The historic mansion at 441 Willoughby Ave. might be gone, but local resolve to enact change in the city’s landmarking and development processes, and hold developer Tomer Erlich accountable for his actions, is building.
Around 30 people, including elected officials, gathered outside the former-Jacob Dangler mansion’s empty lot Saturday, calling for LPC Chair Sarah Carroll’s resignation and for the fight to continue against developer Tomer Erlich, who demolished the building in July to the horror of the local community — and many others.
Michael Williams, who has lived on the block since he was a child, said what Erlich and his team did was an act of violence that brought him to tears. Now, he said, the community was left with rats, trash and air pollution, while they waited on the development of a seven-story building.
“We don’t need that,” he said. “We need something for the people in this community. Something that the people can say, hey, I enjoy going to this building here at 441 Willoughby Avenue.”
Local residents ardently organized to protect the circa 1890s building, owned by a local masonic chapter and used as a community facility, when they heard whispers of a private sale in late 2021. Rallies were held, petitioning was done, letters were sent, celebrities were brought into the fold, and it looked likely the French Gothic Revival-style mansion would be saved at last minute. But that didn’t happen.
Willoughby Avenue resident and local business owner Lauren Cawdrey asked those gathered to keep up the pressure on LPC for more accountability about what occurred during the landmarking process, saying explanations to-date didn’t cut it. She also questioned how Carroll could continue to represent the agency after such a large error.
“They’ve gotten away with so much and they take and they take and they take, and I’m just hoping that this time that there will be accountability and for that to happen it requires a lot of people to just keep that pressure going,” she said. Cawdrey also stressed the community wants contractors to face maximum fines when they appear at a hearing next month over the numerous violations committed during the demolition.
In a statement provided to Brownstoner, LPC spokesperson Zodet Negron reiterated that LPC followed “our standard designation process” but “a longstanding technological limitation at DOB led to an extremely rare process error that prevented LPC from receiving information on the status of the project’s pending demolition application at DOB.”
“The developer was therefore able to obtain a demolition permit before LPC was able to hold a designation vote. We have taken immediate steps to prevent such issues in the short term, and as part of Mayor Adams’ efforts to modernize operations at city agencies, the administration is already developing a permanent technology solution that would ensure an error like this never occurs again.”
On top of local residents, members of preservation and community groups including Equality for Flatbush, Preserve Our Brooklyn Neighborhoods and Historic Districts Council, were at the rally in a show of support. Equality for Flatbush founder Imani Henry, who was also involved in landmarking of 227 Duffield Place-Abolitionist Place, said he wanted to “validate everybody’s anger.” “This is exactly how the city does our communities every single day.”
Henry said the struggle for preservation against rampant development was a citywide one, and he wanted all New Yorkers to stand together. “We organize tenants, so we want to know where all these buildings are. We want to make sure all the tenants know about this developer.” Numerous speakers referenced complaints from tenants in buildings owned by Erlich, and said the new group Justice for 441 Willoughby is collecting testimonies to build a case against him to present to the Attorney General.
Sandy Reiburn, from POBN, seconded how the struggle was citywide. “We have to really, really paint the bigger picture,” she said of LPC’s actions across the city. She urged locals to get familiar with a lawsuit filed against LPC by those opposing the Seaport tower in Manhattan. “It really is an indictment of the LPC,” she said.
Meanwhile Frampton Tolbert, the executive director of HDC, said communities across Brooklyn were facing similar problems getting a response from LPC on landmarking attempts. “I just met this morning with a block association at the corner Patchen and Macon, they want landmarking, they want to know what that means, and they’re not hearing back from the LPC.”
“Landmarks is currently designating half a block on Parkside Avenue that has taken them five years to move on 30 houses, that block has been asking for landmarking since 2017 with no response,” Tolbert said. “If other people in this neighborhood, other neighborhoods in the city, reach out to you please have them reach out to Historic Districts Council, we all need to be working together to get the LPC to preserve communities.”
Those speaking at the rally, including elected officials, signaled that on top of increasing the effectiveness of the LPC and landmarking in the city, there needed to be more community involvement in housing development, and that process needed to focus on serving people, not profits.
Councilmember Chi Ossé stressed Saturday’s gathering was “not a NIMBY rally” and the city needed housing, but said the way the Jacob Dangler mansion was demolished was “an act of violence” that “did not care for the needs” of the local community.
“It’s not that we’re against development, it’s not that we’re against housing, we’re against this developer who did not engage with the community, who demolished a community landmark, who demolished a historic building and did not listen to the needs of the people of Bed-Stuy,” Ossé said.
“We’re gonna stand up to him, we will continue to stand up to him so that we can hope he doesn’t build in our community ever again. We’re gonna hold him accountable. And also I can’t leave out the chairwoman of the LPC Sarah Carroll, she needs to resign.”
Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman said there was already plenty of unused housing stock in the Bed-Stuy that should be developed into affordable units. Places like the Dangler mansion were important community building spaces that needed to be protected for that purpose.
She told the crowd she had three goals she wanted their support on: that the DOB be divided into two agencies, one for building housing and one for policing that housing; that locals, nonprofits and city agencies can build a case against Erlich to submit to the Attorney General’s office (who is yet to sign off on Erlich’s purchase of the property, as far as city records show); and that the Bed-Stuy community creates a manifesto on the type of housing it wants to see built, and by whom, and submits that to local government.
“If we do not put our thoughts on paper, our desires, our standards on paper, people will continue to do this to us. They have to know that Bed-Stuy has a set of principles and a standard of living that means that you cannot destroy it, that you cannot come here and shift it, you can’t undermine it, you can’t turn it around — you have to speak for the people.”
State Senator Jabari Brisport added that housing development had to move away from a system “run by the almighty dollar.”
“We have to move to a system where housing is done with the social focus first, where community is put first, not the bottom line…We have to move on to a system where housing is a human right and it’s about the people that live there not the dollars that go into your bank account,” he said.
Brownstoner reached out to Erlich, but did not hear back by publication time.
This story first appeared on Brownstoner.