Following is the statement read as part of the presentation by the Brooklyn Heights Association of an Award for Outstanding Community Service to the Tenants Association of the Riverside Buildings in Willowtown at the BHA’s 101st annual meeting Monday evening, February 28, at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in the Heights. William “Bill” Ringer and Jean Campbell, leaders of the Tenants Association, and attorney Frank Ciaccio, who has given it legal help along with others, were present to receive the award. Ringer and Campbell are former directors of the Willowtown Association. Ciaccio is presently a director.
Anyone who lives in a designated historic district...knows that there’s not a building within its boundaries that does not deserve the protection of historic preservation. Still, some buildings are, well, more historic than others. Not because they are older, or because someone famous lived in them, but because they have actually had an impact on the life of the city.
You could not find a better example than the Riverside Buildings on Columbia Place. This remarkable six-story apartment complex, constructed 120 years ago by Alfred T. White, a Brooklyn Heights philanthropist, was designed specifically to make life pleasant, safe and healthy for the working poor. Amazing idea! It was our great good fortune that Mr. White’s good intentions were expressed in wonderful architecture.
Because the worst aspects of turn-of-the-century tenements were their filthy, dangerous stairways and putrid air shafts, Riverside put its stairways on the outside of the building–graceful iron stairways, strong yet elegant. Instead of dark, airless air shafts, Riverside was built around a vast park-like courtyard. There was light. There was fresh air. There was space.
Sooner or later a remarkable achievement like Riverside was bound to be threatened. In 1950 “Moses the Hun” [Robert Moses, 1888-1981] descended on Furman Street, sword in hand. In order to create our beloved Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, he amputated the western arm of the complex. Astonishingly, the central courtyard was scarcely damaged. Now a half-century later the current owner of Riverside is trying to compete with Moses’ callousness with plans for a parking garage right in the courtyard.
That is when the Riverside tenants took up arms. With limited resources–this is, after all, a rent-controlled building–they valiantly and, so far, successfully challenged the landlord. The owner responded with significant changes, but Alfred T. White’s original intent would be gone. The 14 75-year-old trees would be gone. The protection from BQE noise and emissions would be gone. There would no longer be a park-like courtyard but a serviceable, utilitarian space.
You need stamina, conviction and a good pro bono lawyer to take on a challenge like this. Consider what the Riverside tenants had to go through to get what they rightfully demanded. Warning: do not try to decipher what follows.
First, they had to fight the landlord’s ACM with the RA, then the PAR with the DHCR’s DC, and after that there was RFR at the DHCR. Not to mention the LPC hearing and appeal, side by with the BHA. Even with the pro bono legal help of Heights [and Willowtown] resident Frank Ciaccio, an army of lawyers and preservation and housing advocates, it was the Riverside tenants who supplied the courage and tenacity that are carrying the day. Although the final decision has not been handed down, the Brooklyn Heights Association wants to honor these tough, principled folk right now. We are proud to have such valiant neighbors. They are proving that fresh air, trees and wide open space are worth preserving. And so is Alfred T. White’s democratic vision.