Sunset Parkers ‘Minerv-ous’ over building push

The Brooklyn Paper
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On a recent steamy morning, the goddess Minerva was given her annual wax.

Battle Hill in Green-Wood Cemetery was quiet as an international crew of volunteer preservationists set out to coat (using paintbrushes) the 9-foot-tall statue in a protective sheen of Butcher’s Bowling Alley Wax.

But for Sunset Park neighbors watching the preservationists work, the morning’s sultry peace felt more like a pause in a storm of construction and demolition that has left them with 311 on speed dial.

Those concerns have centered on plans for a five-story condominium at 614 Seventh Ave., between 22nd and 23rd streets, that neighbors fear will obstruct the historic gaze in which the Battle of Brooklyn monument and her sister across the harbor, the Statue of Liberty, are locked. (See previous story.)

There is also concern that the condo design put forth by Scarano and Associates Architects will open the floodgates for developers rushing to build in Sunset Park before a down-zoning proposal can be approved as has been done to the north, in Park Slope, and to the south, in Bay Ridge.

Those neighborhood-wide zoning changes have left the area between 16th and 65th streets, west of Eighth Avenue, vulnerable to the development push, neighbors worry.

[Community Board 7 will hold a public hearing, followed by a special board meeting, on Wednesday, Aug. 24 at 6:30 pm at the board office, 4201 Fourth Ave., on the proposed “South Park Slope Area” rezoning, which encompasses the portion of the neighborhood from 15th to 24th streets, between Prospect Park West and Fourth Avenue.]

Meanwhile, Scarano and Associates, seeking to appease the concerns over the historic stare between Minerva and Lady Liberty came up with what some see as a bizarre compromise, keeping most of the bulk of their building, and the same number of units, but providing a setback that allows the two statues to maintain their gaze across the harbor.

So far only seen on a digital rendering provided by the DUMBO-based architects, the new design troubles Green-Wood officials and neighbors.

“Its not that we think there has been deliberate deception but obviously an architect is concerned about preserving favor for their project, and we, obviously, are concerned about our view,” said Richard Moylan, president of the historic cemetery.

After discussions last month with Moylan and Borough President Marty Markowitz, Scarano agreed to appease doubts about the rendering by putting up a scaffolding model or “mockup” on the site before moving forward with the final design — a recommendation often made by the city Landmarks Preservation Committee.

But plans to begin construction before completing the mockup, add urgency to Green-Wood’s worries.

“We have no recourse once the foundation is in,” said Moylan.

Neighbors concerned about view spoilage say that construction at the site, like at other sites in the area, is being rushed by developers who want to beat a rezoning process expected to expand Park Slope’s R6-B contextual zoning into this northern fringe of Sunset Park. The rush, they say, comes at the expense of careful building.

“It’s a natural occurrence,” said Department of Buildings spokeswoman Jennifer Givner. “If developers know they can build now, but they can’t build later they are going to try and beat the clock, as they say. It doesn’t make it right, but it does happen.”

Scarano and Associates disagree with those who say that laying the foundation will prohibit later revisions to the building’s roofline. If the mockup shows the redesign as inadequate to preserve the skyline, “We can still make final adjustments in the floor-to-floor heights on the levels below the setback to reduce the height at this critical area,” said the firm’s principal architect, Robert Scarano.
In an e-mail to The Brooklyn Papers, Scarano noted that the firm believes it is “correct with the geometries since all the math was done by an independent, third-party surveying company.”

Yet the redesign continues to provoke doubt from neighbors. “The design is not a cutout or a pedestal for Liberty, it’s a roof deck,” said neighbor and local activist Aaron Brashear. “As soon as a barbecue or a picnic table goes up there, the view will be gone.”

While reluctant to praise Scarano until the mockup is complete, Brashear noted the orderliness of the work site, pointing out that the construction team there has been a lot more attentive to neighbors than other developers in the area.

Working out of his home studio last week, Brashear heard keenly the sound of falling debris when workers with axes in hand and no protective gear took to the roof of the house next door to his, at 324 22nd St.

“I could hear them just chopping away and things just falling,” he recalled.

The Department of Buildings logged six complaints by that afternoon. By the next day, the city had shut down the site for unsafe conditions and within a week, a second site in the neighborhood was shut down as well, this one slapped with a stop-work order after inspectors found that holes in the construction fence had left the excavation at 639 Sixth Ave. open — a danger to children in the neighborhood.

Both sites can be found on a spreadsheet titled “Street Knowledge,” that Brashear and friends have circulated on the Internet. A comprehensive listing of potential demolition sites in the area, their existing structures and any notes on permits or deeds, the document is one attempt by residents to track what is going on around their homes — and when.

“We’ll be waiting, “ said Brashear, “At this point we feel like we might not be able to stop [the construction] but we are watching.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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