Brooklyn Heights Has Many Enhanced Nooks & Crannies
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
How much value do prospective renters or purchasers put on light and air – access to some sunshine to keep the back of a building from feeling cave-like and breezes to reduce the need for air-conditioning, at least a little?
This is a question with even deeper meaning when asked in Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood of historic – and supremely pricey – real estate, and a center of high contrasts on the subject.
The Heights attracts die-hard preservationists who want to protect every sliver of light and air and maintain the 19th Century scale that prevails in much of the neighborhood, which in 1965 was the first in the city to receive a Historic District designation. Because of stratospheric property values, the Heights also attracts die-hard developers who want to build out to the fullest extent allowed by law – finding opportunities are easiest to seize on blocks outside the land-marked district.
When the moment comes for money to change hands, will the Brooklyn Heights renter or buyer pay more if additional light and air are part of the deal?
“You can't put a number on it,” landlord Brian Elgart said of the bird's-eye view that the back-of-the building flats at 148 Willow St. have of somebody else's private garden. “But it's an easier sell when you're renting these apartments.”
The garden, which belongs to co-op building 1 Pierrepont St., is a grassy expanse with shade trees that stretches to Columbia Heights and is visible from that street behind a fence and shrubs.
Brooklyn Heights rentals are in hot demand with or without a garden view – but for prospective tenants of 148 Willow, “if it's a choice between an apartment in my building or another apartment, it's mine first,” Elgart told Eye on Real Estate.
“We have light – light is what it's all about,” he said. “For the rear apartments it gives tenants a better quality of life than staring at the backs of buildings.”
All the rear apartments in the five-floor walk-up have access to a deck or a balcony, he said.
When Elgart was in the market to purchase property in 1999, the 1 Pierrepont garden was a factor in his deciding to buy 148 Willow.
“I was impressed by it,” he said of the grassy refuge. “It's very rare to have something like this. It's pretty special.”
But the garden is “of no benefit to us at all” at 187 Columbia Heights, which is situated alongside the garden, said Lois Hedlund, who co-owns the rental building with her husband, Carl.
“We are not permitted to have windows on the side of our building because of landmarking,” said Lois, whose in-laws bought the property in 1936 as a rooming house.
Tenants in front apartments at 187 Columbia Heights would have had nice views – if a garden across the street at 222 Columbia Heights had been preserved.
For many years, 222 Columbia Heights was a vacant lot where volunteers maintained a garden in honor of Heights resident Bertha Sturgis. Around 1980, the lot was offered for sale for $75,000 to co-op owners at 1 Pierrepont, but they turned it down.
“Now the Tootsie Roll Building is there,” Hedlund said dismissively, using the nickname for the modern brownstone Bruce Eichner built on the site.
The garden at 1 Pierrepont is one of many unique open spaces in private hands in the Heights. Here's a sampling of what's out there, with more to come in future installments:
* 32-40 Orange St.: An easement gives the owners of these Orange Street homes access to a long driveway that runs behind the properties with a gated entryway on Hicks Street – and a garage for their cars.
Among them, the townhouse at 36 Orange St. has drawn the most media attention of late. In January, its owners put it up for rent at a hefty $14,000 per month.
“We got a tenant in a week or so,” Michael Kirven, who owns the townhouse with his wife Emily, told Eye on Real Estate.
He declined to say how much their renter is paying – but said having the driveway and garage “most definitely” helped clinch the lightning-speed deal.
“It's a huge draw, especially for people with kids,” he said.
When he and his wife bought the townhouse in 2006 for $2.275 million, the driveway and garage were “obviously a pretty big consideration,” he said. “Parking is so hard.”
Having the car close at hand made it easy for Emily to drive the children to school on days with bad weather. The driveway also lets extra light into the back of the building.
After living there for seven years, the Kirvens moved to a home they bought in Cobble Hill – but kept the Orange Street house as an investment property, he said.
Though Kirven can't calculate how much the driveway and garage increase the property value of 36 Orange, “parking in Brooklyn Heights is a six-figure number,” he said.
* 295 Hicks St.: The light and air for several mid-block Garden Place homes are worth $4.325 million. That's what Dream SDS LLC paid last December for a parking lot behind the houses, city records indicate.
The price of the triple-wide parking lot, whose address is 295 Hicks St., equates to about $414 per buildable square foot, Massey Knakal Realty Services, which served as a broker in the deal, said in January.
More than 50 bids were made for the property, and the winning bidder paid the highest price per buildable square foot for a development site in Brooklyn Heights' recorded history, the brokerage announced at the time.
Catholic Charities, Diocese of Brooklyn sold the lot after owning it for more than 30 years.
The purchasing LLC has the same address as SDS Procida, the developer that won a 2006 Building Brooklyn award for condo development Studio 322 at 322 Hicks St. – and constructed the lawsuit-plagued condo building on Grand Army Plaza known as On Prospect Park.
“My wife is fearful about losing our light and air,” said Warren Frank, who lives at 32 Garden Place. “We've been very lucky to have it all these years.”
