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Open Space in Historic Reform Housing Complex Threatened

brooklyn heights riverside houses complex

MAS testified at the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) yesterday in opposition to a proposal to construct an underground parking garage in the courtyard of an 1890s model housing complex.

Located within the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, the Riverside Houses complex is one of the most important buildings in the history of 19th-century housing in the city. Like many reform housing designs, the landscaping features and open spaces of Riverside are equally as important as the architecture itself. The parking garage would truncate the courtyard’s open space, require the removal of 12 mature trees, and potentially damage archeological resources. MAS testified that this is not acceptable given the original design intent to provide access to light, air, and a healthy living environment for the building’s residents. Due to the number of speakers opposing the project, yesterday’s hearing ran late, and so LPC did not make a decision on whether or not to approve the project.

MAS Testimony on Riverside Apartments, 20-34 Joralemon Street, Brooklyn Heights Historic DistrictSeptember 9, 2008

The MAS Preservation Committee (with one abstention) believes the proposal to construct a garage under the yard of the Riverside Apartments, thereby destroying the courtyard, a significant historic feature of the buildings, is inappropriate to the complex.

The Riverside Houses complex was designed in 1890 by architects William Field & Son along with the project’s developer, Alfred Tredwell White, and is one of the most important buildings in the history of nineteenth-century housing in New York and Brooklyn. Like many reform housing designs, the landscaping features and open spaces of Riverside are equally important as the architecture itself. This is why we find the proposed garage under the rear open space to be inappropriate for this housing complex.

The primary concept of improved housing for the poor and working class was access to light, air, and sanitary conditions. In the Riverside Apartments, this was accomplished by the generous interior courtyard as well as the exterior stairs. Although four of the nine buildings in the complex were demolished in the mid-twentieth century as a result of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, we believe only a small portion of the courtyard was lost and many of the defining features of the courtyard remain, even if they have not been properly maintained over the decades.

By constructing a garage for 100 cars under the courtyard, the current owners will be destroying the apartment’s original courtyard features and will be increasing the pollution in the reform housing. The work will necessitate that part of courtyard be removed for a driveway that truncates the courtyard’s walkways. In addition, the proposed work will require the removal of 12 mature trees that currently help to block the noise and pollution from the BQE. All of these are the antitheses of the original intent of the design – that is, to provide a healthy living environment through increased access to light, clean air, and open space. We therefore believe the garage to be inappropriate to the building and would like instead to see this very important garden improved and restored.

As we testified in May, given the potential archeological resources beneath the courtyard, we are also concerned about the excavation of two-thirds of the courtyard space by approximately 13.75 feet for this garage. This site was used for industry as early as the mid-eighteenth century when it was a brewery before the Revolutionary War. Subsequently, the site was a gin distillery, a candle factory, and a sugar refinery before White acquired the site. Since the garden has been relatively undisturbed since the construction of the Riverside Apartments and since the site lies on the natural high water line, there is a high likelihood that under the garden are significant archeological resources that pertain to the history of Brooklyn industry and the modification of the East River shoreline.