Ocean on the Park Landmarking: The Details

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We gave you the short version yesterday morning, but there’s more to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s vote yesterday to approve the Ocean on the Park Historic District in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. In addition to the obvious architectural merits, the row is notable for a couple of historic reasons: (1) the land it’s on was owned in the mid-17th century by Jan van der Bilt, the progenitor of the Vanderbilt family in America; (2) one of the buildings, 193 Ocean Avenue, was owned and occupied by Charles Ebbets, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and developer of Ebbets Field. Those of you who’ve been following along know that the designation of the twelve 19th-century row houses was a rocky process, with two of the owners fighting the effort and one City Council Member initially blocking but then acquiescing to the landmarking. The final chapter played out yesterday at the LPC hearing, when the owner of 189 Ocean Avenue made a last-minute plea to be left out of the district. Most interestingly, the Commission held a separate vote to calendar the adjacent lot at 185 Ocean Avenue as a possible addition to the district; this is notable because a developer already tore down the beautiful old house there and started to build a new development only to run out of money in the process. As Brooklynista wrote in the comments of yesterday’s post, “Indeed, what the LPC did today was major because it signaled to preservationists and developers alike that the swinging of the wrecker’s ball may not necessarily mean the struggle to preserve a historic site has been forever lost.”
BREAKING: Ocean on the Park Houses Landmarked [Brownstoner]
Ocean on the Park: Crisis Narrowly Averted [Brownstoner]
Councilman Threatens Ocean on the Park Historic District [Brownstoner]
Big Day Coming Up for Brooklyn at Landmarks [Brownstoner]
LPC Moves Ahead With Two New Historic Districts [Brownstoner]
LPC to Consider Ocean Avenue Historic District [Brownstoner]

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  • Curious – what were the owner of 189′s objections?

  • I’m still wondering what relevance to the historic district designation the shared driveway had in the mind of the owners of 189. They apparently brought it up at the LPC hearing. Can anyone clarify?

  • I know people get tired of me harping on the importance of preservation, but this story is textbook case in point. Our neighborhoods are made up of layers of history, architectural and cultural. Very few of us know all that much about our own neighborhoods, and next to nothing about those we don’t have a connection to. If one cares about such things, it is fascinating to find out who built or designed your house. When you find out they were a well regarded architect, or the house was built for someone significant, or for some specific reason, such as a present for a child’s marriage, or any other interesting tidbits, it adds a sense of time and place, and for many, a greater obligation to be a steward of the building, so it can be passed on to future owners, future generations.

    In this case, the Vanderbilt and Ebbetts connection, the importance to Bklyn architectural history of the Axel Hedman and Holmgren designs, the uniqueness of a row of homes along that stretch of Prospect Park, and their visual impact as one goes up Ocean Avenue, the individual care and preservation by the homeowners, most of whom have been there over 20 years, all contribute to the worthiness of protection. That’s what landmarking is supposed to be about.

    Ironically, the destruction of 185 was the catalyst for LPC to move on this. Their move to calendar the lot, upon investigation of the permit held by the developer, is a bold move for LPC, and may make the landmarking of a small row of houses into a household name in preservation circles, and usher in a more aggressive and proactive form of preservation in this city. I am fully aware of the screaming and outrage that will cause, and expect to see some of that here. In the meantime, kudos to the LPC, and congrats to Brooklynista and the Ocean on the Park homeowners.

    Oh, at the same hearing, the LPC unanimously voted to proceed with Phase II of the Crown Heights North Historic District, adding another 800 plus buildings to the 400 plus already designated. We’re getting there. Phase II includes some of the best of a great architectural legacy, including the houses of Bergen, Park Place, Prospect Place, Sterling, St Johns, Lincoln Place and some northern parts of Eastern Parkway.

  • Whoops, just saw the separate post on CHN.

    Hopefully Brooklynista, or Bob Marvin will comment on the details of 189′s case. I know the basics from hearsay, but don’t want to get details wrong by commenting, and getting my facts mixed up.

  • East New York

    Yes, I wondered about 189′s objections as well.

  • Seriously stoopid name for this “district” — you’ve got to admit that.

