Should Brooklyn Heights Gardens Be Replaced By Houses?

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A Greek Revival-style townhouse pitched to rise on a garden lot on Brooklyn Heights’ historic Grace Court was roundly rejected by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday for being out of character, out of proportion, and “the visual equivalent of a defensive crouch,” according to one commissioner.

At issue was also whether the lot, one of 10 street-facing backyards attached to Remsen Street houses that have provided greenery and open space along Grace Court for more than 170 years, should be developed at all or preserved.

The backyard lot in question at 39 Grace Court was recently subdivided from its house at 36 Remsen Street for new development. It is one of a swath of gardens that make up a large green space facing Grace Court, each privately owned and inaccessible to the public, but nonetheless enjoyed by the community.

Standing more or less in the middle of the 10 lots is an apartment house at 45 Grace Court. Despite a lawsuit from the Brooklyn Heights Association opposing the project, a developer put up the building on three backyard lots in 1963, before the neighborhood was landmarked.

brooklyn heights garden - view of fence with lot behind

The garden lot at 39 Grace Court

Architect Niall Carroll from Ryall Sheridan Carroll Architects and preservation consultant Jacqueline Peu-Duvallon presented the plans for the new single-family house to the commissioners, alongside property owner Nicole Eckstrom.

Eckstrom said she and her husband, Carlos Saavedra, live and work in the neighborhood and the new building would be their family home. The couple is behind the development firm Eckstrom NYC, which is also developing 36 Remsen Street and has more than a dozen projects in Brooklyn.

“We recognize what a great privilege it is to be able to build something new in Brooklyn Heights,” she said, adding she is an FIT design graduate with “the utmost respect for architecture and design. “Part of the reason that we moved to Brooklyn Heights is because of its charm in the houses in the district.”

Carroll and Peu-Duvallon said that the Greek Revival style had been chosen to fit in with the wider historic district, and said the building’s simple brick facade, which incorporates elements such as an oriel and a low brownstone stoop, was in keeping with a number of other new builds LPC had approved in the historic district. They said they would also incorporate the historic fence into the development by cutting it to a shorter size to run along the areaway.

rendering showing front and rear facades of proposed house

The front and rear facades of the house. Rendering by Ryall Sheridan Carroll Architects via NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

But for many community members, the plans don’t cut it. Of the 14 people who spoke at the hearing, both in person and remote, the majority were in opposition.

Some outright opposed any development on the garden lot, fearing the precedent it would set for the other backyard lots on the block, as well as the loss of the green space and the 19th century iron fence. At least six of the 10 backyard lots have already been subdivided from their Remsen Street houses.

Former Brooklyn Heights Association Executive Director Judy Stanton told the commissioners the historic district is diverse and has its own microclimates, and Grace Court and its gardens “form one such microclimate with its own distinct history, character, and exceptional sense of place.”

“This proposal is a land grab, an attempt to monetize the added value of that hyperlocal sense of place, while erasing exactly the character, the defining features that make this site historically significant as a public good, and eroding the historical integrity of the immediate surroundings.”

She added that private ownership of the lot did not “dilute its character or its contribution to the district.”

tulips blooming in the garden at 55 grace court

Tulips in the garden at 55 Grace Court in 2018

people walking by the gardens

The corner of Hicks Street and Grace Court in 2022

A Grace Court resident who grew up on the block said it is known for its gardens, which she called “a critical part of Brooklyn Heights history,” adding they are also a big tourist attraction.

“The partial removal of that historic fence and the development of this beautiful historic garden on the lot truly would be deeply devastating to our block’s identity and history, which is really important to me,” she said.

Others were more open to development, but said given the garden’s historical significance and importance in shaping the character of the block, any new building would have to fit into the garden context and fuse with the surrounding architecture, which speakers said the plans do not.

Former Brooklyn Heights resident and architect Tom van den Bout said he was calling in despite moving to Mexico five years ago due to the significance of the project, and said any development plans should start by acknowledging the gardens and their historic significance and not view the lots as vacant.

“This location requires thoughtfulness, invention, and an eye toward retention of some order of openness and green space. A series of infill townhomes, regardless of their style, would be a failure of imagination and a loss of a green gem in the center of this district,” he said. Van den Bout stressed the importance of preserving the fence in full and having a house that acknowledged it and the garden.

Map showing the location of the proposed development. Image via NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

Currently, he said, the design “struggles with its own scale.” He suggested the applicants embrace the limited-sized lot and look to carriage houses, back houses, garden pavilions, and follies for inspiration. “Simply rotating the massing 180 degrees might be a good start.”

