Wednesday, October 29, 2008

At LPC hearing on Prospect Heights Historic District, mention of the Ward Bakery and AY briefly unsettles the mood

Yesterday’s public hearing held by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on the designation of part of Prospect Heights as a historic district, involving some 870 properties, was hardly contentious. Various interested parties, residents, neighborhood groups, and preservationists saluted the LPC for its decision to move forward in designating part of Prospect Heights as a historic district.

(Photo of Marty Markowitz testifying, by Michael D.D. White, who offers his own account of the hearing. Videos by Raul Rothblatt here.)

One question was what exactly people might say about the planned Atlantic Yards project, the blocks of which were not considered as part of the district. (Why? Because the project was going through state environmental review, an LPC staffer said last year, which essentially means that the decision was political. Previous coverage of the historic district is linked here.)

Council Member Letitia James, Lisa Kersavage of the Municipal Art Society (MAS), Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC), among others, praised the LPC for moving ahead swiftly as out-of scale development loomed at the edge of neighborhood.

And many cited the ongoing efforts by various property owners to maximize square footage by adding backyard extensions or new floors, thus changing the character of existing blocks and adding urgency to the designation as a historic district.


Tensing up at the Ward mention

The LPC commissioners sat around a long table in the 9th floor hearing room at the Municipal Building and cordially took in steady thank-you’s and repeated mentions of the importance of preserving historic architecture for future generations.

But they perked up—tensed a little, actually—when Prospect Heights resident Patti Hagan got up to testify (video). “Please designate Prospect Heights Historic District ASAP. It’s really important,” said Hagan, who began the fight against the Atlantic Yards project.

“On my way here, I paid my last respects to the historic and late—at this point--Ward Bread Bakery, which has just been demolished, totally, by Bruce Ratner, in honor, I guess, of its 100th birthday," she continued. "It’s a shame that that building was not recycled and saved. It was the height of modern bread baking, of scientific bread baking, when Mr. Ward built it."

(View from Dean Street via AY Webcam. Below: April 2007 photo from Pacific Street by Jonathan Barkey. Here's another view and more history, from DDDB.)

Several people didn’t make eye contact. LPC chairman Robert Tierney, looking concerned, applied his forefinger to the space just above his lip.

The mood softened quickly when Hagan told the LPC that the tree-lined streets saluted in the LPC’s presentation, were in many cases the product of relatively recent arrivals. Thirty years ago, she said, there were almost no trees on her block. She and her neighbors planted 100 trees. She picked up some leaves along the way this morning, and brought them to 1 Centre Street.

White: "say no to corrupt no-bid projects"

Later, Michael D.D. White of Noticing New York, who previously called on the LPC to save the bakery, brought the issue home by focusing explicitly on Atlantic Yards. (Note that the western "finger" of the proposed Historic District would be directly opposite the bottom half of the eastern block of the AY footprint. The bakery site is on the southeast block of the footprint.)

“The importance of allowing our precious historic Brooklyn to weave together is the reason why the hole in the proposed historic district is so disconcerting. It will separate historic Prospect Heights from historic Fort Greene," he said.

"We know that the odd shape of the proposed Historic District is disingenuously intended to accommodate the similarly unjustifiably odd shape for the proposed no-bid Atlantic Yards project," he said. (Actually, a lot of historic districts have odd shapes and it might have been hard to make a contiguous Historic District. Then again, the MAS did note the Ward Bakery on its initial map, though it was not included in their proposed boundaries.)

"The Boymelgreen wrench shape of the Atlantic Yards project is notoriously odd, shaped exclusively for the purpose of generating windfall eminent domain and upzoning profit for Forest City Ratner. Looking at these two jigsaw pieces it is easy to put the puzzle together." (He was pointing to the omission of Shaya Boymelgreen's Newswalk condos, in a recycled newspaper factory, on the south-center block omitted from what would've been an even rectangle.)

“We ask you to proclaim this commission’s independence from the Mayor," he said. "Say no to corrupt no-bid projects and save the historic part of Brooklyn that should be allowed to weave naturally together in a healthy urban fabric.

He got healthy applause, I’m told, but not from the Commission.

The process

Others testifying yesterday included Borough President Marty Markowitz (video by Raul Rothblatt) and representatives of the Historic Districts Council, the Crown Heights North Association, and Community Board 8, which gave its unanimous approval.

MAS worked with PHNDC on seeking designation. MAS trained residents on historic building survey techniques; more than 20 volunteers cataloged and photographed some 1100 buildings. MAS staff converted this information into a map using its in-house Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology. In early 2007 the two groups submitted to LPC a comprehensive report including the database, photographs and a proposal for a historic district of more than 800 buildings.

After the hearing, the process goes like this: the LPC’s Research Department will write a detailed report on the district, and send descriptions of each building in the district to owners. The Commissioners will review the draft report and use it, along with public testimony, as the basis for voting on approving the designation. The City Planning Commission then must hold a public hearing, and submit its report to the City Council on the effects of the designation. The City Council has 120 days from the time of the LPC filing to modify or disapprove the designation.

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