  • Well, one obvious objection is that HD designation sort of throws a wrench in their maniacal desire to sell their house and mega FAR rights as a teardown to a developer for big bucks. It’s the driveway objection that I don;t get.

  • To answer these questions about #189′s objections and the issue of the driveway would take all day and fill a book! Problem is, the objections are numerous and the way they are framed has changed several times. Bottom line? Lots #185 and #189 are adjacent to each other and used to be occupied by two brick houses that were architectural companions and which share a common driveway. With the purchase and demolition of #185, the developer has now filed plans to erect an 8 story apartment building, of 20+ units, and which will have a section that cantilevers over the common driveway. The owners of #189, horrified by the prospect of these rather significant changes, either want to stop the developer from executing his plans or, alternatively, they want out of their house and lot completely. Thus, for over a year now, they’ve been in litigation with the developer while simultaneously hoping for an exit strategy based on sale of their property as a development site. Meanwhile, the combo of the bubble bust and litigation is what has likely stopped the developer from moving forward with his plans and the owners of #189 have had no takers for sale of their property. Of course, yesterday’s action by the LPC to include lot #189 in the new HD pretty much extinguishes any lingering hope they may have had on selling their lot to a developer.

    The owners of #189 have raised other objections to inclusion within the new HD, including the one voiced most strongly yesterday at the LPC meeting. The gist of it is that they have a fear of increased liability for the common driveway if the apartment building is erected. Honestly, I do not fully understand that argument. Seems to me they would have the same liability whether their property is included in or excluded from the HD. However, I’m not confident enough in my understanding of that claim to even try and explain it here. Maybe Bob or someone else can do that better.

    MM: Congratulations to CHNA on yesterday’s action by the LPC to move forward with Phase II landmarking. The testimonies in support of the effort were inspiring (especially yours). And, I could so identify with the enthusiasm and pride of the homeowners who were there to stand up for their community. Go Crown Heights!

    Tybur6: You mean to say you really don’t like the name Ocean on the Park? Aw, shucks. We’re sooooo disappointed! You know, the name could have been Ocean BY the Park. Would you have like that better? :-)

  • East New York

    “The gist of it is that they have a fear of increased liability for the common driveway if the apartment building is erected.”

    That would be significant if it proved to be accurate. Perhaps their lawyers have advised them this is the case. It’s worth being sure about. Thanks Brooklynista for your post.

  • Brooklynista- my congrats- your hard work and passion finally got the job done! It’s such a lovely row of houses, and the view of the park is such a plus. Enjoy!

  • Hard to see how HD designation would have any impact on shared driveway liability. My personal view, having heard many stories from credible people about those folks, is that they are completely off their rocker.

  • This is great. But I’ll admit I’m confused about also asking for landmarking on #185. It’s hard to voice support one way or another not hearing what it would mean and what would be allowed to be built if it’s landmarked. What would be the rules or guidelines on that? Would an owner have to build a reproduction brick or limestone one or two family house? That doesn’t seem realistic financially for somebody and I’m not sure a empty, blighted lot is preferable over an 8-unit condo if it’s done tastefully.

  • Brooklynista — I just find it very strange that these 12 buildings have been given a separate “district.” It’s 12 buildings on a block in a bigger neighborhood… exactly ONE BLOCK separating it from “Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.”

    These are great example of history and it’s excellent that they have protection… but inventing a ridiculous name that sounds like a vacation destination for a “district” comprised of 12 buildings. That’s stoopid.

    Yeah, it’s a small thing — but small things matter when it comes to completely political and emotional decisions like expanding landmark protection. Why can’t you just list a *building* or set of buildings rather than creating a ridiculous nomenclature for them.

    This reminds me of the Eberhard Pencil Factory “District” or the Fraunces Tavern Block “District” on Pearl Street.

  • tyburg- I love the names. I think it brings a focus on what makes this group so special. Same with the Eberhard district, or Fraunces tavern district. It’s not stupid- its labeling.

