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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

NYC Landmarks Commission sued in fight to protect historic Brooklyn church site

Efforts to preserve the grounds of a 133-year-old school and church in Crown Heights expose the Brooklyn neighborhood's irreversible gentrification.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Neighborhood advocates in the historic Crown Heights district of Brooklyn sued the city’s landmarking commission last week to block new construction of hotly-contested “monstrosity” condos on the site of a landmarked church and school, which some residents say is a betrayal of preservation protections against short-sighted development and gentrification.

The Crown Heights neighborhood in Central Brooklyn has long been home to a mixed population of Black Americans, Caribbean immigrants and Orthodox Jewish residents who all in recent years have been joined, or in many cases displaced, by a growing number of younger white transplants, many of whom work in media and tech.

The neighborhood’s iconic 19th and 20th century architecture is comprised of several distinct building styles, including Georgian/Federal; Renaissance/Baroque Revival; Romanesque Revival and Modern/Art Deco/Art Moderne, many of which are protected from overdevelopment by districting established by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

For three years, residents of the Crown Heights North community have fought Manhattan-based real estate developers in their effort to develop a new seven-story condominium on the grounds of the Hebron Seventh Day Adventist Church and school campus, dubbed the “crown jewel” of Crown Heights and a landmarked-protected building in the landmarked Crown Heights North Historic District II.

Originally constructed in 1889 as the Methodist Home for the Aged, the building between Sterling Place and Park Place is of the very last Victorian-era institutional buildings with grounds largely intact in all of New York City.

Last week, attorneys from Hiller PC, a law firm that specializes in representing preservationists and communities against large real estate development, filed a petition on behalf of a coalition of Crown Heights North residents in Brooklyn Supreme Court under Article 78 of the New York State Civil Practice Law and Rules to overturn the commission's approval of the project.

The Crown Heights residents who brought the petition against the Landmarks Preservation Commission and real estate developer Hope Street Capital, allege the modern, monolithic redevelopment project at the Hebron Church site would be incongruous with the long-standing aesthetic of the block and the landmarked district’s historic character.

“The Developer approached the LPC under the guise of supposedly 'saving' part of the cherished Church from its current state of disrepair (while demolishing another part),” attorney Michael S. Heller wrote in the 40-page petition.

“In reality, however, much to the chagrin of the Crown Heights community, the Developer, an interloper and utter stranger to the neighborhood, is seeking to profit financially from development on the Landmark-Protected Property in a manner that threatens the preservation of the Historic District, and in particular, its ‘Crown Jewel’,” the petition states.

Historic two-story brownstone apartment buildings across the street on the Sterling Place from of the seven-story modern condominium construction site, which advocates claim does not belong in the neighborhood due to its height differential from the rowhouses that define the historic district and blockage of views of the landmarked Hebron school building. (Josh Russell/Courthouse News Service)

According to the lawsuit, the landmark commission’s grant of certificate of appropriateness constitutes arbitrary and capricious decision-making and was affected by errors of law, and violations of lawful procedures and rules and practices of the landmarking commission.

Representatives for the Landmarks Preservation Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The developers proposed a set of buildings containing a continuous streetwall of 315 feet along Sterling Place that, if constructed, would be the longest in the entire historic district, which the petition calls “especially inappropriate because it contains no setbacks off the street on which it runs, unlike existing lengthy buildings in the Historic District.”

According to the petition, neighboring residents oppose the gargantuan scale of the planned condos and the impact on the area’s already-limited of open green space, as well as the lack of affordable units proposed in the development and the practical disruption that construction would cause nearby tenants.

Two years ago, a neighborhood group called Friends of 920 Park collected over 4,000 signatures in an online petition in hopes of stopping the construction of the project.

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Graffiti seen this week on Department of Buildings signage on the construction site reads "7 Stories? 180 Units? Yeah right! #SaveCHN.” "Stop!", "Ew!", and "People over profit."

Author DW Gibson wrote in the 2015 book 'The Edge Becomes The Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty First Century’, that circumstances like those coming to a head with the Crown Heights residents’ fight against the new condos, “puts us in a really bad position with this false dichotomy: developers are saying I'm making your neighborhood better and the community is saying get the hell out of my neighborhood.”

 "What we really need is a more participatory urban planning world where residents have a say in what's going to happen,” Gibson wrote. “It's wrong to say that New York City is static, New York City has always changed, but the question is who's going to be driving the train?"

Phara Souffrant Forrest, the first-term assembly member for the 57th district of the New York State Assembly, says the current construction plan “will harm community members and tarnish the important historic legacy of our community.”

"As an alumna of the SDA Hebron School, I know firsthand what will be lost if this redevelopment goes through,” said Souffrant Forrest, a former nurse, tenant activist and life-long Crown Heights resident who was elected to the New York State Assembly with a slate of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)–backed candidates.

“Black and working-class residents have been consistently clear that they do not want to see an historic church defaced and hidden away while developers predate upon our religious institutions so they can make a quick buck,” she said.

