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Looking Up Miss Brooklyn’s Skirt

prospect heights brooklyn historic building district survey

Walk along the brownstone-lined streets of Prospect Heights in Brooklyn and you will be forgiven for thinking that you are in a historic district. Located just north of Prospect Park, the neighborhood is filled with Neo-Grec and Italianate style row houses built in the late 19th century. While the neighborhood has seen few changes since it was first developed, a major transformation is coming in the form of the Atlantic Yards project.

Atlantic Yards is a proposal by the developer Forest City Ratner to build 16 towers and a sports arena on a 22-acre site along the northern border of Prospect Heights. If built as planned, Miss Brooklyn, architect Frank Gehry’s name for the tallest tower, would rise more than 500 feet above adjacent brownstones.

Speaking about the neighborhood at a news conference in December, the National Trust for Historic Preservation said that its “fate is of national importance” and that the “massive scale and incompatible design” of Atlantic Yards “would gravely impact the essential historic character and setting of these treasures.”

In the 1970s, the Landmarks Preservation Commission surveyed the area and decided that part of the neighborhood was eligible for designation, but it failed to create a district. With the advent of Atlantic Yards, the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Corporation is concerned that new development pressures will lead to the demolition of brownstones. They are interested in historic district designation and in involving community members in the formation of a district. If an updated case was to be made to the commission, a new survey would have to be organized.

After MAS staff provided some basic training in surveying, including a quick course in architectural terminology, more than 20 local volunteers took to the streets to assess and photograph roughly 1,000 buildings. Still more volunteers undertook the laborious task of entering the information into a database. The database enabled the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analyst at the MAS to map out boundaries for the proposed historic district.

Last month, a comprehensive report including the database, photographs and a proposal for a historic district of more than 800 buildings was submitted to the commission. Intrepid community members continue to work on the designation by researching the history of the buildings, compiling old newspaper articles and historic photographs. With more work ahead, the campaign to designate a Prospect Heights Historic District will remain a priority for the MAS.