  • The original proposal for landmarking was for all 13 houses, from #189 to #211. When the developer torn down #189, the goal then became to save as much of the rest of the row as possible. If not, we feared there would be a domino effect. Lot # 189 would go to another developer and be torn down. Then, what would happen to #191? The owner of that house, who has been solidly in favor of landmarking all along, also has admitted that he might change his mind if his house were to become the end house on the row. And so on.

    Further, there are architectural and historical arguments which support keeping what is left of the row intact as much as possible. From a historical perspective, it’s important to note that the entire plot of land that comprises the HD (as well as the now-excluded lot #185) was purchased by the developer, Charles Reynolds. Thus, since the turn of the century and for more than 100 years now, the row has stood together as a distinct residential development which borders the Park. Architecturally speaking, the preservationists reject the tendency of some to make the distinctions between the “worth” or “beauty” of the limestones vs. the brick houses. Instead, the argument is one of context. Or, as the LPC designation report states:

    “This row of houses, with their uniform 30-foot setback, reflects an earlier age of development in Brooklyn and forms a unique enclave within a block densely occupied by apartment houses.”

    BTW, the landmarking of the abandoned lot at #185, as others have noted, would not prevent future development of that lot. (I, for one, would love to see a combo community garden and underground/low-rise, contextually attractive parking facility go into that space!) Certainly, an ambitious, wealthy individual could create a fantastic, single family home on Prospect Park that fits within the context of the row. A lovely B&B or corporate condo could go there as well. (And, no, such structures would not have to be reproductions!) All landmarking would mean is that any new development going into that space would now have to satisfy not only the DOB’s rules but also the LPC’s archtectural/contextual critera. The record shows that feat is not unsurmountable and that it’s been achieved countless numbers times, all over the City.

  • Tybur6, I think maybe you are getting hung up on the term “district.” Of course, it’s not a “district” like the garment, flower, or or meat-packing “districts.” Nor is its comparable to much larger landmark “districts” in other residential neighborhoods. However, especially in the cases of “micro-districts,” like Ocean on the Park, it’s just a simple identifier, or as Bxgirl notes, a label for a specific area that is landmarked. Certainly it’s a much quicker, easier point of general reference than “Lots 189 to 211 on Ocean Avenue, between Lincoln Road and Parkside Avenues, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York.”

  • Not really Brooklynista… 189 through 211 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn are landmarked buildings. That seems pretty clear.

    “Ocean on the Park” is meaningless unless you know if means 189 through 211 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, since even “Ocean Avenue on the Park” contains a lot more than just 12 buildings.

    Garment District, Flower District and Meat-Packing District actually *do* have meaning! They refer to the part of the city where those activities take/took place!!! The Historic District of Brooklyn Heights makes sense… it’s the historic part of that neighborhood! Ocean on the Park is not a historic district because (1) “Ocean on the Park” is not part of a greater neighborhood of the same name, and (2) it’s TWELVE freakin’ buildings.

    You say “district” to mean a specific AREA, not a building. If a town has two banks, you wouldn’t call those two building the “Financial District.”

    Yes, I’m hung up on this because the naming conventions in this town are effing ridiculous.

    Realtors will not be able to say these twelve buildings are in a “Historic District” — which is an exaggeration at best and really more like a lie. These TWELVE buildings have been landmarked… the buildings are on a list. There IS NO DISTRICT! I couldn’t even justify calling this a landmarked “area.” It’s one side of one block!!

    Just like the Pencil Factory (which is baffling to me in itself) — This is a few buildings! There is no DISTRICT. In fact, the landmarking doesn’t even cover the entire block… at least the Fraunces Tavern Block “District” does that.

    The Landmark Commission could probably make their jobs a lot easier if they gave up on this ridiculous “district” methodology and looked at buildings. In fact, and as a side note, I have a serious problem with the restrictions put on new construction within one of these districts. Luckily, “Ocean on the Park” is barely visible on a map… so it won’t run into these issues.

  • >> Realtors will NOW be able to say…

  • Gee, I’m sorry this is so upsetting for you.

  • Tybur6,

    The homeowners requested that their houses either be landmarked as an extension of the existing Prospect-Lefferts Gardens Historic District OR, if that was not feasible, as an independent HD. The LPC, not liking non-contiguous districts, chose the latter. IMO either would have been satisfactory, although I’m kind of pleased to be able to say that PLG (like Ft. Greene) now has TWO Historic Districts.