Souffrant Forrest, who advocates universal healthcare and rent control, says she supports the Crown Heights residents’ efforts to pursue litigation so that the process for approval of the redevelopment is as accountable and transparent as possible.

“This also testifies to a bigger problem in our community: developers like Hope Street Capital are financially incentivized by our state and the egregious 421-a tax break to build new developments that contain little that is of benefit to the surrounding communities, she said. “In spite of this injustice, we have seen a wave of development approvals in spite of consistent voices in our community demanding a more fair and equitable development strategy.”

Crown Heights residents filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn Supreme Court this week seeking to overturn approval of a modern, monolithic redevelopment project at the Hebron Church site, which they say would be out-of-step with the aesthetic of the block and the landmarked district’s historic character. (Josh Russell/Courthouse News Service)

Souffrant Forrest, whose assembly district encompasses the adjacent neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, as well as parts of Crown Heights, Bed Stuy, and Prospect Heights, says she is committed to working to stop any continuation of 421-a or similar tax breaks, and ensuring that any development supported by the state includes deep affordability requirements with a framework that reflects genuine concern for the needs of the working class majority in New York City.

Crown Heights is undergoing accelerated gentrification. Across North and South Crown Heights, the neighborhood's Black population declined by 18,750 people between 2010 and 2020, according to data from a recent census, while the number of businesses in Crown Heights doubled between 2000 and 2015.

The drop in Black residents in northern section of Crown Heights, which stretches from Atlantic Avenue down to Eastern Parkway, was the most dramatic of any neighborhood across the five boroughs, according to City Planning.

Alicia Boyd, a Brooklyn community organizer whose group, Movement to Protect the People, successfully halted a district wide rezoning of Crown Heights South and nearby Flatbush in 2014, called the planned development “a disgrace” and said the landmarking commission “should be held to task” for betraying protections for landmarked property that were negotiated with the Crown Heights North community ten years ago, in exchange for setting boundaries for new developments.

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“It’s egregious, as far as I’m concerned,” she said, laughing, in a phone interview with Courthouse News.

“You’re not going to ever get those things back, they’re not coming back because there’s no one to sit there and create that on that kind of scale,” Boyd said of the architectural details of the historic and landmarked buildings in Brooklyn.

In 2019, Boyd’s group, Movement to Protect the People, filed an Article 78 petition and successfully won a temporary restraining order in Brooklyn Supreme Court against a controversial high-rise mixed use development that activists argued would block sunlight from the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

“Once a building is destroyed, it’s gone forever, she told Courthouse News. “There’s a sadness, I think, that people feel when these majestic, beautiful architectural designs are destroyed, which is the whole purpose why they was supposed to be given landmark status.”

“Life is not static, communities are not static,” she said of the gentrification altering Brooklyn’s neighborhoods. “They don’t stay one particular generation…When I was born in the ‘60s, that’s when Black folk were coming into these neighborhoods and there was white flight out into the suburbs and there was all the redlining.”

“No neighborhood stays the same, no neighborhood stays static. People are always shifting and changing,” she said. “We don’t go back in history, we don’t go back in time, we just move forward,” she said.”

Crown Heights North, where the Hebron school property is, has experienced the largest displacement rate of people of color than other community in Brooklyn, she noted.

A major difference between now and prior waves of Brooklyn gentrification, Boyd told Courthouse News, is that the current changes to neighborhoods isn’t just relocating people to other neighborhoods or towns, but instead into homelessness due to a lack of available housing that poor people can actually afford to live in.

Data released last year found that over 100,000 New York City students were identified as homeless during the 2020–21 school year, a 42% increase since the start of the decade.

“[It] was one thing to be displaced and be able to relocate somewhere else, in another community, in another state and lay roots there, [but] you have over a hundred thousand people now who are in homeless shelters now,” Boyd said. “That’s the evil that has happened, it’s not so much that people have gotten displaced, it’s where have they went. And when you have 100,000 people homeless, you’re doing a disservice to the people.”

Imani Henry, founder of the anti-gentrification/anti-displacement organization Equality for Flatbush, says the efforts to preserve the Hebron school building are not symbolic. “It’s about fighting to save history,” he told Courthouse News. “It’s about fighting to keep what Crown Heights is known for alive and well.”

“This is about permanent erasure and displacement of history,” Henry added. “That’s what this church struggle represents.”

For longtime New York City residents, Henry says, “there’s nothing improving for us” with any of the new real estate developments. “It’s only the blood, sweat, and tears of what’s being taken away from us.”

Equality for Flatbush sees evictions "left and right all over those blocks" every time after new high rise developments go up nearby, he said.

Henry sees the ongoing gentrification as a form of white supremacy that threatens to the erase economic, social, and linguistic of identity of New York City.

“Our neighborhoods are unrecognizable."

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Categories / Civil Rights, Regional, Religion

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