With a lawsuit over the inclusion of affordable housing at a residential development site at Pier 6 still pending, another tempest (you decide if it’s in a teacup) is emerging at the northern end of Brooklyn Bridge Park where Toll Brothers’ condo and hotel project known as Pierhouse has recently topped out. At issue: the height of the new building and whether it violates either the spirit or the letter of a 2005 agreement that sought to preserve views of the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. In the opinion of preservationist Otis Pratt Pearsall and the Brooklyn Heights Association, it does. Park management has another take.
A little history. As a member of the Brooklyn Heights Association, Pearsall led the campaign to enact the Landmarks Law and designate Brooklyn Heights as New York City’s first historic district in 1965. In 2005, members of the Brooklyn Heights Association, including Pearsall, sat down with representatives of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (master planner of the park) and the then-leadership of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation to hammer out an agreement intended to preserve or even enhance the existing view of the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade — “a famous view of international importance,” in Pearsall’s words — as future developments rose in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The assurance was critical in earning the BHA’s support for the plan.
Of particular concern at the time was the size of the structure that would replace the National Cold Storage Warehouse at Pier 1. The agreement, never completely codified in the General Project Plan but agreed to in a kind of email handshake, was that the future building at Pier 1 would be limited to 100 feet in height, the approximate height of the old warehouse, and would not include any rooftop structures, such as bulkheads, which had in places risen as high as 12 feet on the roof of the old warehouse. The goal, as detailed in a letter from BHA to park management at the time, was to allow an uninterrupted view of an entire span of the Brooklyn Bridge from the south end of the Promenade. The roof of the new building, like the envelope of the old Cold Storage warehouse, would appear to sit just under the road of the bridge, so passing cars would be clearly visible.
In recent weeks, however, a three-story addition housing a bar in addition to mechanical and elevator equipment has risen atop the hotel portion of Pierhouse at 60 Furman Street. Approximately 30 feet high, the addition, in Pearsall’s words, “bifurcates” the view. So what happened?
First, the bulkhead exclusion never made it into the General Project Plan and then, according to Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, Hurricane Sandy changed the requirements for new construction in waterfront zones. With the change in building codes, a park spokeswoman said, it became necessary to move some of the mechanicals, along with newly mandated backup equipment, to the roof. Current park leadership says it was careful to ensure that the structure adheres to the rules of the General Project Plan, New York City zoning, and the Brooklyn Heights Scenic View District. (The latter was created to protect the view of Manhattan, Governor’s Island, the Statue of Liberty, and a small section of the Brooklyn Bridge west of the Pierhouse Hotel.) The current head of Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp., Regina Myer, was Brooklyn Borough Director for the City Planning Department in 2005 and was not party to the discussions at the time. Myer, who has overseen the development of the 85-acre park into one of New York City’s great attractions over the past seven years, also says that BBP has kept the BHA and the general public informed all along as the new building code necessitated the design changes.
BHA President Alexandra Bowie confirmed Pearsall’s account that the BHA believed at the time “that the mechanicals would be contained within that 100-foot envelope” of the new building. She also noted that when the General Project Plan was published after numerous delays and personnel changes both at the park and at BHA, it “reflected the 100-foot limitation on height but not that the mechanicals had to be contained within that height.” During the project design phase in 2012 and 2013, Bowie said, BHA continued to advocate for the bulkhead to be kept as low as possible to protect the view from the Promenade.
“The bulkheads now rise high enough to block the view of stays and cables,” said Bowie. “We are saddened and disappointed that the new buildings seriously compromise that iconic, world class view.”
As for Pearsall, he told us, “Speaking only for myself I find the realization before our very eyes of the precise desecration that in 2005 we anticipated and earnestly sought to avoid a bitter disappointment.”
Above, an idealized rendering of the Pierhouse hotel and condos showing nothing visible on the hotel roof. Rendering by Rogers Marvel Architects.
Above and below, old photos of the now-demolished Cold Storage Warehouse found on the website of the Bridge and Tunnel Club. The first one shows the road of the bridge visible just above the roof of the warehouse.
At the beginning of the story, the photo of the Pierhouse Hotel under construction shows the three-story addition on the roof that blocks the view of the bridge when viewed from the Promenade.