Testimony in Support and Opposition to Historic District Extension Heard from Community Members

Proposed Boerum Hill Historic District Extension. Image Credit: LPC.

Controversy focused on small section of Atlantic Avenue commercial corridor proposed for inclusion in district extension, characterized by 19th-century low-rise buildings. Landmarks held a hearing on the designation of the Boerum Hill Historic District Extension on May 8, 2018.  The extension would be composed of three direct sections adjoining the existing Boerum Hill Historic District to the north, south, and west. Approximately 288 buildings are included in the proposed extension, roughly equal in size to the existing 300-property district.

Research Director Kate Lemo McHale said the areas in the proposed extension shared a development history with existing district, and shared sense of place, with similarly intact streetscapes composed of brick and brownstone rowhouses, largely in vernacular Greek Revival and Italianate styles. The extension would also include portions of two blocks on Atlantic Avenue, which would include some commercial retail buildings, many with intact historic storefronts. Lemos McHale said the growth of Atlantic Avenue as a commercial thoroughfare was deeply linked to the development of Boerum Hill, with shared scale and architectural typologies. A few institutional structures also fall within the extensions’ boundaries.

Originally home to a population largely composed of European immigrants who worked as merchants and in canal and waterfront industries, the area became a community center for the Mohawk people, who had come to the City to work in high steel in the 20th Century.

Landmarks formally began the extension’s designation process at its October 31, 2017 meeting.

Council Member Stephen Levin testified in support of designation at the hearing, stating the “handsome details incorporated into these buildings showed the indomitable spirit of the immigrant community settling in…” He also called on Landmarks to preserve the buildings “for the greater good of the community, so that they may last to tell our story once we are gone.”

Representatives of the Boerum Hill Association testified at the hearing in strong support of designation. With president Howard Kolins saying it would “do much to preserve and enhance our streets.” Kolins noted that the inclusion of commercial parts of Atlantic Avenue in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District had fostered a thriving retail atmosphere. Resident Wendy Feuer spoke in favor of the extension, and said she the boundaries of the original historic district had always seemed arbitrary, drawing lines between nearly identical streetscapes, Josephine Haggerty testified that the designation as necessary to prevent the “Manhattanification” of this section of Brooklyn.

Several residents said the zoning overlay meant to protect the neighborhood’s character had not been consistently enforced by Buildings. Resident and homeowner Sandy Balboza said the area’s “harmonious quality” was being lost due to encroaching out-of-scale developments, and stronger protections were needed.

A representative of the owners of the former Cuyler Presbyterian Church, now a private residence, testified that the landmark designation was unnecessary for the neighborhood, and if it went forward the owners of the former church would prefer that it be excluded from the historic district.  He also disputed many of the details of Landmarks’ description of the building. Rubens Penna, owner of a property on Atlantic Avenue, spoke in oppositions to designation, claiming that it would make his maintenance of the building more difficult and expensive, and his property would drastically lose value. Atlantic Avenue property owner Maureen Lynch argued that small business owners would adversely impacted by landmarking, and the layers of red tape and expense associated with designation would favor chain stores, and cause Atlantic Avenue to lo sets “independent character.” Lynch said the commercial strip did not belong in a district defined by its residential architectures.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Glen Umberger testified that the area was precious for its “rare vernacular” character, possessing few architect designed building, and with style more humble than Brooklyn Heights or Cobble Hill, but nonetheless “handsome and cohesive” and reflecting 19th-century middle class. Erika Walburg of the Historic Districts Council applauded the inclusion of the former Culyer Presbyterian Church in the extension, noting that it once held Iroquois-language services and as well as cultural events embracing the neighborhood’s Mohawk community. She also said that the historic Atlantic Avenue storefronts in the district were the thoroughfare’s “jewel in the crown.”

Commissioner Michael Devonshire inquired as to why more of Atlantic Avenue was not included in the proposed extension, Lemos McHale responded that staff had limited Atlantic Avenue’s inclusion to only the most intact historic portions in crafting the extension’s boundaries.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan established a date for a vote on designation for May 29, 2018.


LPC: Boerum Hill Historic District Extension, Brooklyn (LP-2599) (May 8, 2017).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law.)

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