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12.15.2010
Brooklyn Sounds Off on Skyscraper District
Neighbors and developers weigh in on potential designation of downtown historic district
Brooklyn's Borough Hall sits in the shadow of the downtown skyscrapers
Courtesy Scouting NYC

Skyscrapers filled the horizon at the Landmark Preservation Commission hearing on Tuesday morning, but it was Brooklyn’s skyline that overshadowed Manhattan’s. After swiftly approving landmark status for Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon’s 500 Broadway on the corner of 42nd and Fifth Avenue, the commission shifted to the contentious debate surrounding the proposed Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District that includes a smattering of tall buildings from about the 1890s to the 1960s.

Borough President Marty Markowitz voiced support for the proposal, while maintaining reservations about the potential hardship on the only residential building that falls within the proposed district, the terra cotta clad 75 Livingston. As Markowitz departed he stopped to shake hands with preservationist and co-founder of the Brooklyn Heights Association, Otis Pratt Pearsall. Pratt Pearsall sees the newly proposed district as the obvious extension of Brooklyn Heights historic district, and a bit of unfinished business from the days when he and neighbors waged war against Robert Moses to make Brooklyn Heights the first historic district in New York City.

“We imagined that the control of these major buildings would be powerfully connected interests perhaps in a position to sink our entire enterprise,” said Pratt Pearsall, who is the local voice of authority about all things Brooklyn-based.

Proposed boundries for the Borough Hall Skyscraper District in Downtown Brooklyn.Proposed boundries for the Borough Hall Skyscraper District.

Courtesy NYC LPC

Downtown Brooklyn developed a gritty vibe beside its swanky residential neighbor. The term Court Street lawyer came to define the area’s 1-800 law professionals. It’s a reputation that many would like to shed. Several speakers disparaged Court Street retail by picking apart the fried chicken and check cashing joints. Nevertheless, over the course of 170 years a variety of architectural styles crammed their way into the district, including Beaux Arts, Greek, Gothic and Romanesque Revivals and International Style. The destruction of the 1857 Brooklyn Gas Light Co. building in 2004 spurred preservationists back into action, a Brooklyn-based version of Penn Station.

There are those who oppose the designation, among them the Court/Livingston/Schermerhorn Street BID and several residents of 75 Livingston. They contend that the designation will keep the area downtrodden and down-market.

500 Fifth Avenue made the cut at yesterday's LPC hearing.
Manhattan's 500 Fifth Avenue made the cut at yesterday's LPC hearing.
Courtesy Hu Toya
 
 

Former Bloomberg press secretary and external affairs director for the Durst Organization Jordan Barowitz, a 75 Livingston resident, argued, “If you want an area to be developed you don’t landmark it and impose additional constrictions on how storefronts can be configured.”

His neighbor Terri Matthews told the commissioners not to romanticize the area. While gesturing to representatives from the Municipal Art Society (MAS) she added, “There are people with a civic bent for modern architecture. I think they see them as old friends that they were never particularly fond of.” 

MAS’s Melissa Baldock asserted that modern buildings in the proposed district are over 50 years old, well past the 30-year requirement for landmark status. After hearing the arguments against saving modern buildings, Baldock said, “I think every generation suffers from a dislike of the architecture from the generation before. What you want to do is give buildings the opportunity to come into their own.”

But Mark Tulip, a lawyer representing an office building within the district, thinks the preservation effort is a smokescreen put in place by Brooklyn Heights Association to protect their members’ skyline views.

“What I’ve got here is nothing special,” he said of 26 Court Street. “I could knock it down and build something big.  What you've got are old crappy buildings. There’s nothing remarkable about this.” The commission will vote on the designation in the new year.

Tom Stoelker