Neighbors from across Brooklyn Heights came together Wednesday night to hash out ways to convince shareholders of Whitman Owner Corp. at 75 Henry St. to take a pass on a developer’s offer to buy Pineapple Walk and build a 40-story luxury tower there.
According to a letter from the Whitman co-op board, the unnamed developer could pay “in excess of $75 million to the corporation and its shareholders” for the brick topped walkway lined with shops and the Park Plaza Diner. Whitman shareholders will be voting on Jan. 15 on whether the offer should be investigated further.
Many in the overflow crowd, which gathered at 101 Clark St., said the neighborhood was already overwhelmed by unchecked development, including the Pierhouse hotel-luxury co-op complex in Brooklyn Bridge Park and the recently-approved sale of the Brooklyn Heights library, just a block south of Pineapple Walk. They said that streets and subways were congested, the local school was overcrowded and the health care system was overburdened.
The Whitman tower and townhouses at 75 Henry St. were built at the same time as 140 Cadman Plaza West and the Cadman Towers complex (at 101 Clark St. and 10 Clinton St.) as part of a Federal program in the 1960s for middle- and moderate-income families.
While Whitman has left the middle-income program, 140 Cadman Plaza West and the Cadman Towers remain.
The proposed tower would go up south of Whitman’s 75 Henry Street tower and less than 100 feet north of the 101 Clark St. section of the Cadman Towers complex. It would block the view of a quarter of the residents of 75 Henry, and half the residents of 101 Clark St.
Toba Potosky, board president of Cadman Towers, said he would ask Whitman shareholders to imagine looking out their window and seeing a 40-story wall. “Why would you do that to your community?”
He also pointed out that once Whitman sells the site to a developer, it can no longer influence what will be built there.
“You’re not going to be partners,” he said.
Developer dangles big payoff for Whitman shareholders
In its preliminary offer, the developer would build the condo tower and create new retail space; the existing stores would be demolished. Whitman Owner Corp. would retain ownership of the new stores, while the developer would keep the proceeds of the sale of the new apartments.
If Whitman owners approve the sale, tower shareholders could receive from $120,000 (studio owners) to $260,000 (three bedroom owners) apiece, and townhouse owners even more. Shareholders would also be granted perpetual use of any amenities included in the development.
Peter Bray, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said that BHA recognized that Whitman shareholders had to make “a momentous decision for the community and themselves.”
By asking them to vote no, neighbors are “asking them to sacrifice a lot – considerable financial security for them, their children and their future.”
BHA’s object is not to judge the shareholders, he said, but to explain why rejecting the developer’s offer “is the best decision for them and the community.”
Bray said that the community had opposed Robert Moses’ plan in the 60s to tear down all the buildings in the Cadman Plaza West area and sell the land to the highest bidder. That opposition, along with changes in federal and state programs, led to middle- and moderate-income towers interspersed with low-rise townhouses and Pineapple Walk. (Read Schneider’s history of the development, published in the Brooklyn Eagle.)
“Look at the social values embedded in that street,” Bray said. “We ask that the shareholders at 75 Henry acknowledge that what the Brooklyn Heights community stood for in the 60s should continue to be valued today – a place for ordinary New Yorkers, not people who can afford to live anywhere in market rate housing.”
Bray said that there was a “real danger in saying yes – voting to explore the offer — on the 15th.
“It opens a Pandora’s Box,” he warned. Once a developer gets their foot in, “with their money, PR firms, architect’s fancy renderings and promises pulled out of their pockets, it’s all very seductive. You can’t say no at that point, you’re really committed. A yes vote is saying this is going to happen.”
Bray also said that the city, with its “tremendous” push for affordable housing, could work with the developer to seek a zoning variance. “By adding a few affordable units, a 40-story building could get even bigger,” he said. “And the city would not make investments in schools, subways, hospitals.”
Offer ‘can’t be refused’
Residents of all three of the Cadman Plaza West developments attended the meeting. Roberto Gautier, president of the Community Affairs Committee at 140 Cadman Plaza West (also known by its corporate name of Cadman Plaza North), said the developer’s offer to residents of Whitman resembled “an offer by Don Corleone – it’s an offer that can’t be refused.”
