Traditional Building Portfolio

Save Homes: Unite a Neighborhood

By Spiro Gouras

The Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, is in many ways a microcosm of modern urban America. It consists of an industrial area, which is currently being groomed for new business, two burgeoning immigrant communities and a significant number of artists and young professionals who find themselves priced out of other neighborhoods. Pressure on Sunset Park's historic housing stock is increasing from all sides, and visibly, with additional levels being hastily added to the tops of brownstones, façades and cornices disappearing, and walls being torn down for extensions and ground-floor garages.

That these changes are allowed is shocking to the majority of residents and visitors, who routinely ask, "How is this allowed?" The fact is that the only obstacle to most developers in urban areas is zoning laws, which outside of historic districts are not concerned with aesthetics or history. There is nothing in standard zoning laws to stop a developer from acquiring a row of three-story 1890s townhouses and adding two or three levels to each one and/or removing the façade to make them easier to maintain.

The only defense is landmark designation, which can preserve the historic character of a neighborhood and encourage responsible development beyond its borders. Beyond that, the process itself can unite seemingly disparate groups behind a common goal.

Formed last year, the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee (SPLC) aims to halt the accelerating destruction of the architectural integrity of our neighborhood, whose story is far from unique across America, or even new. The movement has motivated residents to organize, make their concerns heard with developers, and challenge construction proposals through appeals to city agencies. We may not win them all, but this pressure has already made the rapid, easy development that has tarnished our neighborhood more difficult, dissuading developers and realtors who want a rapid return – at any cost.

Many older Sunset Park residents remember the bulldozing of one of our commercial strips in the 1950s and '60s, to widen Robert Moses' Brooklyn Queens Expressway. They also watched as factories shut down and the neighborhood was taken over by the infamous crime spree of the 1970s and '80s, which coincided with preservationists taking note of the affordable historic homes that Sunset Park had to offer.

Formed last year, the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee (SPLC) aims to halt the accelerating destruction of the architectural integrity of our neighborhood, whose story is far from unique across America, or even new.

The three key factors concerning SPLC are the sympathetic reconfiguration of this older housing stock to accommodate more families, the construction of new housing for immigrant groups, and managing gentrification, which puts long-time residents at an economic disadvantage. To begin, we propose a small landmarked district of roughly 600-800 homes that would cover the 6-8% of Sunset Park that contains the best preserved historic housing stock.

While this is a relatively modest footprint, historic districting remains a controversial issue at any scale. As urban living becomes more and more desirable, our overstretched cities must find new ways to accommodate new residents and businesses – that aren't at the expense of historic character. Development is coming to Sunset Park from many angles, and basic zoning laws cannot stem the tide. Early in the winter of 2013, SPLC asked the local community board for support in preparing our application to the New York City Historic District Council's (HDC) "Six to Celebrate" for 2013. We learned in February of this year that we were successful, which means that we receive the group's guidance and are invited to workshops to help us with our application.

As community support at public hearings is key to the Landmarks Preservation Council's (LPC) ultimate decision, we formed a demographically and socioeconomically representative SPLC board, which could best communicate our ideas to every group within the neighborhood. Through monthly meetings, a street fair that garnered almost 1,000 signatures of support, walking tours and many other community events, the message has spread. And through this process, Sunset Park's past and future has begun to overlap.

Residents share stories of the neighborhood's past, their hopes for its future and the features that make them want to be here. Many are torn between sadness that our older homes are disappearing - or being altered beyond recognition - and support for a cause that they fear may price them out. We share with them studies that indicate price stabilization, rather than increases, when an area is landmarked. Simeon Bankoff, executive director of HDC, spoke at one of our meetings and took questions.

As with many sensitive issues, it is open dialog that is molding Sunset Park residents' opinions of the historic districting movement. Before they will give support, long-time residents want confirmation that the committee does not aim to turn Sunset Park into our wealthy neighbor, Park Slope. Yet history repeats itself and with that, there is commonality. Many immigrants and senior citizens moved to Sunset Park when they were priced out of other neighborhoods – as young newcomers can relate.

Having raised awareness, SPLC will hold the first official public hearings on a proposed Sunset Park historic district at the end of this year. Though ultimately, the decision lies with the LPC, we have built a broad base of support. And in doing so, realized that we all have much more in common than we thought.  

Spiro Gouras is an elementary school teacher in New York City. He is a member of the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee and is currently working on a project to establish ties between area schools and the committee.


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