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The Prospect Heights Historic District nudges forward

A potential Prospect Heights Historic District remains on track, though the process could take two years, representatives from the city Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) told an attentive, supportive, and sometimes wary audience last Wednesday night. The meeting, called by the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC), drew more than 130 people, many of them homeowners, to P.S. 9 on Underhill Avenue. (Here's my report from a similar meeting last September.)

“We have long been aware,” said PHNDC president Gib Veconi, opening the meeting, “that residents here place a tremendous value on historic architecture and character and scale.” Given the strong real estate value and the fact that many properties are developed to their full zoning potential, he said, many historic buildings are being lost to demolition or being altered.

District boundaries

[Updated 4/15] The map shown last Wednesday has been distributed; it is a variation of the outline shown in this map prepared by the Municipal Art Society (MAS).

LPC cautions, "Please note that the map represents the Landmarks Preservation Commission's draft study area of the Prospect Heights neighborhood as of Wednesday, April 9, 2008. The Commission has taken no formal action with regard to this neighborhood. This map is in no way a final boundary proposal and may be modified by the Commission at any time."

(Note that the Atlantic Yards footprint is not included; LPC officials have said they weren't going to look at an area under environmental review and, of course, there's no reason to clash with the mayor's office. The Ward Bakery, the largest pink segment on the MAS map, is listed as a potential National Register entrant, which does not imply preservation and, indeed, it's under demolition.)

“This is a neighborhood long of interest to the commission,” Kate Daly, the LPC’s executive director told the audience. When, in 2006, the LPC was given new City Council funding to survey neighborhoods, the first on the list was Prospect Heights given community pressure. After all, nearby neighborhoods like Park Slope, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill have contained historic districts for more than a quarter-century, and North Crown Heights was designated last year.

What next?

Mary Beth Betts, director of research for the LPC, said Prospect Heights would become the largest historic district designated in some 18 years, with more than 700 buildings examined, LPC staff walked the neighborhood for three months.

The process to move toward designation involves a detailed report by the LPC’s Research Department, which sends draft copies of each building description to its owner for review and comment. The Commission then votes on the designation at a public hearing--in the case of Prospect Heights, probably before the end of the year.

The City Planning Commission then must hold a hearing, with 60 days to submit a report to the City Council “on the effects of the designation as it relates to zoning, projected public improvements, and any other city plans for the development or improvement of the area involved.” Then the City Council has 120 days from the time of the LPC filing to modify or disapprove the designation. A majority vote is required.

Effect of changes

A designation doesn’t freeze development but it regulates changes to the exterior of buildings--and makes such changes more expensive. However, as Daly pointed out more than once, it generally leads to a rise in property values.

While most in the audience seemed supportive of the designation--here are some comments to PHNDC--there were some skeptics. Some wondered whether protecting the neighborhood had much value, given that potential encroachment of Atlantic Yards. (State Senator Eric Adams and Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a PHNDC flier, both cited AY in stressing the importance of landmarks designation.)

Some worried that the strictures would be too costly. And one wondered whether designation would further diminish diversity, driving away low-income artists. "There’s no study of income diversity,” Daly said, insisting that a historic district doesn’t cause gentrification. (Well, that’s arguable; if property values go up, rents go up, unless there are rent-regulated buildings.)

Sarah Carroll, LPC's director of preservation, told the audience that the LPC regulates only the exterior only, not the interior, and that 90-95% of applications are reviewed by LPC staff rather than the commission. She said LPC staff were “available for pre-application consulting” by homeowners concerned about their choices.

In several cases, residents questioned why certain blocks, or portions of them, weren’t included in the map. Betts said she’d reply to queries after checking files in the office.

Why now?

Some residents wondered, essentially, why now. “You didn’t stop Ratner,” one said. “You didn’t stop the [Richard Meier] glass building on Grand Army Plaza.”

“It’s not to stop development,” Daly replied. “It’s to preserve a sense of place.”

Many buildings are already out of character, the questioner pressed. Such alterations, Daly responded, don’t outweigh the quality of the district.

Another resident served a fat pitch to Daly, citing to a “very lovely freestanding house” demolished under an alternation permit. (Other examples cited by PHNDC include the photos at right.)

“Would landmarks prevent that kind of demolition by stealth?”

Yes, Daly replied.

Later, the issue recurred, when an audience member said, “I don’t see anything in this process that helps protect” against a development like Atlantic Yards.

An audience member responded that, as of now, someone could knock down five contiguous buildings and construct something quite out of scale.

Still, some were concerned that the process couldn’t protect, for example, against shadows caused by giant buildings on the border of the district, buildings that sounded a lot like Atlantic Yard.

“We’re not able to stop development outside the boundaries,” Daly acknowledged. “But this would be a tremendous accomplishment.”

Questions of money

Is there a mechanism to compensate owners for the loss of their development rights if they can't build to their full Floor Area Ratio, one audience member asked.

No, said Daly, who pointed to a September 2003 Background Paper by the Independent Budget Office, The Impact of Historic Districts on Residential Property Values, which concluded that:
All else equal, prices of houses in historic districts are higher than those of similar houses outside historic districts.
Although prices for historic properties have at times increased less rapidly than for similar properties outside historic districts, overall price appreciation from 1975 through 2002 was greater for houses inside historical districts.

“There is an inherent value to owning a house in a historic district,” she said, noting that someone who buys a vacant lot to build is not required to construct a building in a “historicist style.” Similarly, current conditions are grandfathered in, so homeowners are not required to install “historic” fixtures to replace them.

“Living in a historic district absolutely means you have more regulation,” Daly acknowledged, “[but] it protects you.”

Could a homeowner install solar panels? Yes.

Do windows that pass muster cost more? Yes, responded Carroll, adding that they last longer.

What about cash-poor homeowners stressed by the costs of renovations? LPC has “a very small grant program based on income,” Carroll said, adding that the New York Landmarks Conservancy can provide more support.

Looking forward and back

Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Manhattan Institute likes to quote a line from planner Peter Salins, "In a post-industrial age, a city's face becomes its fortune." Indeed, the historic districts are part of what give Brooklyn such a rich sense of place.

They're also part of why Brooklyn has become increasingly expensive. Just as the city has coupled downzonings that limit development with upzonings that increase development rights and accommodate growth, so must it figure out ways to grow while preserving its face.

In the rezoning of Park Slope's Fourth Avenue, for example, the city ignored the tradeoff between increased development rights and subsidized housing.

In the case of Prospect Heights, some landmarking is obviously long overdue, just as the recognition that development over--and near--the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard was overdue.

Had a historic district been established sooner, it might have encompassed more of Dean Street, or perhaps designated individual buildings--and Forest City Ratner would have proposed a different map.