From the vantage, say, of Court and Joralemon Streets, Brooklyn feels like the big city it is. This is Downtown, with an upper-case D: tall buildings, crowded sidewalks, public monuments, intersecting lives — seasoned with urgency and purpose.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission thinks there’s a historic district here; the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, in fact, which the commission called “the civic, cultural and commercial heart of Brooklyn for more than a century and a half,” when it designated the five-block area on Sept. 13. [The 57-page designation report, as a PDF file.]
Others, including the co-op board at 75 Livingston Street, which is arguably the most distinctive tower in the district, believe the commission has gone too far. They have appealed for relief to the City Council, which has until mid-February to uphold, modify or overturn the district designation. A hearing two weeks ago before the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses lasted more than three hours.
“We rarely have something this contentious,” said Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn, who heads the subcommittee. Though it is unusual for the Council to override the landmarks commission, Mr. Lander said on Tuesday, “I’m not sure where we will land.”
As drawn by the commission, the district runs along the west side of Court Street, between Livingston and Montague Streets, with one to four buildings on each side street. It also encompasses Brooklyn Borough Hall and the Brooklyn Municipal Building.
In its report, the commission said these 21 buildings “remain significant for their historic importance as the heart of Brooklyn’s downtown office district, as notable examples of the skyscraper and tall office building typologies and for their continuing existence in a neighborhood that has undergone radical changes.”
A textbook on early office tower development could be compiled from this little district alone, beginning with the robustly Romanesque 6-story Franklin Building (completed in 1887) at 186 Remsen Street; the 13-story Temple Bar Building (1901) at 44 Court Street, at one time the tallest in Brooklyn, whose Beaux-Arts twin copper cupolas are still a distinctive presence downtown; culminating in the exuberant 30-story former Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Building (1928) at 75 Livingston Street, a tapering tower whose surprising Art Deco and neo-Gothic touches give it a visual interest “equal to that of any skyscraper in Greater New York,” the commission said.
Adding interest is the fact that this was the first large-scale commission for the architect Abraham J. Simberg (1892-1981), who had immigrated from Ukraine at the turn of the century and had previously designed small apartment houses on Ocean Parkway and elsewhere in Brooklyn.
Given its inherent quality and the evident care that has gone into its maintenance in recent decades, 75 Livingston Street would seem to be the most obvious building in the district for designation.
But the co-op board argues that its careful stewardship of the building ought to exempt it from designation and the imposition of a regulatory regimen that could only increase costs.
“We’ve spent a lot of money in trying to voluntarily comply with the spirit of landmarking,” said Ellen Murphy, the president of the board. She told Mr. Lander’s subcommittee that the board had already invested more than $6 million to restore the exterior after prior neglect stretching back 50 years and that the total of special assessments had averaged $62,000 for each apartment.
“We don’t feel we’re getting any real recognition for what we’ve done over 25 years,” Ms. Murphy said in a subsequent telephone interview. “Voluntary compliance doesn’t get you a ‘thank you’ from the city, it gets you a surcharge.”
But the commission is concerned about the future, as well as the past. “We recognize and very much appreciate that the current board is an excellent steward of its remarkable building,” said Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the commission, “but there’s no guarantee its successors will be as conscientious and preservation-minded.”
Councilman Lander acknowledged the conundrum. “The co-op board of that building is committed to its preservation,” he said. “There’s broad agreement that it’s worth preserving. The question is — what are the right tools to do it?”
The Real Estate Board of New York has urged the Council to overturn the district entirely, citing — among other objections — the inclusion of buildings like 200 Montague Street, which was completed in 1960 and “dramatically altered” in 2006 with a new facade. “There is absolutely no public purpose in landmarking buildings of this nature,” the board said in a statement.
Owners took differing tacks at the hearing. Mr. Lander said his favorite moment was when a representative of 16 Court Street asked the council to carve it out of the district. When he inquired about the rationale, he was told that the building next door, 26 Court Street, was sufficiently similar in size and style that the council needed to uphold the designation of only one.