The Landmarks Preservation Commission Public Hearing for the proposed large scale development on the landmarked site of the Hebron SDA School (914-920 Park Place) was held on October 20th. This public hearing is a culmination in the process to obtain approval for construction projects located in a landmarked or historic district. Thanks to the Crown Heights North Association (CHNA), the grounds of the school were included in the 2011 Crown Heights North
Phase II Historic District, which is designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The LPC is responsible for the protection and regulation of architectural, historical, and culturally significant buildings in New York City. The agency is composed of 11 commissioners appointed by the Mayor, and “promote the use of historic districts, landmarks, interior landmarks, and scenic landmarks for the education, pleasure and welfare of the people of the City”. Even though the full Community Board 8, and CB8 Land Use Committee overwhelmingly voted against the project, these are only advisory determinations. The LPC reviews the recommendation from these agencies, then decides to reject or approve.
Since April, LPC hearings are held virtually on Youtube, and presenters or the public can participate through the Zoom app on their computer or smartphone. The online forum is very well organized, which I believe is easier to moderate compared to a contentious in-person hearing. On your computer you can view other attendees, type into a chat bar, or pause and rewind the video. With 30 people watching at the beginning of the afternoon session, the committee chair started the meeting by stating the LPC would not make a decision on the proposal due to the amount of public testimony received in both e-mail and written form. This included over 900 letters received in opposition, and letters of opposition from local politicians. Nearly 7,000 signatures had also been collected in an online petition organized by a group of concerned neighbors, Friends of 920 Park. The LPC would view the Hope Street Capital development proposal without taking action, open the forum for public comment, then resume the public meeting to announce their determination at a future date.
Hope Street Capital had the opportunity to explain their proposal, which began at 1:50pm with 45 people watching. The attorney for Hope Street Capital claimed 1,800 people signed a petition advocating for the proposal, then the President of the Northeastern Conference of Seventh-day Aventist provided his statement. The principal of the school spoke, followed by building conservation and architects associated with the proposal. The architectural conservation firm hired by the developers spoke of their January 2019 examination of the Hebron School building. They found obvious signs of disrepair like displaced masonry due to outside vegetation growth, cracks, open joints and holes in the roof. Building materials exceeded their use of lifespan and a laundry list of necessary work was recommended. The consultants also spoke of the building history and the due diligence they undertook during the design phase in an effort to study the character and architectural styles of the neighborhood. This was a comical display, and it was difficult to digest their comments as legitimate. Their proposal is so obscene in scale that several public testimonies questioned if the consultants had even visited the Crown Heights building site.
The project is proposed in two phases. The first being the rehabilitation of the existing Hebron School structure, then the selective demolition of the building with a proposed 128,0000 square foot new development building on the Sterling Place side of the property. The consultants and architects made the argument that the 1911 extension on the south side of the school remains a utilitarian element compared to the main Romanesque building and Gothic Revival Cathedral. The 1911 south extension does not, “rise to architectural merit”. The consultants argument for selective demolition was not fooling anyone, and was criticized several times during the public testimony. Mark Bench from the Victorian Society in America asked why the work on the current structure was even mentioned at the LPC meeting? Was this a sweetener add-on to garner public support? Dylan Powers, a homeowner from across the street perfectly responded to this argument for selective demolition with the following statement, “If the Mona Lisa were showing signs of wear and tear, would you snip off the edges, throw it behind a gargantuan cheap plastic frame from IKEA, and claim to have appropriately preserved a piece of art?”
The LPC moved to public testimony at 2:28pm with 57 people watching. With a strict time limit of 3 minutes per speaker, Robert E. Cornegy, NYC Council Member for the 36th District was the first to voice opposition. He commented on the LPC’s responsibility to sageguard buildings that represent New York history, and was adamant the project was inappropriate for the Crown Heights North Historic District. Mr. Cornegy requested the LPC deny a certificate of appropriateness and emphasized the vocal objections were not idle comments, but input of conservationists, politicians, and the same people that worked to obtain historic designation for the community. Members of the community had previously expressed their disappointment with Mr. Cornegy for not opposing the project earlier in the process. It was a sigh of relief to finally witness his vocal opposition. Ethel Tyus, Chair of the Community Board 8 Land Use Committee spoke of the potential erasure of open space, and how the bulk scale of the project was insulting and inappropriate in comparison to the row homes located on Sterling Place between New York and Brooklyn Avenues. She finished her statement by reiterating the corporate owners of the building were disingenuous with their claims of no prior funding opportunities, which includes a previous opportunity from HUD to fix the building.
Andrea Goldwin spoke on behalf of NY Landmarks Conservancy and mentioned an attempt in 2006 to work with the leaders of Hebron. Deborah Young, President of the Crown Heights North Association assisted in identifying resources to help Hebron as far back as 2004. She commented on the adverse impact on historic resources and proposed adaptive re-use of the current structure. Kelly Carroll spoke on behalf of the Historic District Council, and was adamant nothing should be built on the school grounds. She offered harsh critique of the architectural proposal and questioned if site visits were even conducted, as the applicant did not reference a single new building in the neighborhood. It was an urbanistic failure, an unsophisticated response, and was in need of a serious re-evaluation. Mark Bench representing the Victorian Society in America was equally harsh with his comments. Because the current building stands at the center of the lot, this clearly shows intent for a freestanding structure designed specifically for the grounds to be viewed from the north, east, south and west. He was the first to mention the proposed garage ramp, which is located adjacent to the current cathedral; an obvious degradation of essential architectual characteristics. Suzanne Spellen, a longtime board member of the Crown Heights North Association provided an illustration of her feelings when she viewed the Hebron School building for the first time as a new member of the community in 2000. The community's admiration for the historic building was a common theme over the remaining two and a half hours of public testimony.
Between 50-65 online participants remained throughout the afternoon as the public testimony continued until 5:00pm. At the end of the hearing, the LPC chairperson reiterated that written materials submitted to the LPC were distributed to their commissioners for review. This included 950 letters in opposition, and letters from New York State Assemblymember, Diana C. Richardson and New York State Senator, Zellnor Myrie. The chairperson was impressed with the presence and passion from the Crown Heights community. It was a powerful display from our neighborhood community members, homeowners, renters, and business owners. The commissioners unmuted themselves and closed the hearing without taking action. They will resume the public meeting at a future date.
I have to commend the ongoing efforts from the organization, Friends of 920 Park. Their website and online social media presence brought attention to Hope Street Capitals’ insensitive development attempt. Their call to action is impressive and simplified for anyone to participate. Their online petition, explanation of the approval process, and recent news can be found on their website, friendsof920park.com. You can also follow along on social media. Instagram, @friendsof920park and Twitter, @920parkfriends.