Landmarks Commission Unable to Agree Upon Brooklyn Heights Cinema Demolition and Construction Proposal

Rendering of 70 Henry Street Project. Image Courtesy: Gerner Kronick & Valcarcel Architects P.C.

Ridgeton Poultry Inc. proposed to demolish heavily altered, mid-19th-century one-story building, and develop new five-story mixed-use structure. On November 27, 2012, the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered a proposal for the demolition of a one-story building at 70 Henry Street in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, and the construction of a new mixed-use building on the property. The building, located on the corner of Orange and Henry Streets, is now occupied by the Brooklyn Heights Cinema. The Cinema would retain space in the proposed structure.

Preservation consultant Gregory Dietrich, retained by the applicants, testified that the existing building was constructed in 1895, and was originally a poultry and butcher shop. Prior to the designation of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District in 1965, the building was repeatedly subdivided and reconfigured, with multiple changes being made to the storefronts. In 1971, the building was converted into a movie theater with further significant alterations approved by Landmarks. Portions of the existing cornice are original, but are in poor shape, and would need to be replaced if the building is retained. Dietrich argued that the building’s architecture was so compromised throughout the years as to have lost any associations with Brooklyn Heights’ commercial development and lacks the requisite integrity to convey historical significance.

Owner Tom Caruana’s family has owned the building for 44 years. He stated that the new building’s size and shape would be as-of-right under zoning, and would lead to the creation of thirteen apartments, as well as commercial space. The project would require a variance from the Board of Standards & Appeals because the movie theater is not an as-of-right use. Cinema operator Kenn Lowy further testified that the plan would allow the theater, which has been in existence for 42 years, to continue to occupy the space, and that the plan would also allow for a live entertainment venue which is presently absent in the neighborhood.

Architect Randy Gerner, of Gerner Kronick & Valcarcel Architects, presented the proposal for the site. The proposed building would rise to five stories, and possess 13,000 sq.ft. of floor space, less than the maximum available 14,000 plus sq.ft. The building would be L-shaped and possess an interior courtyard that would provide light and air to tenants, as well as protect neighbors’ lot-line windows. The building’s residential entrance would face Orange Street, while the commercial and theater entrances would be on Henry Street. Gerner noted that Brooklyn Heights hosted structures of varying sizes, and the planned 50-foot-high building would be not be among the largest or smallest. The building would be clad in brick and have bands of large, steel-framed windows, with limestone trim. Planter boxes would be installed on the ground-floor level of the Orange Street facade.

A representative of local Council Member Stephen Levin spoke in opposition to the plan, stating that the existing structure culturally and architecturally contributed to the district.  Levin did not believe enough alterations were made to the original building to warrant demolition. The Brooklyn Heights Association also strongly objected to the plan, with President Jane McGroarty in favor of restoring the existing building as “one of the handsomest and oldest commercial buildings in the district.” Simeon Bankoff, of the Historic Districts Council, stated that the proposed building was “better suited to one of the Tribeca districts rather than Brooklyn Heights,” and found that “a less industrial design would be preferable.”

Some neighborhood residents supported the proposal believing the existing building was “an eyesore,” and noting that the project would bring rental housing into the community, which is largely dominated by condominiums and co-ops. Brooklyn Community Board 2 issued a resolution in favor of the project.

The commissioners differed on the proposal. Commissioner Fred Bland, who resides in Brooklyn Heights, stated that he could not support the demolition of the existing building, and added that the building, with its historic fabric, could serve as the base of the proposed 50-foot-high building. Commissioner Libby Ryan concurred, saying that though the current structure was not a “fabulously important building in Brooklyn Heights,” she was not comfortable with the complete demolition of a 19th-century building. Commissioner Margery Perlmutter determined that he building possessed little historic fabric due to the significant alterations, and did not contribute to the historic district. She found the scale of the proposed building appropriate, but thought the design “needs a little more finessing.” Commissioner Diana Chapin said the existing structure was “an interesting small little building,” but did not make a “profound contribution” to the historic district.  Commissioner Michael Goldblum found the design of the proposal was too reminiscent of Art Deco/Modern architecture of the 1920s and 1940s, an inappropriate vocabulary for the district.

Landmarks counsel Mark Silberman cautioned the commissioners of the potential precedent that would be set if it were determined that a contributing building, worthy of preservation, could be used as a base for a larger structure at the street wall.

Chair Robert B. Tierney found inadequate consensus to call a vote, and asked the applicant to take commissioners comments under consideration, as well as work with Landmarks staff, and return at a later meeting.

LPC: 70 Henry Street, Brooklyn (13-1756) (Nov. 27, 2012) (Architect: Gerner Kronick & Valcarcel Architects P.C.).

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