased by my father in 1953.

  2. Roberto Gautier

    A good friend lives behind the lot in question. We’re hoping that the equipment used for any construction will be state-of-the-art in terms of noise pollution. We all are too familiar with beep beep beeping motion alarms and outmoded jackhammers. More than that, we’re hoping that Ms. Comonte will insist on sticking to the guidelines of the NYC Noise Code as well as avoid using after-hours variances to do construction. This project will test the owner’s allegiance to neighborhood preservation.