There Goes the Neighborhood: Luxury Condo Threatens to Destroy Fort Greenes Historic Charmby Corrie Pikul
For years, rodents scavenging in the windblown garbage were the only tenants worried about irresponsible development at 383 Carlton Avenue. The vacant lot’s unruly undergrowth, rickety gate, and occasional parked car were a forlorn contrast to the renovated brownstones of Fort Greene’s Historic District. Approaching the neighborhood from the corner of Carlton and Greene avenues was like happening upon an elegant society matron who, in stooping to retrieve a dropped handkerchief, unwittingly exposes a torn slip.
Yet when the lot was suddenly boarded up for construction last spring, residents immediately rallied to protect it. They had discovered that the lot’s future tenant would be an 11-story, 27-unit luxury condominium. Preliminary renderings depicted commercial office space supporting an ultra-modern tower of brick, glass, aluminum, and concrete that would stand at least seven stories taller than the well-kept brownstones that give the neighborhood its distinct character.
Paul Palazzo, the de facto leader of the Carlton Avenue Steering Committee that has organized specifically against the condo, has lived in Fort Greene for 20 years. “The developers are taking advantage of a historic neighborhood, and giving nothing back in return,” he says angrily.
The proposed condominium literally brings the development debate home and dumps it on the front stoop of the community. Fort Greene residents who have felt powerless to stop projects like the Atlantic Terminal shopping complex and the nascent BAM cultural (and commercial) district have found a target for their frustrations—two targets, in fact. They go by the names of Jonathan Jacobs and David Weiss of Carlton Adelphi LDC, and they can be found personally supervising the construction on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Fort Greene residents view Jacobs and Weiss as opportunistic villains whose profit-making venture will permanently damage their neighborhood. Jacobs and Weiss counter that it was only a matter of time before a developer recognized the potential of the unused lot. While they predicted that the condo might upset some neighbors, they seem genuinely taken aback by the intensity of the community backlash. That backlash is not surprising, though, given that the aesthetic future of Fort Greene is at stake.
The condo units are not yet for sale, so the profile of prospective buyers is open to conjecture. Current residents, as well as local merchants along Fulton Street, worry that the building might attract upscale commuters who will sleep in Fort Greene but work, socialize, and spend their money in the city. To some critics of the condo, the apocalyptic arrival of these “Upper East Siders” threatens to be the first step in the “Manhattanization” of Fort Greene. “The condo will dwarf our brownstones! It will block the sun!” wailed one woman at a block meeting. “I feel like I’m back in Chelsea,” said another.
Residents expressed disbelief that a building of this size would be permitted within the Fort Greene Historic District. But that main point of confusion for the citizens is the saving grace of the developers: 383 Carlton Avenue is contiguous with the Historic District, but does not technically fall within its protective boundaries.
383 Carlton Avenue is designated an R6 Zone. Despite the fact that all of the other buildings on the street are three- and four-story brownstones, the new condo is under no legal obligation to match them in size. Jacobs calls the 11 stories “a compromise”—this building could have been even taller. One letter would make all the difference: an R6B Zone requires new buildings to be “contextual” with their surroundings. Bulk and height must be compatible with neighboring community. In addition, an R6B Zone limits overall building height to 50 feet (approximately five floors).
When the developers broke ground in January, the FGA implored them to follow zoning guidelines and to be mindful of the historic nature of the area. Even though the FGA was aware that 383 Carlton fell just outside the Historic District, the organization asked the developers to keep the condo under nine stories tall.
In explaining the limits of community power, FGA president Howard Pitsch wearily concedes that while protestors may give the developers pause for thought, only the government can halt construction.
For over two years, the FGA has been trying to obtain R6B zoning for Fort Greene. The slow, laborious process involves surveying the entire neighborhood and manually noting the details of every unit. As of late November, Pitsch was still having difficulty convincing the Land Use/Landmarks Committee to put Fort Greene rezoning on its next agenda. In the meantime, developers like Carlton Adelphi LDC are free to purchase and build upon unprotected lots in accordance with R6 guidelines.
Pitsch says that Letitia James, the newly elected City Council member for District 35, is sympathetic to the demands of the community. FGA’s hopes are pinned like wings to Ms. James. Pitsch thinks she could be Fort Greene’s “archangel” in regards to rezoning.
