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 20, 2020. The LPC did not make a decision about the proposal in October and pushed their response to November 17, 2020. The LPC had already received 950 letters in opposition, a petition in opposition to the project with 6,888 signatures, and a joint letter from the Crown Heights North Association and the Friends of 920 Park. New York State Assemblymember, Diana C. Richardson, State Senator, Zellnor Myrie and NYC Council Member for the 36th District, Robert E. Cornegy, also submitted letters voicing their concern and request for the LPC to deny the application. Even though the LPC received public feedback in overwhelming opposition to the proposal, several committee members needed time to review the proposal and make site visits to the Crown Heights North Historic District. This led to several tense weeks for the Crown Heights community.
On November 17, the virtual meeting had several agenda items, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission approached the Hebron SDA School proposal agenda item in the late morning. They refreshed the audience on the application status and each Commissioner had time to respond to the proposal and public testimony for the first time. The LPC Chairperson, Sarah Carroll, had previously acknowledged the passion and presence of the Crown Heights community during the public hearing in October, but it was now time to hear their opinion on the actual proposal. She started the conversation by asking, “is there opportunity to construct on this site? If so, what is the appropriate size, scale, materials, and composition for the historic district and site?” Vice Chair, Frederick Bland, complimented the architect for his prior career work, which every member of the LPC seemed to be familiar with. The architect had a reputation for completing robust reviews of neighborhood context, then applying that survey of context in a creative way to build new structures. The compliments ended there. The Vice Chair stated the design was inventive, but perhaps too inventive for the context in the Crown Heights North Historic District. The design does not translate to Crown Heights, there is not a single apartment building in the district as long as the proposed structure and the metal and glass is completely inappropriate. Commissioner, Jeanne Lufty, agreed with Frederick that the project is complicated and located in an architecturally diverse setting.The building proposal is interesting, but does not work from a design perspective within the Crown Heights North Historic District context. She visited our neighborhood and was surprised by the consistency of low scale residential structures. Her final comments suggested the design required more angulation and separate structures with materials that work more harmoniously.
The hearing continued with Commissioners, John Gustafsson, Adi Shamir-Baron, and Anne Halford-Smith all agreeing the site could certainly sustain a certain amount of development, but the scale of this proposal did not work. They reiterated the building needed to be scaled down when approaching the townhomes on the northeast side of Sterling Place. The architect mentioned several campus style pavilions as inspiration for the design, but the street wall appearance and continuous mega block structure in his design was obnoxious. Commissioner, Michael Goldblum, was the first to discuss the importance of retaining the south-east portion of the current school because it was clearly designed to remain open with a large bay window, landscaped space and intricate facade. If the open landscaped space was going to be accessible to the public, the proposed development needed to be scaled down for a better view of the existing structure. He emphasized a campus style pavilion design with views of the current school structure and an interior courtyard allowing visual access from the street. The driveway for the underground garage ramp needs to be eliminated or moved because it blocks the view corridor of the cathedral on New York Avenue. The garage ramp was such a shocking design blunder, I was upset it was not mentioned earlier in the hearing.
Commissioners, Michael Devonshire and Wellington Chen ended the discussion by suggesting a pavilion separate structure approach with more masonry and less metal. A break of masses and reducing scaled, creating a campus feel with multiple recessed courtyards and lower roof lines would be appropriate for the site. LPC Chairperson, Sarah Carroll, ended the discussion by thanking members of the community for their participation. It led to a robust review, which could result in an appropriate solution for the site, but the LPC was going to remain unprepared to vote. Most commissioners are comfortable with development on the site, but the scale, massing, siting, views, count of open space in a campus setting and materials need to be revised. The applicant has time to change their proposal and the conversation will continue at a future date.
The Landmark Preservation Committee decision to take no action on the request for a certificate of appropriateness, while recommending the developers come back with a revised design is disgraceful and disappointing. It directly contradicts the Landmark Preservation Committee's responsibility of, “promoting the use of historic districts, landmarks, interior landmarks, and scenic landmarks for the education, pleasure and welfare of the people of the City”. Disregarding the overwhelming opposition and vocal concern of local politicians, along with the shocking design oversights did not convince the LPC to outright deny the application. When the institutions created to protect our historic neighborhoods continue to negotiate with luxury developers, our civic minded communities suffer. The Nostrand Avenue Improvement Association will continue to track the news regarding the development proposal. Please also refer to friendsof920park.com, and their social media accounts for updates throughout December. Instagram, @friendsof920park and Twitter, @920parkfriends.