City to close ‘Norah’ loophole and require public hearing for alterations

City to close ‘Norah’ loophole and require public hearing for alterations
The Brooklyn Paper / Stephen Brown

Call it the Norah Jones effect.

The city is planning to amend a rule that governs visible window openings on facades that don’t face the street — a change that may have averted the hubbub caused by the doe-eyed songstress’s designs for her Cobble Hill mansion.

In 2009, the Grammy Award-winning Bedford-Stuyvesant–born singer initially filed city paperwork for permission to perform some “minor” work on her Amity Street home, which is inside the Cobble Hill Historic District.

The work was approved after a public hearing. But then Jones’s architect filed amended paperwork that revealed the singer’s plan to punch 10 windows into the blank side of her home, causing a stir in the tony landmark district because its Greek Revival rowhouses traditionally eschew ostentation in favor of architectural discretion.

That amendment did not require a new public hearing. Hence, the talk of a “Norah Loophole.”

Eventually, Jones compromised to seven windows, but residents were still vexed that she was granted the right to cause window pains in the neighborhood without a new public hearing.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission took notice.

Jones’s application highlighted “a need for the Commission to set a limit on the number, size, pattern and placement of visible window openings on secondary facades,” commission spokeswoman Lisi de Bourbon said.

The law, as currently written, is ambiguous and does not require the commission’s oversight, provided the windows are in keeping with the existing aesthetic.

Like Jones’s smash hit, residents “don’t know why” it took so long — but were heartened by the city’s nascent effort nevertheless.

“We are trying to preserve the Cobble Hill Historic District and all other 19th-century rowhouses in the city so that they look the way they appeared in the early 19th century,” said Roy Sloane, president of the Cobble Hill Association, a civic group. “How can we preserve our landmarks when windows can be put in places where windows were never intended to go?”

But some preservationists want the city to do more to prevent another Windowgate.

The Historic Districts Council, a preservation group, said any alteration to a visible façade should get a full public hearing, because alterations can drastically change a building’s nature.

“Anything that happens on a secondary façade in a historically residential area should come before Landmarks so the community can weigh in,” said Simeon Bankoff, the group’s executive director.

The city has yet to finalize the rule change. And Jones declined to sing to us about her feelings.

And here’s what Jones’s Amity Street home looks like with the windows.
Photo by Tom Callan