Landmarking of Brinckerhoff Cemetery Proceeds to Council Vote Despite Owner’s Opposition [Update: Designation Approved By Full Council]

Current view of Brinckerhoff Cemetery lot. Credit: John Weiss (2012).

Owner of the vacant former cemetery site claimed she purchased the lot to build a home for herself, not knowing of the property’s history, and was not competently represented throughout the landmarking process. On December 6, 2012, the New York City Council’s Land Use Committee voted to recommend approval of the designation of the Brinckerhoff Cemetery as a New York City Landmark.  The property, at 69-65 182nd Street in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood of Queens, was designated by Landmarks on August 14, 2012. The full City Council is expected to vote on December 10, 2012 to approve.

The property served as a burial ground from 1730 to the early 1870s. The remains of members of the Dutch families that originally settled the area were interred there. A professional survey from 1919 identified 77 gravestones and markers.  The City foreclosed on the property in 1954, and it was subsequently purchased by Joseph DeDomenico. The Queens Historical Society and descendants of the Brinckerhoff family sued to reclaim the site in 1999, claiming that the City had improperly foreclosed on the property. DeDomenico offered to sell the site to the Queens Historical Society, but the Society was unable to raise sufficient funds. In 2000, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission calendared and held a hearing on the site’s potential designation, but did not take further action. Linda’s Cai Trading Co., Inc. (Linda’s Cai) purchased the property in 2010.

On May 15, 2012, Landmarks held a hearing with wide support for designation by members of the Fresh Meadows community and preservationists.  (See CityLand’s past coverage here). Among the elected officials who testified in favor of designation were State Senator Tony Avella, Assembly Member Grace Meng, and Council Members James F. Gennaro and Mark Weprin. A member of the Brinckerhoff family also testified in favor of protecting the space. A representative of Linda’s Cai flatly denied that there were any human remains at the site, and stated that the owners held title to the property, paid taxes, and should be able to develop the lot as they saw fit.  On August 14, 2012, Landmarks’ General Counsel Mark Silberman stated there was no reason to believe that human remains were not still interred in the cemetery.  The Landmarks Commission approved the designation.

At the Council’s Landmarks subcommittee hearing on October 23, 2012, Chair Brad Lander read a statement from Council Member Gennaro urging approval of the designation. Representatives of the Fresh Meadows Homeowners Civic Association also testified in support of the designation, as did the Historic Districts Council’s Simeon Bankoff, who stated that the cemetery served as “the last link this area of Queens has to its colonial past.” Chair Lander said that despite overwhelming community support, he would table a vote on the matter so that the property owner could testify before the Subcommittee.

Brinckerhoff Cemetery in 1927. Credit: Queens Library.

The Subcommittee met again on November 26, 2012, where the property owner, Le Dan Cai, spoke through her attorney and interpreter, William Zou.  She stated that she had purchased the property as part of her “American dream to have her own house in the United States.” She said “I really have no idea what’s going on but I really want to build a house.” Le Dan Cai said her attorney’s title search did not unearth information that a cemetery was on the property, and had she known, she would not have bought the property. In response to a question from Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, Cai stated that if the Council rejected the designation, she would respect any human remains on the property, and would be willing to erect a monument memorializing the site’s history as a burial ground, though she still intended to develop a portion of the lot.

Zou further testified that Cai had not been competently represented throughout the landmarking process, had already spent approximately $200,000 on the property, and characterized her as a “victim.” Zou asserted that the property was composed of two lots, only one of which had ever been used as a cemetery. He said Cai was willing to compromise by only building on that portion of the property. Zou questioned the integrity of Landmarks’ evidence that human remains still existed at the site, and further claimed that his client’s Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were being violated.

At the meeting, Council Member Gennaro reiterated his support for the designation and suggested to the owner that she might find relief through legal action against the entity that did her title search, or possibly pursue a hardship application at Landmarks. Chair Lander asked Landmarks’ Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, Jenny Fernández to provide the Subcommittee with information regarding the evidence of the presence of remains on the property, as well as information on the public review and designation process.  Chair Lander again tabled the matter for future consideration.

At the Subcommittee’s meeting on December 4, 2012, Council Member Dan Halloran stated that he looked up the property on the City’s Automated City Register Information System  (ACRIS), which he called “basic due diligence” for anyone considering purchasing a property.  The property’s ACRIS file indicated that the lot was “non-residential vacant land.” Halloran further noted that the site was purchased through a shell company that owned nine other properties in the City, which indicated to him a very sophisticated buyer. Halloran found Cai’s testimony at the November meeting disingenuous and urged his fellow subcommittee members to vote for designation.  Halloran also criticized Landmarks for allowing the designation to “languish” for twelve years. Council Member Gennaro stated that the memorandum the Subcommittee received from Landmarks indicated that all of the lot had been used as a cemetery. Council Member Leroy Comrie said the cemetery “rises above the level of anything we’ve seen” in terms of meriting landmark protection. Chair Lander also recommended approval of the designation, having given the matter “very thorough consideration.”

The Subcommittee and the Land Use Committee voted unanimously to affirm the designation, with the full Council expected to follow on December 10, 2012.

Council: Brinckerhoff Cemetery (N 130043 HKQlandmark designation) (Dec. 6, 2012).

Update: (12/10/2012) – On December 10, 2012, the full City Council approved the landmark designation by a vote of 46-0.

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