Although most of the Historic District currently adheres to a certain aesthetic, there is no style imposed upon 383 Carlton Avenue. Under “as of right” development, plans are filed with the Department of Buildings and construction can begin immediately upon issuance of a building permit. The plans are not required to go through a public approval process.
Meltzer/Mandl Architects, P.C. of Manhattan is the firm handling 383 Carlton. They are also known for a similar project: The North Moore building in TriBeCa’s West Historic District is a conversion of four adjacent landmark industrial buildings into 49 luxury loft condominium units and street-level retail space.
The architect of the condo, Marvin H. Meltzer, is a licensed member of the American Institute of Architects. The AIA encourages “responsible development” and advocates the preservation of designated historic sites. However, the organization makes no judgment on aesthetics. As a spokesperson for the AIA explains, “There is no equivalent to the Hippocratic oath for architects.”
Pitsch says he is open to the idea of updating the landmarked areas by adding contemporary buildings. “But must they conflict so egregiously with the historic district?” he asks, referring to 383 Carlton.
While Meltzer takes understandable offense to the description of his designs as “egregious,” he does not deny that this building will not fit in next to its 19th-century neighbors. In fact, that’s a tenet of his design philosophy.
“I feel that trying to make something today that looks like it was built in the 1800s doesn’t do justice to the architecture of that period,” he says. Meltzer strongly believes that a clear visual distinction between old and new buildings serves to make the historic architecture more powerful.
Continued construction has not daunted the Carlton Avenue Steering Committee. They hold semi-weekly meetings to discuss the state of the condo and brainstorm ways to thwart its progress. In early September, this group staged a letter writing campaign to the Department of Buildings. Members have utilized their unique talents to research building codes and zoning laws, set up a website, and draft alternative plans to present to the developers. Guerilla strategies have included placing numerous calls to New York City’s 311 hotline, filing formal complaints against the developers to the DOB, and organizing multiple protests in front of the site.
Jonathan Jacobs usually makes a brief appearance at the protests. In person, he seems too young and amiable to be a money-hungry real estate developer yet too buttoned-up to be a resident of Fort Greene. At this point in the debate, he has gotten to know individual protestors well enough to address them by their first names.
Exasperated, Jacobs explained how he and Weiss have tried to work with the community. “From the beginning, we said that there were certain things we wouldn’t change: the height, the basic layout of the building, the shape. But we were always open to suggestions concerning the ‘flavor’ of the building, the colors and materials. At the community’s request, we altered the tower and the façade to help the building fit in more contextually with the neighborhood.”
Jacobs feels that there is definitely a right way and a wrong way for citizens to communicate with developers. “The right way is to act civilly and realize that there are certain parameters to discussion. The wrong way to is to call 311 every time a leaf falls off a tree! The wrong way is to put up protest signs on our fences!”
Jacobs tries to remain pragmatic about the situation. “We wouldn’t have Manhattan if people were afraid of skyscrapers,” he says. “In the end, we’ll all look at this and laugh,” he adds optimistically.
Marvin Meltzer, the architect, isn’t laughing yet. “I’m trying to be really patient with the community, but frankly, I’m finding this a little strange. It’s gotten to the point where it could be considered intimidation. In my career as an architect, I’ve never faced this kind of opposition before.”
To Meltzer, the bottom line of the entire debate is that “This building is not in a historic district! That is an extremely important point that everyone seems to be forgetting. There are no official restrictions on this lot.”
Speaking in full support of Jacobs and Weiss, Meltzer applauds what he sees as their continued efforts to meet with the community. “Look, the developers’ job is to buy property for profit. Fort Greene is lucky that they’re dealing with people like Jonathan and David. They’ve been very accommodating, whereas most developers wouldn’t bother.”
In mid-November, a letter from the New York City Department of Buildings reminded Fort Greene that 383 Carlton Avenue is located in an R6 Zone, and the condo is therefore “as of right.” Howard Pitsch of the FGA says that he is “deeply disappointed that the condo has come to pass.” Palazzo is less understanding. He contends that the explanation is not satisfactory to the community, and is demanding more of an explanation from the DOB.
Both community leaders are actively recruiting Fort Greene and Clinton Hill residents to assist the Department of City Planning in surveying individual buildings. They are aggressive in their aim to expedite the R6B rezoning process. “The condo has pushed the rezoning issue to the forefront,” says Pitsch. Both men vow that the community isn’t going to let it die now.
Corrie Pikul is a writer based in Brooklyn.