The Willowtown Association fully supports efforts of the Riverside Tenants Association to get The Pinnacle Group, owner of the apartment complex, to give up once and for all the construction of a 24/7 commercial parking garage in the courtyard, thereby imperiling the complex because of the excavation and thus destroying a historic site in Brooklyn Heights, and offers to help in these efforts as needed.
The landlord of the Riverside Apartments in Willowtown, the Pinnacle Group, has long sought to develop an underground commercial parking garage in the courtyard between the building and the elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Presently an order by the state’s Division of Housing and Community Outreach (DHCR) blocking the project is in effect. The order states that Pinnacle must obtain all appropriate permits and licenses before it can submit a new application to the DHCR.
In June 2014 Pinnacle used the so-called Article 78 special proceeding to challenge the DHCR’s decision in the state’s Supreme Court. The landlord tried to make the point that new permits were not needed. The Riverside Tenants Association has joined the DHCR as an “intervener” in the case.
Our member of the New York City Council, Stephen Levin, via his housing and community liaison, Metin Sarci, verifies that all of Pinnacle’s previous permits have expired and that it would have to start the process all over again including a new public hearing before the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission. The process would also require the approval of Community Board 2, the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) and Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The latter is necessary because the site is within 100 feet of the train beds under Joralemon Street for the 4 and 5 subway lines.
Pinnacle is reportedly responsible for moving documents through the various government agencies to get the needed approvals and then to self-certify that all is in order. Throughout this long struggle the landlord has shown that it is not above trickery. For example, the real-estate lawyer who represents Pinnacle, Ken Fisher, on one occasion submitted voided documents to the landmarks commission and then claimed there were no objections to a second plan. There never was a second plan.
If Pinnacle won the Article 78 proceeding and again moved ahead with the garage project, the results could be devastating. Construction could easily undermine one of Willowtown’s most significant historic structures. If this happened, the city could condemn the property and evict all of the tenants on short notice. To destroy it completely would be to Pinnacle’s profit and may well be the actual goal.
Metin Sarci is expected to monitor Pinnacle’s possible submission of a new application for a construction permit to the DOB and alert us. The public will have only limited time to review the plans and respond to the application. Care is needed to make sure that everything is covered should the garage project again advance.
Contributions to the Willowtown Association, which are tax-deductible, can be designated for the legal costs of the Riverside Tenants Association.
The Tenants Association of the Riverside Apartments in 2011 received the Brooklyn Heights Association’s “Outstanding Community Service” award for that year. Following is the statement that went with the award:
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’re older, or because someone famous lived in them, but because they have actually had an impact on the life of the city.
You couldn’t 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 aspect 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’s 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 [Application for Courtyard Modification] with the RA [Rent Administrator], then the PAR [Petition for Administrative Review] with the DHCR’s DC [Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s Deputy Commissioner], and after that there was RFR [Request for Reconsideration] at the DHCR. Not to mention the LPC [Landmarks Preservation Commission] hearing and appeal, side by side with the BHA. Even with the pro bono legal help of Heights 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 honors 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.
The Riverside Apartments at 24 and 32 Joralemon Street and 10, 20 and 30 Columbia Place were built in 1889-90 on the site of the brewery/distillery. Considered “a masterpiece of late Victorian design,” they are an early model of better housing for the urban poor. The original U-shaped, nine-unit complex with an interior courtyard had 280 two- to four-room apartments and 19 stores. In 1890 the rent was $8-$11 a month. Bathing was communal in the basement. The bathrooms, a first for a tenement, were described as “nicely fitted up.” The courtyard’s amenities included a bandstand where concerts were held on weekends, a children’s playground and a fountain. The west section along Furman Street was also lost to the BQE. However, the courtyard with some fine old trees remains largely intact although neglected by the landlord. Archaeological remains of the early industries on the site may well be preserved under the garden.
Alfred T. White, 1846-1921, known as “the great heart and mastermind of Brooklyn’s better self” and a lifelong resident of Brooklyn Heights, was the figure behind the construction of the Riverside Houses. He was a founder and major benefactor of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and of the Brooklyn Heights Association, among his many other interests.