Commission approves Brooklyn skyscraper district

Questions raised about Planning Commission’s authority when reviewing landmark designations. On November 16, 2011, the City Planning Commission approved Landmarks’ designation of the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District in downtown Brooklyn. The district comprises 21 buildings along Court, Montague, Remsen, Joralemon, and Livingston Streets, and is within the boundaries of the Special Downtown Brooklyn District established by the City in 2001.

At Landmarks’ public hearing on the proposed district in February 2011, residents of a co-op building at 75 Livingston Street and representatives from the Real Estate Board of New York and the Court-Livingston- Schermerhorn Business Improvement District testified in opposition. They argued that the historic district would have a negative financial impact on the neighborhood and included buildings unworthy of Landmarks’ protection. Elected officials including Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and local Council Member Stephen Levin supported the historic district’s establishment, but asked Landmarks to remove 75 Livingston Street. In September 2011, Landmarks unanimously approved the historic district with its original boundaries. 8 CityLand 142 (Oct. 15, 2011). 

At the City Planning Commission’s October 19 hearing, representatives from the Court-Livingston- Schermerhorn BID and 75 Livingston Street reiterated their opposition, arguing that the buildings had limited architectural significance and landmarking would impose an economic hardship on property owners. Commissioner Anna Levin pointed out that the Commission was limited to issuing a report on the district’s relationship to zoning and whether it would interfere with any public improvements, and that it was not permitted to second-guess Landmarks’ substantive decision behind the district designation. The City Council has broader purview when reviewing landmark designations, and Levin suggested that the opponents consider their testimony as rehearsal for the City Council hearing.

REBNY’s Carol Van Guilder argued that the district would conflict with the purposes of the Special Downtown Brooklyn District, which she said included strengthening the business core, fostering development, and offering incentives to growth. Van Guilder said the current designation process was flawed and recommended that the Commission and the City Council take a broader role in decision making. However, she believed that the Commission had the authority to reject the district under its current scope of review.

During a post-hearing followup discussion at the Commission’s October 31 review session, Commissioner Nathan Leventhal asked Planning’s staff whether the City Charter could be read to give the Commission the authority to consider whether the district would conflict with both public and private development plans. Julie Lubin, deputy general counsel at Planning, responded that it was the agency’s opinion that the City Charter limited the Commission to reviewing only potential conflicts with public plans. Lubin noted that this was also the position of the head of legal counsel at the City’s Law Department.

The Commission approved the designation by an 11-1-0 vote, finding that the historic district would complement the goals of the Special Downtown Brooklyn District. Several Commissioners, including Angela Battaglia, Alfred C. Cerullo III, Irwin Cantor, Nathan Leventhal, Anna Levin, and Shirley McRae, expressed concerns about the Commission’s role in the landmarking process. Commissioner Cerullo noted that the district designation was the most questionable landmark application he had reviewed, and, because of the importance of the Commission’s decision, he said either the Commission should be given more say in the designation process, or be removed from the process entirely. Commissioner Leventhal agreed with Cerullo’s comments and encouraged Planning’s staff to review the City Charter’s legislative history regarding the Commission’s scope of review of Landmarks’ designations. Leventhal, who served as a member on the Charter Revision Commission of 1989, stated that he believed that the Commission had a broader purview, “one which is not limited to conflicts with plans for public improvements.”

Commissioner Karen Phillips opposed the designation. Noting that the Commission “should not give its power away,” Phillips said the historic district would conflict with the Special Downtown Brooklyn District’s goal of fostering new development.

After receiving the Commission’s report, the City Council has the authority to modify or disapprove Landmarks’ designation.

CPC: Borough Hall Skyscraper District (N 120069 HKK – landmark designation) (Nov. 16, 2011).

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