A Schermerhorn Street group fought off one high-rise development. Now another builder has stepped forward
A group of Downtown Brooklyn residents is gearing up to fight against hotel construction on the block.
AWH Partners plans to demolish a four-story 1920s townhouse at 88 Schermerhorn St., which is between Boerum Place and Court Street, and construct a hotel that could, according to zoning, be 26 stories tall. The lot is 33 feet wide. If the developer builds to the full height allowed by zoning, it will be a sliver building — so called because it’s tall and skinny.
“We certainly don’t want a hotel on this block,” Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors co-founder Claudia Massa told the Brooklyn Eagle.
From her apartment at 96 Schermerhorn St., which stands right next to the development site, she can hear car crashes caused by vehicles turning off Boerum Place onto her narrow street.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night because they refuse to put a left-turn signal here,” she said. She fears additional car traffic generated by hotel guests would exacerbate the problem.
Traffic dangers are worrisome, Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors’ members believe, because the sidewalks are frequently filled with students visiting the New York Transit Museum and church-goers at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Brooklyn.
The developer’s rep responds
Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors’ members also contend that as-of-right hotel development would remove scarce affordable housing from the area.
And they’re worried developers will need to dig deep below ground to build the high-rise’s foundation. This could cause problems for the three buildings closest to 88 Schermerhorn St. — their basements and 88 Schermerhorn St.’s basement are interconnected. And a live subway tunnel is very close by.
A spokesperson for AWH Partners told the Eagle the developer is “exploring various designs for a hotel that would be permitted under current zoning” and hopes to start demolition “in the coming weeks.”
The spokesperson didn’t address a question about the neighborhood group’s objections to planned hotel construction.
Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors has launched a petition drive and is organizing protests.
Their petition urges Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Councilmember Stephen Levin and the Buildings Department’s Brooklyn Borough Commissioner Kazimir Vilenchik “to refuse any design of a new building that does not take into consideration our safety and quality of life” and “to bring all parties together to come up with a proposal that is safe, environmentally sound and fits into our neighborhood.”
This is a battle the group has fought before. In 2015, it mustered neighborhood opposition to the previous property owners’ plan to construct a 27-story tower with 23 condos.
After Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors brought about 70 people to meet with the property owners and voice their objections to the condo plan, the owners gave up on it. For several years, all was quiet at 88 Schermerhorn St. — it wasn’t sold to AWH Partners until July 2019, city Finance Department records indicate. (The price was $13,647,512, Finance Department records show.)
“We thought, ‘Yay us.’ But I’m a native New Yorker. I should know better,” Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors member Barbara Elovic said in an interview.
“We should have realized, when someone invests $11 million, they’re not just gonna twiddle their thumbs,” she said. “They want some kind of return.”
“Naively, I admit, we thought we had settled with this when we had a victory five years ago,” Elovic said.
Like Massa, Elovic lives at 96 Schermerhorn St. The 13-story co-op building was constructed in the 1920s as St. John’s University School of Law.
‘A stopgap measure’
“We had a stopgap measure which made us all feel good, which is awesome and important,” Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors co-founder Meryl Salzinger said in an interview. “But we didn’t change anything, unfortunately.”
Salzinger lives at 82 Schermerhorn St., a townhouse with 16 apartments in it. That building and adjacent townhouses at 86 Schermerhorn St. and 88 Schermerhorn St. were constructed in the 1920s as faculty housing for St. John’s University School of Law. That’s why all four buildings’ basements are interconnected.
The townhouse at 86 Schermerhorn St. belongs to the Hainan Association, a group of immigrants from the island province of Hainan, China and their descendants. The building houses elderly members of the association.
Hainan Association Chairperson Jack Seng declined to comment about the hotel project.
Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors’ members say they’d find a 12-story development acceptable. That’s what zoning that was put in place in 2001 would have allowed.
Current zoning that allows a high-rise tower to be constructed at 88 Schermerhorn St. is the result of a 2003 upzoning that was carried out so Brooklyn Law School could construct its dormitory, Feil Hall, at nearby 205 State St.
Massa said the most acceptable development option for 88 Schermerhorn St. would be affordable housing that “people living here now could afford.” The existing building, which is vacant, was rent stabilized.
‘Suitcases full of God knows what’
Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors’ members have been on high alert about AWH Partners’ development plan since earlier this winter, when workers spent several weeks clearing out the interior of 88 Schermerhorn St.
“They hauled heavy stuff out. Venetian blinds I saw, suitcases full of God knows what and things in large plastic bags that are gone now because sanitation workers picked them up weeks ago,” Elovic said.
Downtown Brooklyn Concerned Neighbors member Joan Daly is worried about the impact that excavation at 88 Schermerhorn St. could have on her co-op at 96 Schermerhorn St.
She and her spouse wanted to sell the triplex apartment — but they can’t because the floor on the apartment’s basement level is sinking and the floor tiles are cracking.
The suspected cause of the damage is water, Daly said in an interview. For months, workers at a nearby construction site on a condo development at 76 Schermerhorn St. constantly washed concrete into the sewer system. The water ran down the gutter along Schermerhorn Street.
“If this is a repercussion of building in the middle of the block, what would happen if they put up a whole giant structure next to us?” Daly said. “How would that impact our basement and our foundation?”
Elovic said she might move if the hotel is built. “I may not wind up retiring here after all, which frankly grieves me,” she said.
“We did retire, and it grieves us even more,” Daly said. “Now we’re stuck.”
If you liked this story, read about Willoughby Street in Downtown Brooklyn.