Hope to preserve view of Brooklyn Bridge

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Steven Guterman addresses the crowd at the first organizational meeting of a campaign to save the view of the Brooklyn Bridge, as seen from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Photo by Mary Frost.

On Saturday, roughly 70 Brooklyn residents attended the first organizational meeting of a grassroots campaign to save an iconic view once visible from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade — the tower-to-tower arc of the Brooklyn Bridge.

That bridge view is now partially obstructed by the construction of the Pierhouse hotel and condo complex in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Brooklyn Heights resident Steven Guterman, leading the “Save the View Now” campaign, said the goal is to force the developer, Toll Brothers, to stick to an agreement struck in 2005, which negotiated a hotel height limit of 100 feet. This was the height of the Cold Storage Warehouse building which once stood in the same spot.

The unfinished hotel, however, already stands at least 130 feet tall and may rise to 144 feet, he said.

Guterman — a former Wall Streeter who now runs a molecular diagnostics startup — expanded on a phrase he borrowed from Brooklyn Heights preservationist Martin Schneider: “Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, the Empire State Development Corp. and Toll Brothers are stealing an American view from the millions that visit every year,” he said.

By meeting’s end, supporters had split into various Save the View Now working groups, including social and traditional media/PR, political outreach, local outreach and legal strategy.

By late Sunday, more than 1,600 had signed his petition to Save the View at Change.org.

The 2005 deal

In 2005, members of the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA), including noted preservationist Otis Pearsall, hashed out the height limit understanding with park planner Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and past leaders of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPC). Based on this agreement, BHA supported the plan.

BBPC President Regina Myer, however, told the BHA that current park leadership didn’t hear about this agreement until just this September.

Responding to a letter of complaint by BHA, Myer said that BBPC had made it clear during several meetings that “Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), would permit rooftop mechanical equipment to exceed the 100’ height limit provided that it fit the definition of a ‘Permitted Obstruction’ in the NYC Zoning Resolution.’”

She added that on December 21, 2011, “BHA explicitly acknowledged this fact, with no mention of any previous agreements made with the BHA.”

BHA responded, “Unfortunately, our Board did not find anything in that letter that addresses the error BBPC made in disregarding the Park’s commitment to this community for the buildings on Pier 1 to be no higher than 100 feet, including mechanicals–a commitment that was confirmed in writing and in the Final Environmental Impact Statement [FEIS].”

What went wrong?

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View from the Promenade. Photo by Mary Frost.

Guterman said that measures had been put in place in the project plan and FEIS to “protect the views of the park and the view plane of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Harbor from the Promenade. This is what Brooklyn Bridge Park told us. What went wrong?”

He described a number of changes that led to height creep, including the addition of mechanicals atop the roof and FEMA’s raising of the floodplain following Hurricane Sandy.

To illustrate the floodplain change he said, “I’m five-foot seven,” Then he jumped onto a bench and declared,  “I’m still five-foot seven!”

Guterman said the battle would take two prongs — “public outcry and political noise, and the legal route.” The first priority is to stop construction, he said, followed by restoration of the hotel height to 100 feet. The condo portion’s 55-foot limit need to be confirmed as well, he said.

While there are many issues affecting Brooklyn Heights right now, including overcrowding at P.S. 8, controversial development at Pier 6, noise and traffic,  “We’ve got to stay focused like a laser beam on this issue,” he said.

Many issues still need clarification, Guterman said. There are questions about how to measure the height of the structures, how high the condo portion will eventually rise, whether Toll Brothers is bound by the FEIS, and whether the Pierhouse falls outside of the Special Scenic View District.

“We need to get lawyers who know these answers,” Guterman said.

Some attendees expressed unhappiness with a perceived lack of follow-through by the Brooklyn Heights Association.

“I met BHA President Alexandra Bowie yesterday,” Guterman said. “She feels it’s too late to do anything because of the fact they have been silent for so long.” With this, several people in the audience booed.

“This is not a universal sense within the organization,” he added.

A number of BHA members, in attendance as private individuals, refuted the implication that the organization was not involved in the issue.

Susan Rifkin, a governor of BHA and a member of BHA’s Brooklyn Bridge Park committee, said that BHA had written two letters to BBPC, “and it’s safe to say we are exploring any and all options.”

Judy Stanton, executive director of BHA, said the organization had hired a surveyor and consulted an attorney. There is “vigorous discussion at the board level,” she said.

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Guterman jumped on a bench to illustrate a point. Photo by Mary Frost.

The meeting took place at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue on Remsen Street. A synagogue employee opened the sanctuary to the crowd after attendees overflowed the smaller conference room originally set aside for the event.

A statement from BBPC was not available by press time. Please check back for updates.

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