If Cobble Hill thought losing their hospital was bad – they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
A crew of well dressed professionals representing the Fortis Group, presented what seemed like a take it or leave it proposal for residential development of the former Long Island Hospital (LICH) campus at the annual meeting of the Cobble Hill Association (CHA). They presented two plans – both of which include skyscrapers. What they called a Master Plan, which involves zoning changes and the cooperation of the community and the city council, calls for three large towers west of Hicks Street where the parking garage now stands.
If they are unable to get that cooperation, the threat was to build an as-of-right plan. This plan affords them less square footage for residential units. The as-of-right plan that they rolled out places a 44 floor tower on Pacific Street just west of Henry. Everyone in the room understood that this was meant as a threat – dropping a huge tower in the midst of a historic brownstone neighborhood. The rendering they presented was an eye boggling jaw dropper – a huge building casting a giant shadow over Cobble Hill.
In reality, either plan changes Cobble Hill forever.
The Cobble Hill Association was one of the community groups that was part of the lawsuit trying to prevent New York State from closing LICH. The hope was to have the sale made to another hospital group in order to maintain the 155 year-old institution. Despite the best efforts of the community, and much political grandstanding, the sale was made to a real estate developer – the Fortis Property Group.
Everybody in the room knew that the big issue was going to be height. Prior to the Fortis presentation, Laurie Maurer, an architect and CHA member, read a set of general guidelines for the LICH development that she called “Basic Principles”
The biggest of these principles, the one called most important, was that any new building adhere to the 50 foot height limit that the rest of the community, is limited to. This height limit is part of the NYC Landmarks law, which covers most of Cobble Hill, but not the LICH buildings. In 2013, local political representatives, including councilman Brad Lander, requested the Bloomberg Administration extend landmarks designation to LICH, a request that was ignored .
The Fortis people took the podium next. They included architects, consultants and public relations professionals, including Mark O’Luck, once a LICH Regent.
After a pro-forma statement acknowledging the community battle over the LICH closure – Fortis brought out their heavy weapons – a worst case scenario for the community followed by a slightly less worse case. The audience gasped when a slide of the possible 44 story building was display, but seemed equally dismayed at many of the following artist renderings showing the parkland and open spaces that seemed meant to hide the slightly smaller high rises.
Especially unsettling was the Fortis remark about placing three skyscrapers across from the Fuller Pavilion. “We have to put the bulk somewhere,” referring to the large number of luxury apartments planned.
That statement produced a number of boos and hisses, causing the presenter to look annoyed, snapping ‘I’ve got to finish my presentation.”
A question and answer session followed, and at first the audience seemed dazed by the whole thing. The questioning started off asking about parking, but soon progressed to the larger issues.
“Why are the high towers hiding behind trees in the pretty pictures you’ve shown,” asked one resident.
“If you really knew our neighborhood, you would never propose such a thing,” said another.
Referring to the parks that Fortis would build if allowed the zoning change, someone shouted out that the neighborhood already has Brooklyn Bridge Park, “we don’t need your park!”
Because the state legislature was in session, neither Daniel Squadron or JoAnne Simon was present. Park Slope resident and city councilman Brad Lander was.
“You’d be fools not to be very angry about this,” he said. “Let’s be clear – two things were taken out of the neighborhood by the state, “he continued. He was referring of course to a full service hospital, “and to the loss of the low rise historic district.”
Again he said that we’d be fools if we weren’t angry. However, pressed for a solution, he really didn’t have one. Someone asked whether the city couldn’t still extend the historic district to cover the LICH campus. He paused for a very long time, before saying yes, the Mayor could do that, but then explained that would open the city up to an extended legal fight – as the terms of the LICH sale didn’t provide for such a thing.
While saying that in the end it will be the community that will decide which way to go – a rezoning that would move the major towers away from the heart of the community – or a huge tower in the middle of it – he seemed to be urging the former, saying that a rezoning would give more power to the community.
Either way – it is the end of Cobble Hill as we now know it.
Former CHA president Roy Sloane, threw a huge monkey wrench into the mix, asking Fortis whether they knew about a planned reconstruction of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway scheduled to begin at some point.
The Brooklyn Heights Promenade sits above a cantilevered bridge, built in the late 1940’s. That bridge, called a triple cantilever, has long outlived its lifespan and urgently needs to be rebuilt. Sloane’s comment, indicating some inside knowledge, came as a surprise to the Fortis crew, who said they would look into it. Someone else wondered how the area’s infrastructure could support three towers on one side of the BQE as well as the two proposed towers on Pier 6 that is part of the Brooklyn Bridge Park’s plan.
Tonight’s meeting was the first blast in a war that will seemingly go on for some time.