Eye On Real Estate
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Don't you forget about me.
Don't don't don't don't.
Don't you forget about me.
If the century-old rowhouses of Sunset Park could sing, surely they would serenade the city Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) with that 1980s anthem by the Scottish band Simple Minds.
Neighborhood residents have been campaigning for a long time to win landmark designation for a portion of Sunset Park.
It has been three years since the residents formally asked the LPC to put this section of Sunset Park onto its calendar to consider it for designation as a New York City historic district.
It has been two years since the Landmarks Preservation Commission and its staffers were given a trolley tour of Sunset Park to show them the proposed historic district.
The residents are still waiting for an answer to their request for evaluation.
It was meticulously prepared by a group who had organized themselves as the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee.
Handsome rowhouse blocks 'instill a sense of place, history and pride'
The request for evaluation provided information about approximately 660 buildings on 15 blocks where large numbers of homeowners expressed support for landmarking their home streets.
Of the 409 homeowners contacted by researchers, 403 wrote letters of support for the inclusion of their blocks in a historic district. Six homeowners were opposed to landmarking.
And 3,200 Sunset Park residents — both building owners and tenants — signed a petition supporting the creation of a historic district.
The request for evaluation included letters of support from neighborhood organizations including the Latino environmental and social-justice organization UPROSE, the Chinese-American Planning Council, the Sunset Park Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District and Community Board 7.
Local politicians such as City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, state Assemblymember Félix Ortiz and state Sen. Jesse Hamilton wrote supportive letters, too.
“The time has come to celebrate the built environment of Sunset Park by protecting the blocks that best represent its contribution to Brooklyn and New York City,” the request for evaluation says.
“While inappropriate changes are happening at an alarming rate throughout the neighborhood, the blocks advocated for in the study area instill a sense of place, history and pride for all who live, work or simply stroll in Sunset Park.”
'Perplexed and a little frustrated' by landmarking process's pace
How do neighborhood landmarking supporters feel about the slooow pace at which the Landmarks Preservation Commission is moving?
“We're just perplexed and a little frustrated,” Lynn Tondrick, the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee's community outreach coordinator, told the Brooklyn Eagle during a recent sit-down.
“We've tried to make it apparent this is urgent. It's time for them to move forward,” she said.
“We're in a holding pattern. We want to preserve our neighborhood. It really seems like a reasonable goal,” she said. “But somehow it's all gotten complicated.”
In late February, the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee met with Councilmember Menchaca's staffers to brainstorm about what to do next.
“We know we're not unique. Numerous neighborhoods in New York City are in an asking position [with the LPC]. But we did all the hard research,” Tondrick said.
Why the urgency about establishing a historic district? we wondered.
“Sunset Park has beautiful buildings, century-old limestone and brownstone townhouses. For the most part, they've survived intact,” Tondrick said.
“But Sunset Park is under the eye of developers,” she said.
“Industry City will change the demographics of the neighborhood. There is the possibility of the BQX, which likely will change things in Sunset Park.”
Industry City is Belvedere Capital, Jamestown and Angelo, Gordon & Co.'s waterfront commercial complex, which is made up of 16 century-old buildings that were formerly part of Bush Terminal.
It is home to the Brooklyn Nets' training facility and businesses including car-sharing service Car2go and candy maker Li-Lac Chocolates.
The BQX is the Brooklyn Queens Connector, a proposed streetcar system that would link waterfront neighborhoods in the two boroughs. Sunset Park residents expressed opposition to the BQX at a city Economic Development Corp.-sponsored “visioning session” last summer.
Statement from the Landmarks Preservation Commission
The Eagle asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission's spokeswoman when the agency will make a motion to calendar the proposed Sunset Park historic district, or take any other step forward toward considering the proposed historic district for designation.
“The Commission has been interested in studying the area,” LPC spokeswoman Damaris Olivo responded via email, “and the timing of any study would be considered in the context of our priorities in all five boroughs.”
'Stoop-sitting is a Brooklyn thing'
Now, back to our interview with Tondrick.
One reason to landmark Sunset Park is to help preserve a sense of community, she said.
For instance, landmarking would protect rowhouse stoops from being torn down — and thus help keep the tradition of “stoop-sitting” alive.
“Stoop-sitting is a Brooklyn thing,” she said.
Sunset Park property purchasers sometimes tear down rowhouses and replace them with modern buildings with so-called Juliet balconies outside their upstairs windows.
“Juliet balconies are not about interacting with your neighbors,” Tondrick said. “Stoop-sitting is.”
By the way, the 15 blocks in the proposed Sunset Park historic district are located between 43rd and 59th Streets. Many of the blocks are between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Some are between Fifth and Sixth Avenues or Sixth and Seventh Avenues, or on Sixth Avenue.
The Sunset Park Landmarks Committee has received assistance in its landmarking campaign from staffers from the Historic Districts Council, which named Sunset Park a “Six to Celebrate” neighborhood in 2013.
“They were an immense help,” Tondrick said. “They gave us direction on how to shape our goals and move forward.”
Sunset Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places
A big portion of Sunset Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. But a designation of this kind does not restrict property owners from demolishing their buildings or altering the exteriors.
Even in the middle of Sunset Park side streets, zoning allows owners to replace rowhouses with new buildings that are taller than adjacent properties.
“There is no protection in place for our historic rowhouses,” Tondrick said.
Tondrick said Sunset Park preservation advocates aren't opposed to progress in their neighborhood.
“We realize you can't hold onto everything. New York City is not preserved in amber,” she said.
“We support development that's done with forethought and consideration.”
In a nod to the needs of businesses and their landlords, the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee excluded commercial corridors such as Fifth Avenue from its proposed historic district.
In a gesture of support for affordable housing, “we didn't include Section 8 buildings and rent-stabilized buildings, to not put financial burdens on them,” Tondrick said.
Distinguished architectural styles for working-class rowhouses
After our meeting with Tondrick, we returned to Sunset Park on a sunshiny day — before Winter Storm Stella came along — to take snapshots.
Sunset Park was built mostly for working-class Brooklynites and today continues to be a mostly working-class neighborhood.
According to the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee's request for evaluation, most of the area's rowhouses were built between 1885 and 1912 and are two stories tall or two stories above raised basements. Many were designed as two-family homes.
“Sunset Park contains one of the earliest and most extensive concentrations of two-family masonry rowhouses in the city,” the request for evaluation says.
Though modest in scale, the rowhouses were designed in the same architectural styles as those used at that time for rich people's homes in fancier Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as neo-Grec, Romanesque Revival and neo-Renaissance.
“Unusually, these aesthetically pleasing and well-proportioned houses [in Sunset Park] were constructed for the working and middle classes as an 'architecture for the masses' to uplift and inspire,” the request for evaluation says.