Charge city big lied about Downtown study

The Brooklyn Paper
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City Council members and several preservation groups accused a high-ranking Bloomberg administration official of lying this week in testimony he gave about efforts to determine the historic status of three buildings that would be torn down under the proposed Downtown Brooklyn Plan.

The full council is scheduled to vote on the sweeping property condemnation and rezoning plan on June 28.

At the council’s public hearing on June 8, the chief operating officer of the city Economic Development Corporation, Joshua Sirefman, testified that a dozen historic organizations had been consulted in making the determination that houses along Duffield and Gold streets in Downtown Brooklyn had no connection to the Underground Railroad, as had been claimed by property owners there.

Sirefman testified that neither 227 Duffield St., 233 Duffield St. nor 436 Gold St. met the National Parks Service criteria for preserving the history of the Underground Railroad.

That research, Sirefman said, was partly based on consultations with more than a dozen agencies including the highly respected Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

But Christopher Moore, exhibitions research coordinator for the Schomburg Center, testified on Monday that nobody from the city had ever contacted his organization regarding Duffield Street.

“I have never spoken to any representative of your firm about the possibility or probability of Underground Railroad activity on or near Duffield Street,” said Moore, who is also a city Landmarks Preservation commissioner.

“Had any representative of your firm actually spoken to me, I would have informed them, without hesitation, that the entire length of Duffield Street is one of the city’s most promising areas for the study of the Underground Railroad activity,” Moore said at a land use sub-committee meeting on June 14.

“I am astonished, offended and distressed by the error, or mistake, or disregard for the truth,” he said.

Those feelings were echoed by a number of council members at Monday’s meeting, which had been carried over from last week because of concern over the plight of the buildings.

East New York Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and potential mayoral candidate, accused the Bloomberg administration of outright lying.

“They lied and I don’t think they should get off without some sort of reprimand,” said Barron, a member of the Land Use committee, which agreed to approve the Downtown Plan on the condition that a special hearing on the Underground Railroad claims be held.

“They gave false information to get this project through,” Barron charged.

No date has been set for the Duffield Street hearing and it will likely occur after the council votes on the Downtown Plan.

Council speaker Gifford Miller could not be reached for comment by press time.

Through a spokesman, the mayor declined to comment.

In addition to the Schomburg Center, two other prominent historic preservation organizations, which Sirefman mentioned, told The Brooklyn Papers they were never consulted.

“Nobody doing research for the city ever contacted me,” said Pamela Green, executive director of the Weeksville Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving remains of the free African-American community dating back to the early 19th century.

AKRF, an environmental consulting firm, completed the environmental impact statement for the Downtown Brooklyn Plan as well as the subsequent investigation into ties to the Underground Railroad.

Green said AKRF never contacted anybody in her organization until they received a message on June 16, a day after The Brooklyn Papers started calling about the inconsistencies in Sirefman’s statement.

“That’s the first time I heard from them,” she said.

Bridge Street Church, the first black congregation in Brooklyn and a known stop on the Underground Railroad that housed and fed slaves in its basement, was also noted by Sirefman.

This week, Andy Smith, an assistant to both the pastor and the church historian, Dr. Amos Jordan, said nobody from either the city or AKRF had called the church.

“No one has contacted us about this,” she said, referring to the Duffield Street buildings.

AKRF referred all calls to the Department of City Planning, the agency that co-sponsored the Downtown Plan application along with EDC.

Sirefman, who was on vacation, was not available for comment and EDC officials referred all calls to City Planning.

“We feel the administration did not do the proper research,” said the sub-committee’s chairman, Queens Councilman Tony Avela.
Councilman Eric Gioia, also of Queens, said he was “extremely dissatisfied with the testimony the city brought to us.”

Several locations throughout Brooklyn, including the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, in Brooklyn Heights, and the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, in Fort Greene, are known to have been stops on the Underground Railroad.

The complex rezoning of 60 blocks to make way for office, residential and academic towers and turn downtown into what city and borough officials say will be a bustling, 24-7 hub, would be accompanied by the condemning of at least seven acres of private property, including 130 residential units and 100 businesses.

The Duffield Street properties would be among the first to go to make way for Willoughby Square — the centerpiece of the area’s new office development — and a road to surround it.

The Downtown Plan would encourage the construction of at least 4.5 million square feet of office space, 1 million square feet of retail, 1,000 units of housing and 2,500 parking spaces.

So far, Moore says, he is not impressed with the preservation research the city claims to have performed.

“This is historical analysis that would require real investigative research not just calling people and saying, ‘What have you done?’ You need a real archeologist who might have to do some real digging,” Moore said.

Joy Chatel, who with her husband owns 227 Duffield St., said nobody from the city even visited the building until after she raised a stink at the public hearing last week. Chatel runs a hair salon on the first floor of the four-story brick building

Rachaele Raynoff, a spokeswoman for City Planning, said researchers had visited the outside of the house but “out of respect” for residents did not ring their doorbells.

Asked about Moore’s claim that no one had contacted the Schomburg Center, Raynoff said that the organization had been contacted.
“AKRF has indicated that they had made this contact and there is no reason to doubt that,” said Raynoff. “It is a reputable organizati­on.”

AKRF is also the environmental consultant on the plan to build an Ikea big box store on the Erie Basin in Red Hook and on a plan by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to build a four-towered residential development on a massive assemblage of land at 85 Jay St. on the edge of DUMBO and Vinegar Hill.

Asked about the Weeksville Society and Bridge Street Church’s claims that they, too, were never contacted by the city or the consultants despite Sirefman’s claim to the contrary, Raynoff said the list cited by Sirefman only indicated organizations “AKRF spoke to or made multiple attempts to contact.”

But in his testimony Sirefman said, “Representa­tives from a number of agencies, organizations and institutions were also contacted for any information that they might be able to provide.”

He went on to list the following organizations: the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Brooklyn and Queens Historical societies, the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, the Schomburg Center, the Weeksville Society and the Bridge Street Church.

After holding the vote over twice since last week, the zoning and franchise sub-committee voted 7-0 in favor of the plan. The full land use committee voted 15-0 in favor of passing the plan, pending the Duffield Street public hearing.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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