Thursday, September 20, 2007

Promising prospects for Prospect Heights historic designation

The Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC), with the assistance of the Municipal Art Society, has been pushing for historic designation for the neighborhood, and the process looks promising, if hardly assured.

Mary Beth Betts, director of research for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) said last night at a PHNDC meeting at P.S. 9 that, while, no timeline can yet be provided, "it's at the top of the list of [potential historic] districts that we're looking at."

(Photos by Tracy Collins, from the Municipal Art Society's Prospect Heights walking tour last Saturday.)

PHNDC points out arguments for designation:
Prospect Heights has remained remarkably free from large-scale physical change, making it a perfect candidate for historic district designation by New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission. But without such designation soon, that may well change. A strong real estate market and the development of Atlantic Yards just adjacent to the proposed historic district will exert immense development pressures on the neighborhood, posing a threat to its sense of place and historic character.


Indeed, PHNDC's Gib Veconi showed slides of buildings demolished for or disfigured by development and suggested that the zoning override approved for Atlantic Yards "may make it easier for other developers to vary from existing zoning."

Multiple goals

The designation of a historic district would accomplish four goals, according to Veconi's presentation:
--preserve historic 19th century buildings
--maintain neighborhood character and a sense of place
--reduce exposure to increased density
--promote stability of the community (because residents tend to stay rather than speculate).

PHNDC has photographed and documented more than 1000 buildings, and sent letters from Community Board 8, Council Member Letitia James, and Borough President Marty Markowitz supporting the designation.

(The PS 9 Annex, above, was restored by Forest City Ratner to house people displaced by MetroTech.)

Costs and benefits

Not every homeowner favors such designation, reported Denise Brown of the Crown Heights North Association, which successfully advocated for designation of that neighborhood, given that it can be costly to comply with LPC standards for building exteriors. Indeed, several questions from the audience concerned exactly what homeowners would be permitted to do. (Tax breaks and grants are available.)

However, pointed out Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council, an Independent Budget Office study found that designation improves property values and protects a neighborhood from the vicissitudes of the market.

LPC moves ahead

LPC's Betts explained that, thanks to new funding from the mayor and City Council, the commission has for the first time in 16 years begun to survey neighborhoods on its own, so it is well into studying Prospect Heights.

Given the LPC's completion of its survey, the next step is for LPC Chairman Robert Tierney to visit the neighborhood; if the commission decides to move forward, a community meeting would be held. After that would come votes by the LPC, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council, which could veto or modify a designation.

(As the sign on the building shows, several buildings in Prospect Heights, once not so valuable, were bought decades ago by social service and treatment agencies.)

AY omission

As shown last night, LPC's Prospect Height survey map--not necessarily the boundaries of any historic district--was even larger than that considered by the MAS (below); it included most of the blocks bounded by Flatbush Avenue to the west, Dean Street to the north, and Washington Avenue to the east.

Conspicuously absent was most of the Atlantic Yards footprint, including the Spalding building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Pacific Street, a handsome condo conversion of a manufacturing building. Betts said that, because the footprint had been under environmental review, "we determined we were not going to include the Atlantic Yards area." (Actually, from the map shown to the group last night, it looked like part of Dean Street in the AY footprint was included.)

Note that the map above, as I wrote in April, was prepared by MAS, not LPC; a Prospect Heights Historic District (blue outline) is already listed on the State and National Registers, but S/NR listing, as it's known, does not protect the integrity of buildings the way an LPC designation would. The map prepared by MAS suggests a much larger outline, in red. Note that the northern finger of the existing and proposed historic district, on the west side of Carlton Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets, would be directly opposite the Atlantic Yards project at its north and east edges.

Perhaps any effort to include Atlantic Yards was futile, in the eyes of a city agency; after all, it was pointed out, historic designation does not protect against eminent domain.

Zoning and affordability

The desire to protect against inappropriate development is understandable, as is the wish to preserve valuable architecture. And while historic districts do allow new construction on vacant lots and to replace unworthy structures, they are not generally places to accommodate increased density and affordable housing--issues raised by Atlantic Yards and the city's steady growth.

I asked Council Member James about balancing such goals. She noted that she and Council Member Al Vann have funded Community Board 8 to hire an urban planner, who's conducting a zoning study. That study, due in perhaps eight months, will recommend what blocks in Prospect Heights, both inside and outside the (presumed) historic district, can accommodate growth and provide builders a zoning bonus in exchange for affordability.

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