Boerum Hill group wants to expand historic district to protect against mayor’s upzoning

Boerum Hill group wants to expand historic district to protect against mayor’s upzoning
Photo by Louise Wateridge

Call it brown-stonewalling.

A Boerum Hill civic group is mounting a campaign to expand the neighborhood’s historic district in order to protect more of its charming 19th-century row houses from the city’s impending upzoning plans.

Mayor DeBlasio wants to loosen restrictions on the height and shape of new buildings in the area, which the residents worry will encourage developers to raze the handsome old homes and erect new ones — forever changing the character of a neighborhood they have a sworn duty to protect.

“Our job is to preserve the quality of life in Boerum Hill,” said Boerum Hill Association president Howard Kolins, who lives in the proposed extension and presented the expansion plan at the group’s quarterly meeting last week. “We’re trying to extend the protections of the historic district and create a mindset that preserves this unique, century-old housing stock.”

In the current historic district — which encompasses around 250 houses in the area bounded by Hoyt, Nevins, Pacific and Wyckoff streets — any new construction has to conform to local lookbook, and must be okayed by the city’s landmarks commission.

The civic group wants expand the landmarked region further towards Smith Street and down to Warren Street, roughly doubling its size.

The city already rezoned those areas in 2011 to impose strict height caps of five stories — seven stories in a few areas — and rules that new buildings have to sit flush with the neat row-houses that currently dominate the area.

But under DeBlasio’s proposal — part of his grand plan to increase the city’s affordable housing stock — developers will be able to build another five feet, or half a story, higher there. In some patches, they would be allowed to go an extra 15 feet up if they include some housing for old folks.

The new rules would also allow builders to push new houses back from the street — ostensibly to accommodate courtyards and fancier facades, but residents worries the extra leeway will open the door to all sorts of crazy new designs that clash with the existing streetscape.

“It was unclear and left open the possibility that building could be extended in an unknown way,” said Kolins.

The extension is something the group has wanted for years, Kolins says — even without DeBlasio’s changes, there is nothing currently stopping developers from knocking down the old houses, nor replacing them with modern designs and building materials. But the looming legislation has given residents and supporters renewed purpose.

“It does make me nervous that this area doesn’t have landmarked protection” said Councilman Steve Levin (D–Boerum Hill), who says he backs the expansion and will look into providing funds for the research needed to create a compelling case for it to happen.

But it is unlikely that everyone in the area will be so enthusiastic, said one local leader, because owning a landmarked home makes remodeling an expensive pain in the butt.

“Making exterior renovations to properties in historic districts are more expensive,” says Community Board 2 district manager Rob Perris. “There are extra steps that you have … and that inherently builds in more time.”

But the civic group is determined to try. Kolins said the next step is to meet with homeowners in the proposed expansion, then set about investigating and documenting the history of the buildings there, which it will eventually have to present to the local community and the landmarks commission.

In all, he predicts the whole process will take three to five years — roughly how long it took before the city agreed to expand Park Slope’s historic district in 2012.

Meanwhile, DeBlasio also has to win over officials to his plan. The scheme has proven unpopular with the majority of Brooklyn community boards — and those in other boroughs — but Council members will ultimately decide in February.

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill
Preventative steps: The proposed expansion for the Boerum Hill historic district would protect the neighborhood from encroaching developers, say propents of the plan.
Boerum Hill Association