Courtyard garage questioned

Garage with landscaped roof garden proposed for courtyard of 19th century housing complex. On May 20, 2008, Landmarks heard testimony on a proposal by the Pinnacle Group to build a two-level garage in the courtyard of the Riverside Houses in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District. The complex was developed by philanthropist Alfred T. White in 1890 to provide attractive housing for the working classes, while giving residents maximum access to light and air. In the 1950s, a portion of the courtyard was eliminated to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Landscape architect and former Landmarks Commissioner Lee Weintraub presented the plan for the garage on behalf of Pinnacle. Under the plan, the garage would rise one story above-ground, the other level being underground. A rooftop garden featuring a lawn, trees, bluestone paths, a fountain, and a pavilion would be accessible from the complex’s second-floor apartments by a series of bridges. There would not be any apartments on the building’s ground floor, which would be used only for storage. The garage would accommodate approximately 130 vehicles, and spaces would be offered to Riverside Houses tenants at discounted rates, according to the Pinnacle’s attorney, Kenneth K. Fisher of Wolf Block.

Residents and preservationists generally opposed the garage’s construction. One resident, Peter Chase, called the courtyard an integral design element of the complex. Chase also raised concerns that the garage would make it more difficult for emergency vehicles to access the complex’s residential units. Andrew Dolkart, Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, sent a letter expressing admiration for Lee Weintraub, but stated that “here he has been hired to make an inappropriate and unpleasant use somewhat palatable.” Another resident testified that some of the trees currently occupying the courtyard, which would be cut down under Pinnacle’s plan, are over 100 years old and that the 12 largest trees were part of the original planting.

Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz called the proposal “an disinteresting design for an inappropriate project,” and added that its approval would contribute to a “piecemeal destruction of the neighborhood.” Commissioners Roberta Washington and Libby Ryan emphasized the importance of retaining the existing courtyard, with Ryan arguing that the intrusion of the BQE had made the preservation of the remaining portion even more important. Commissioner Margery Perlmutter also opposed the project, finding that the gap between the garden and the complex’s residential units created the effect of a “moat.” Only Commissioner Stephen Byrns found that he could “tentatively support” the project as proposed.

Landmarks Chair Robert B. Tierney expressed an overall consensus that an above-grade garage would not be approved for the site, but left the item open so that Pinnacle could return with a proposal for an underground garage, if it so desired.

LPC: 20-34 Joralemon St., Brooklyn (COFA #08-6905) (May 20, 2008).

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