  • My friend Brooklynista says that I might be able to explain the relevance of the owners of 189′s liability concerns to landmarking. She gives me too much credit; it’s beyond me and, from hearing the Landmark Commissioners discussion yesterday, I think it’s also beyond them.

  • BTW Tybur6, the NYC Landmark Law allows for individual landmarks or historic districts, which comprise more than one building(as well as other categories like scenic landmarks and interior landmarks, but that’s besides the point). It is what it is. The Ocean on the Park HD is no more a “lie” than the Filmore Place HD, or the Stone Street DD, the Manhattan Ave. HD, or the Stockholm St. HD (or, for that matter the Park Slope, or Greenwich Village HDs) There are large and small Historic Districts; why be so hung up on terminology?

  • traditionalmod,

    IF the lot at # 185 is eventually landmarked, the owners would not have to build a reproduction brick or limestone one or two family house? To give an example, when a house in the Greenwich Village HD was destroyed in a Weatherman bomb-making accident in the late ’60s (early ’70s?) the replacement building was quite modern, with some touches that tied it to the other buildings in the row. It’s even conceivable that an apartment building could be built, but there’d be some level of aesthetic review which, IMO, would be a big plus for the neighborhood.

  • I think the homeowner who objected to landmarking might find that it actually works in her favor, if in fact it stops the developer from building a cantilevered monstrosity.

  • Don’t hold your breath hoping for something that approximates the design of the existing homes with respect to that empty lot. Landmarks doesn’t like historicizing repos. There was a lot of flak about this several years ago regarding a lot with a derelict 1950s home on tony Albemarle Road in PPS. They would not accept a “Victorian” style home, even if others in the nabe felt if blended well with the other turn of the century properties. The 50s home had to stay, bizarrely, and the very undistinguished period architecture, preserved. House has been for sale for years now – and no takers.

  • Bob, that’s my point. Expect landmarks to approve a contemprary design of note – even if neighbors don’t feel it’s a good fit for the existing period aesthetic.

  • The neighbors are not stuck on looking for something to match the “existing period aesthetic,” Architerrorist. (Speaking for myself, I know that some of us can actually appreciate tasteful contemporary design.) Just want something that fits within the context of our setback and 3-story structures. At this point, we’re pretty resigned to the fact that it will likely to be an apartment building — as opposed to another single family house. But, for sure, when it comes to meeting contextual expectations, an 8-story, 20+ unit, finger style apartment building (probably with Fedders boxes poppping out all over) and with a wing that is cantilevered over the driveway ain’t it! :-)

  • Whatever landmarks might eventually approve for 185 (if it’s actually landmarked) is likely to be better than the condo planned for that lot a couple of years ago. We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves though since there doesn’t seem to actually be anyone with the wherewithal to build on that lot. It’s been for sale for some time with no takers.

  • So true, Bob. So true. Whole lot of “ifs” between here and “there.”

  • I don’t mind good contemporary design… But the truth is, it would disrupt the uniformity of the new historic district. Whether or not it would detract from the architecturally integrity is a matter of personal taste (and owners of the other homes may be wary of what that will do to home values). Agreed, it’s a relatively minor point after a big win – no horrible, cheap multi-unit dwelling, but if I was one of the home owners (and I would have been all for landmarking), I would be pushing hard for the garden space.

  • You have a good point Archterrorist. I’m not one of the Ocean Avenue homeowners, but I did help with this designation (and, for that matter with the 1979 PLGHD designation). For now, let us bask in the glory of a big win, as you rightly put it. Speaking just for myself, I’ll think about that tomorrow :-)

  • Cheers, Bob – and congrats.

  • I’m curious – why were the two end houses (one now razed) built in a different style than the rest of the terrace? Were they constructed later? I thought someone posted above that the land all the homes occupy was purchased by the original developer (at the same time?). Just an architectural history buff question.

  • Thanks Brooklyista! I have seen photos of the neighborhing stretch of Ocean, pre 1910, which show the free standing, Victorian wood-frame homes.