Frank hopes that whatever is built at 295 Hicks will include a rear yard like the existing houses on Hicks Street.
“They certainly have a right to build there; these are buildable lots,” he said philosophically.
* 57 Willow St.: A fenced-in rear yard behind the 1820s-vintage rowhouse at 57 Willow St. was going to be used to build a freestanding, two-story brick carriage house in 2006.
Then-owners Stephanie and Timothy Ingrassia drew up plans and got the blessing of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, LPC records indicate.
The carriage house would have been connected underground to their main house, and was to have included gallery space for their art collection, a source said.
Instead of carrying out their construction plan, they sold 57 Willow the next year and moved to another house in the Heights. The current owner of 57 Willow has not done any construction in the rear yard.
If the Ingrassias had carried out their carriage-house plan, rents at the apartment building next door, 76 Hicks St., would not have dropped, another source said. The rental building is six stories tall; having a new two-story structure next door would not have been a problem, the source said.
* 14 and 18 Cranberry St.: A low-rise carriage house and garden at 14 Cranberry St. and an adjacent garden at next-door 18 Cranberry St. let the air and light into this Heights block.
“Our unit, because it's three floors up and on a corner, has unobstructed views on the east and west side. And when you open all the windows, you actually have the breeze blow through,” said Bill Orme, who owns the three top floors of five-floor 18 Cranberry with wife Deborah Sontag.
Their outdoor deck is “like having a private stoop on the third floor,” said Orme, who's a founding board member of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse.
“These lots make streets like Cranberry feel more light and more airy and open; they add to the special character of Brooklyn Heights,” he said.
His downstairs neighbors until last year, Marcelo and Carola Suarez-Orozco, were enamored of the garden that goes with the co-op unit in the bottom two floors of the building. Having the garden helped the couple, who took jobs as professors at NYU, and their kids adjust to New York City after living in Cambridge, Mass.
“Above all we were looking for serenity, open space and shade,” Marcelo recalled. “Our children grew up in Harvard Yard playing under the magnificent elms and that is what we were looking for when we left Harvard to teach at NYU.
“The expanse of space – our 'little magic garden' as we called it – was absolutely critical to our decision to move to Brooklyn Heights.” he said. “The shade under the magnificent trees provided the tranquility we needed to write for extended hours … with only periodic interruptions by our resident cardinals that would come to feed.”
They recently moved to California, where Marcelo is now the dean of UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Carola is a professor.
* 80 Willow St. and 12 Pineapple St.: An intriguing opening on Pineapple Street, which lets extra light and air into the block, consists of a one-story driveway door attached to 80 Willow St. and an old-fashioned-looking, two story facade attached to 12 Pineapple St.
The second story of the facade has what looks like a window sill and the outlines of three windows, all bricked in. That's what the Landmarks Preservation Commission told Ann and Bill Ash to build in order to hide a greenhouse they wanted to construct around 1980.
The LPC wanted “a suggestion of fenestration,” Ann remembered.
The facade only partly obscures the greenhouse – you can catch a glimpse of it out on the street from the end of the block that's closer to Willow St.
The couple decided to build a greenhouse because “we thought it would be fun; we like to plant things,” she said.
“At one point we had a lot of cactus. Then we decided for the sake of the grandchildren that the cactus were a little bit hostile,” she added.
* 77 Columbia Heights: On the Cranberry Street side of 77 Columbia Heights, a low-rise garage lets extra light and air into the block.
“We get our two hours of direct sunlight,” said Steve Guterman, who has a little garden with weeping cherry and maple trees, flowers and bamboo at the 75 Columbia Heights home he owns with his wife Betty. “It's enough for our greenery to grow.”
The light and air in the back of the building were not what initially captured the couple's attention when they bought the house in 1997, he explained. Breathtaking views of Lower Manhattan skyscrapers from the front of the house were the main attraction – along with the“relatively affordable” price of the property, which had fallen into disrepair.
“All the pipes had frozen and there was red mildew,” he recalled. “After a year of hell, we finished renovating – then we planted some stuff in the back yard.”
* 151 Willow St.: This house sets the gold standard for the protection of privately owned open spaces.
Otis Pearsall, a leading light in Brooklyn Heights historic preservation, and his wife Nancy didn't just buy the carriage house at 151 Willow St. and the picturesque garden alongside it in 1977 to keep them from being altered.
The couple also created a “Preservation Easement” that forbids the demolition of the carriage house or the alteration of its exterior without the consent of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. No “topographical changes” can be made to the land and no buildings or other structures can be added – not even fences or sculptures – without the Conservancy's permission.
Maintenance of the open space by planting, pruning and mowing does not require the preservationist organization's permission.
The easement and its restrictions “shall be considered as covenants running with the land in perpetuity” – giving the Conservancy serious power to protect the house and garden.
** What privately owned open spaces in Brooklyn Heights are on your mind?
Are there other sites that are cause for anxiety like the likely development site at 295 Hicks St.? Or troubling sites like the bare earth behind 128 and 130 Montague St. where Sylvia Blinchik's memorial garden for her son once grew?
Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your thoughts.