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Can the Nabe Be Saved?: Preservationists Seek Help In Protecting Significant Sites

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Preservation-minded Fort Greene residents may fear the encroachment of big-time developers in their historic neck of the woods, but they won’t be able to save a stick of their neighborhood if they don’t get their act together. That’s the message a four-person panel comprising two New York City officials, one university professor and a local activist sent to Fort Greene residents attending a Historic District Council forum held at the Brooklyn Music School on Tuesday night. “Brooklyn has been very complacent,” said Andrew Scott Dolkart, professor of Historical Preservation at Columbia University. “There’s a lot here [to protect].” Whether seeking to rein in developers with new zoning regulations or curtailing them through more landmark designations, the old adage of the squeaky wheel getting the grease appears to be the best shot concerned residents have of holding onto the unique character of a neighborhood famed for being home to writers from Walt Whitman to Spike Lee. According to Winston Von Engle, deputy commissioner of the Department of City Planning’s Brooklyn Office, efforts to “downzone” other areas of Brooklyn like Sheepshead Bay and Bensonhurst have only been successful because residents there were able to accurately “lay out their case” against overdevelopment. “The changes we have made have come from grassroots people doing their homework,” he said. Before winning new zoning for a small chunk of their Sheepshead Bay neighborhood, residents there pounded the pavement, taking scores of photographs in an effort to catalogue examples of out-of-scale development. “There are only about 18 of us in the office,” said Von Engle. “We rely on the community to be our eyes.” Aaron Brashear of the Concerned Residents of Greenwood Heights is fresh off his battles with big developers in his bucolic Brooklyn neighborhood, and he, too, emphasized the role of ordinary residents in charting the future of their communities. “You do have a say,” he said. “Work with the community boards and elected officials and you can get something done.” Mark Silverman, Landmarks Preservation counsel, also encouraged community involvement, but warned that efforts to expand Fort Greene’s current Historic District could be a very long and costly endeavor. Fort Greene’s current historic district – roughly bounded by Myrtle Avenue to the north, Gates Avenue to the south, Vanderbilt Avenue to the east and St. Edward’s Street, S. Elliot Place and S. Oxford to the west -- was originally designated back in September 1978. “Becoming a designated district takes time and that’s exactly what we don’t have,” Silberman said. “Neighborhoods are feeling threatened and they are.” Historically significant areas in both Williamsburg and Greenpoint were recently put on the State Historic Preservation League’s “endangered species,” for example. The last major historic district in Brooklyn to be designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission occurred in November 1981. According to Silberman, approximately 1,300 buildings in Crown Heights are now currently being considered for official designation. But even that might never have happened if the right political pressure was not brought to bear. That’s because the Commission will not even pursue designation status if the proposal being made does not enjoy powerful support in the City Council. While the Commission can grant historic district designation unilaterally, the City Council has the power to rescind their decisions. “We won’t spend a lot of time on things likely to be overturned,” Silberman explained. Dolkart stressed that politics is indeed very “important.” “Certain districts have appeared at the top of the pile because of political pressure,” he said. Fort Greene’s own efforts to change the zoning map could see tangible results by the end of the year. City Councilmember Letitia James briefly addressed the forum, thanking Fort Greene residents in attendance for “helping to dispel the myth that preservation was only about protecting the homes of the rich and the famous.” While touting grassroots involvement, Brashear also said that winning the support of those in powerful political office might not always be enough to win the day. “Elected officials are as pro-active as you make them,” he warned. “We live in a democracy,” said Von Engle. “Politics plays a role in everything we do. But so does reason and rationality.” Reason and rationality are two factors many in Fort Greene would like to see more of when discussing what they see as the single greatest threat to neighborhood preservation – mega-developer Bruce Ratner’s massive, skyline altering Atlantic Yards project. “The Atlantic Yards Project will wake a lot of people up,” Dolkart said, adding that the Landmarks Preservation Commission could be doing more to protect historically significant buildings in Fort Greene. For Brashear, he insisted that the preservation movement was not about being anti-development or forcing blanket rezoning on those who don’t necessarily want it. “Some development is inevitable,” he said. “Developers should just be “good neighbors.”

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