Eye on Real Estate: Developer who demolished it faces opposition to upzoning its site for residential project
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This is a lament for a long-lost church that was a proud piece of Irish-American heritage — the Roman Catholic Church of St. Ann.
It was built in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War.
The Gothic-style brick church, which had a 130-foot tower, was designed by the Prince of American Catholic Architects, as his admirers called him, Patrick Charles Keely.
The revered church architect, who was born in Ireland, lived in the waterfront Brooklyn neighborhood where St. Ann's was built — Vinegar Hill. During his productive career, he designed almost 700 religious buildings all over the Eastern United States and Canada.
St. Ann's was demolished two decades ago after its congregation was merged with that of St. George's Church at nearby 203 York St.
Don't go looking for St. George's, though — because it has been torn down and replaced with an apartment building.
Both churches were purchased, and demolished, by developer Paul Tocci.
Now Tocci wants the city to upzone the once-sacred site where St. Ann's stood, 251 Front St., which is a truck-parking lot. He wants to construct a 110,795-square-foot building with 93 rental apartments, 23 of them affordable units.
We'll fill you in on the details in a minute. First we need to say something.
We know that, over the years, religious organizations, Catholic and otherwise, have closed churches all over Brooklyn when the size of their congregations dwindled.
We also know that, over the years, developers have converted numerous deconsecrated Brooklyn churches into residential buildings. The church exteriors remain part of their neighborhoods' historic streetscapes. The developers make money. This alternative is preferable to demolition.
It's a wonderful thing when deconsecrated churches are purchased for use by arts and cultural institutions. But only occasionally does that happen.
Community Board 2 committee disapproves upzoning application
Now, back to the saga of St. Ann's.
In 1992, 251 Front Street Realty Inc., an entity whose president is Paul Tocci, bought the church for $535,000, city Finance Department records indicate.
Not long after, the church and a rectory on the site were demolished, the developer's upzoning application documents say. St. Ann's School, which had also been located on the site, had been torn down between 1959 and 1960, the documents note.
The site is directly adjacent to landmarked Greek-Revival rowhouses on Front Street and right across the street from landmarked Greek-Revival rowhouses on Gold Street. It also has frontage on Water Street. The landmarked rowhouses are in the Vinegar Hill Historic District.
If St. Ann's had been standing when the neighborhood was landmarked in 1997, the church would have been included in the historic district, neighborhood resident Margo Hirsch said at a recent public hearing about the proposed upzoning. Because the property was already a vacant lot, it was not included within the historic district's boundaries.
Hirsch and numerous other Vinegar Hill residents testified in opposition to upzoning the St. Ann's site, saying it would enable Tocci to construct a building whose bulk and height would be out of context in the neighborhood.
“Vinegar Hill will be irreversibly damaged” if upzoning is allowed, Aldona Vaiciunas, the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association's president, said at the hearing.
The building Tocci wants to construct at 251 Front St. would be massed so that various parts of it would be four, six or nine stories tall, said Martin Kapell of Think Architecture and Design.
“The project will be an enhancement to the community on all levels,” Tocci said at the hearing.
Tocci, whose development firm is called the Constellation Group, said he has no intention of constructing a smaller building on the site if upzoning is not approved.
A five-story, 41-unit residential building could be constructed as-of-right there, upzoning application documents indicate.
After the hearing, Community Board 2's Land Use Committee voted to disapprove Tocci's upzoning application.