Land use watchdogs bark, but don’t bite – Frustration on Community Board 2 as developers carry the day over objections

By Nadia Taha

By all accounts, 2006 was a rough year for the land use committee of Community Board 2. First, the Purchase Building, a landmark structure on the waterfront of Fulton Ferry, was torn down. Despite the committee’s unanimous recommendation for the preservation of the 1936 structure, a relic of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the demolition. The committee’s appeal to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation to integrate the structure into the existing plans for a new park was ignored. Then, in August, the board was snubbed by Forest City Ratner, who gave only two months to review a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Atlantic Yards development. The land use committee, which in the past advocated withdrawal from any negotiations with Forest City, was also visited by its vice president, Jim Stuckey, for an unsuccessful public hearing to discuss the community’s concerns. CB 2 is one of 59 community boards in New York City that deliberate on community planning, land use, traffic and transportation, and the distribution of funds that are allocated for their district. CB 2 represents about 95,000 residents of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, the Navy Yard, Fort Greeene, Clinton Hill, Fulton Mall and Vinegar Hill. Many blocks in those neighborhoods have been designated historic districts by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a city agency. Owners of properties in these districts must apply to the commission for permits for any proposed changes to the structure. According to Landmarks Preservation Commission, over 90 percent of applications can be approved by staff members, because they adhere to the commission’s basic requirements for renovations. The remaining 10 percent are then referred to the community boards for review. The community board’s recommendations for or against approving the application then go to the commissioners, who decide each case in a public hearing. Lately, the land use committee of CB 2 has been heavily engaged in Landmarks Preservation Commission procedures. “Because several of the neighborhoods in the district have been rezoned, more of the committees’ efforts have been focused on landmarks,” explained Robert Perris, district manager of CB 2, who moderated the panel discussion. Proposed changes to long-standing buildings in the area often rouse tensions among local residents. “That’s especially true in historic districts where part of what makes it a district is some type of aesthetic cohesiveness, and often that fabric is strong enough to accept some design that doesn’t fit in, but if you have too much of it you reach a sort of a tipping point, and the cohesiveness is lost,” Perris added. The land use committee considers about five to 10 applications in each of its monthly meetings, Perris said. The great majority are recommended for approval. Yet committee members feel particularly slighted when their opinion, especially in opposition to a project, is overridden. So for the committee’s year-end meeting on December 20 at Polytechnic University, members hosted three landmark experts in a panel discussion how to navigate the landmark system. Committee members expressed many frustrations with the process of reviewing applications to modify landmarks, chief among which was the non-binding nature of the board’s recommendations to the commission. Committee chair Lawrence Whiteside and other members pointed out that the board is not notified of which aspects of an application have already been approved and which they must review. The members of the panel advised the committee on how to use the application review process to their advantage. A proposed change to a landmark is judged on its appropriateness for the site, the standard upon which the Landmarks Preservation Commission judges an application. However, board members were confused by the imprecise definition of appropriateness provided by the commission. Diane Jackier, director of external affairs at the Landmarks Preservation Commission explained that the word has different meanings in different contexts. “Something that is approved on the Upper East Side may not be appropriate in Brooklyn Heights,” Jackier said. “Appropriateness is a subjective guideline. Appropriateness changes from building to building, from district to district,” added Ward Dennis, a historic preservation consultant who has repeatedly worked on landmarks in parts of downtown Brooklyn in CB 2. Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, pushed the committee to handle each individual case aggressively, researching each application thoroughly. He recommended that members visit each site in person to inspect the building from the street, and read the report on why a property was originally designated a landmark. He also suggested investigating how a building has already been altered from the original designation, and asking the applicant for historic photos of the structure. Moreover, Bankoff urged the committee to approach the Landmarks Preservation Commission with their criticisms. “The community board is the place where you can air issues that the commissioners are not looking at,” he said. “You can bring the concerns of the community and the community board to the commissioners.” Still, Jackier insisted that the committee should work with applicants to review potential changes to a structure. “There is a way that you can address the light, air, and view issues but frame it in terms of size and scale,” she explained. Still, she said, a community board should not expect their recommendations to prevent progress by preventing construction or preventing formerly residential buildings from becoming designated for commercial use. “It’s not about freezing a neighborhood in time,” she said From left to right: Diane Jackier, director of external affairs and the Landmarks Preservation Commission; Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council; Ward Dennis, associate at Higgins & Quasebarth, historic preservation consultants; Lawrence Whiteside, chair of the land use committee of Community Board 2.