Gautier mourned the loss of the area’s small movie theater, hospital and “a library sold to a developer.”
“The High Street and Clark Street subways are packed, our sewage and electrical lines are decrepit, there aren’t enough seats in our school, parking is impossible,” Gautier said. He added that Brooklyn Heights now serves as a “tourist funnel to DUMBO,” and Cadman Plaza West is plagued with non-stop tour buses.
Councilmember Stephen Levin said, “When I first heard about this proposal I was somewhat surprised that there was this amount of development that was as-of-right. I had always assumed that the whole urban renewal area, from 140 Cadman Plaza West down to this building and 10 Clinton, was actually built out to the extent it could be built out.”
There are numerous reasons Whitman owners should turn the offer down, Levin said.
“Because of the impact to the community of the development, because of the impact of the density, because of the light and air impacts. There are very compelling public policy reasons why they would turn down this type of offer,” he said.
“Conversely, the building has shareholders. They are obligated to look to after the long-term financial stability of their building,” Levin added. “So I don’t envy them for the position that they’re in . . . I would encourage them to consider the input of their neighbors.”
More opportunities down the road
Robert Perris, executive director of Community Board 2, said, “When it comes to unused development rights, if you don’t seize an opportunity, those unused development rights remain and can potentially be used sometime in the future, when perhaps infrastructure is improved or other aspects of the environment have changed.
“So without any pressure on 75 Henry/ Whitman,” Perris said, “I just want to point out that this is not probably a one-time opportunity, and if they choose to not exercise their this invitation — if I may call it that — from a developer, there will be most likely additional opportunities down the road.”
Dan Wiley, representing Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, said, “We’re dealing with a lot of development pressure.”
Wiley pointed to the overcrowding at P.S. 8 in the Heights, which was recently rezoned by the city. “Even with the redrawn lines between P.S. 307 in Vinegar Hill and P.S. 8, there’s still incredible growth going on that’s going to overwhelm the schools,” he said.
“The Congresswoman is very interested in Jo Anne Simon’s call for a moratorium on new development in Downtown Brooklyn,” Wiley added, getting a round of applause from the crowd. If we don’t have the infrastructure, how are we doing this?”
Andrea Demetropoulos, co-owner of Rocco & Jezebel for Pets on Pineapple Walk, said she gathered 216 signatures against the sale at her shop in one week. “Even if I lost the store, we still have to think about the neighborhood,” she said. “In this time of selfies, we still have to think about ‘we.’”
Eric Guy, a resident of Cadman Towers, said he was heading a committee which is gathering information about other groups opposed to overdevelopment across the city.
“City policy is being shaped with the influence of big developers,” he said. “If we band together, we can bring collective pressure across multiple neighborhoods.”
Amy Krolak spoke for the 75 Henry St. Action Committee. She said the committee was researching the cost to investigate the developer’s offer, financial questions, quality of life concerns, the effect of construction on the 75 Henry St. tower and garage, and the development’s potential impact on the community.
Sue Raboy from 10 Clinton St., chair of the political action committee at Cadman Towers, said the group will contact elected officials after the Whitman vote. “We want to approach officials with a fact sheet,” she said. She asked for help creating a database of elected officials and their contacts.
While most who spoke said they were opposed, one resident of 75 Henry spoke in favor of the plan, to general boos.
Residents could get “from $120,000 to $300,000. That’s not chicken feed,” said Gil Gleit, who said he has lived in the building for 15 years. “I would be in favor. All we’re doing is looking at the possibilities.”
Following speculation by Cadman Towers and 140 Cadman residents that Whitman might consider selling other properties, such as a parking lot or town houses, Whitman’s board on Monday sent a letter to residents.
There is “absolutely no plan to sell, buyout, or develop the townhouses and Middagh Street parking lot,” the board wrote. “Further, Whitman Owner Corp. does not have the ability to use our town houses for development. The implication that we could use some form of ‘eminent domain’ to remove people from their homes, destroy said homes, and erect a tower is not only incorrect but inflammatory.”
Whitman shareholders will be holding their own closed meeting on Jan. 11.
Other representatives attended, including staff from Sen. Velmanette Montgomery’s office and City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office.
Disclosure: This reporter is a resident of Whitman Owner Corp.
Check back later for more photos of this event.