He added the choice of the Greek Revival style was arbitrary and had no relation to the block, or the Remsen Street house the new building would be paired with. “I sincerely hope that a new design will be developed that will celebrate the unique character of the garden space and maintain the special character of this beloved block.”

Grace Court resident Michael Streeter, who’s lived on the block for 10 years, said the gardens and fence contribute greatly to the character of the street. “Almost every day I see people taking selfies here or posing for bridal photos by that gate or by that fence,” he said.

“If any exception would ever be made, I believe it should be for an appropriate proposal that respects the character of the street while adding much needed housing, additional housing, and not a single-family home.”

Both Council Member Lincoln Restler and Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon wrote in opposition to the project, along with 33 of the 43 people who wrote letters to LPC.

brooklyn heights - view along sidewalk of garden lots behind iron fence

protest sing on the fence with information on how to attend meetings and register opinions

Information about the development posted on the fence at 39 Grace Court

However, not everyone was against the plans presented. Liam Egan, who moved to the block two years ago, said while he appreciates the district’s historic quality, the property owners have a right to build housing on the lot, and the city needs more of all types of housing.

“I think that broadly across New York, there is no cohesive unified strategy to prevent new housing. I believe that the residents of New York do want to see New York grow, want to see us have more housing, and want to see rents decrease.”

Community Board 2 also recommended approval of the plans, so long as the developers work with the community, Brooklyn Heights Association, and LPC staff to finalize the designs.

While commissioners were also somewhat divided about whether the lot was appropriate for development, all said the design needed a lot of work.

rendings showing side and front facades of proposed house

Rendering by Ryall Sheridan Carroll Architects via NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

Commissioner Michael Goldblum said by applying the LPC’s rules consistently, he thinks the lot is appropriate for development, but perhaps the situation would be different for the church-facing garden lots on the corner of Grace Court and Hicks Street.

He agreed with speakers who said any new development should reflect the uniqueness of the site and, while empathizing with the architects over whether to be bold or conservative in the face of undoubted opposition, said going with the latter had proven to be a mistake. “It’s got the visual equivalent of a defensive crouch.”

“The first image that popped into my head when I looked at this and heard the discussion was the Rockefeller Guest House by Philip Johnson upside down,” he said. Given the small lot size, flipping the design, which is opaque on the bottom and transparent on top, and having openness on the ground floor would allow the house to engage with the garden on all exposed facades, he said.

“I think there’s lots to do. I think that the applicant should definitely explore getting out of their defensive crouch and trying something a little bit more site specific.”

renderings of rear and roof views of proposed house

Rendering by Ryall Sheridan Carroll Architects via NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

Commissioner Stephen Chu added that the house and garden seem caged in and don’t take advantage of the surrounding beauty, or contribute to it. “It seems to me that the design is very insular and inward looking,” he said.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Fred Bland said while he thinks the proportions are off in the design, the overall development isn’t appropriate for the site.

While he said he fully recognizes the city’s need for more housing, and he supports that, “I also reject the notion that building one single-family house on this property is in any way helping to fix the problem of housing in New York City.”

LPC chair Sarah Carroll closed the discussion saying a consistent thread from commissioners, whether they think development on the site is appropriate or not, was that they don’t support the design approach taken.

“Should you wish to continue and find a path forward, I think that any new building would have to be very unique, a site-specific response to this particular site,” she said. The commission didn’t take any action on the plans, and Carroll said the applicants are welcome to present again when they are ready.

view along grace court showing adjoining brick apartment building and the lot next door

Developer Eckstrom lists more than a dozen projects on its website, all in Brooklyn, including townhouse condo conversions. In February 2023, via LLCs, the developer purchased the house at 36 Remsen Street for $7.5 million and its backyard at 39 Grace Court for $500,000, with Carlos Saavedra listed as a signatory, city records show. In August, the two tax lots were made into one zoning lot.

The developer is in the process of converting the 19th century townhouse at 36 Remsen Street Street from 10 units to four, with Saavedra listed as an owner on permits. The property was listed for sale for $17.25 million about a year ago with renderings showing the interior design but was taken off the market.

So far, no new-building permit application has been submitted for 39 Grace Court. PropertyShark shows Saavedra is linked to a handful of other Brooklyn properties, including 109 Willow Street and 170 Clinton Street (which is currently being converted from 10 units to two).

In recent years, LPC has approved other infill projects on vacant or green lots that have been met with community backlash, including a large development on the Hebron School site in Crown Heights and a new townhouse on a Hancock Street site in Bed Stuy.

[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]

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