The city’s need for affordable housing and services for the mentally ill should not influence the fate of landmarked buildings, according to a Brooklyn judge.
Those are not among the criteria the Landmarks Preservation Commission is legally mandated to consider when deciding whether to give developers permission to make changes to landmarked properties, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Katherine Levine ruled earlier this month.
The case in question concerns the Dean Sage Mansion at 839 St. Marks Ave. in the Crown Heights North Historic District. In 2016, LPC approved a plan from the property’s owner, the Institute for Community Living, to construct a new building that would have occupied more than half of the mansion’s garden.
The commission’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious and based upon an error of law,” Levine wrote in an April 2 decision.
She overturned the preservation agency’s approval of a plan to develop 70 apartments on the site — a mix of supportive housing for mentally ill adults and affordable units. Her ruling vacated a commission-issued certificate of appropriateness, a document property owners must obtain before altering the exteriors of landmarked buildings.
The judge also ruled that the commission must hold a new hearing about the Dean Sage Mansion project.
She said in her decision that cutting the size of the garden by 60% would obscure the eastern facade of the house — so it would no longer look like a stand-alone mansion.
Most mansions in the landmarked district were torn down a long time ago, making the Dean Sage Mansion’s contribution to the neighborhood’s historic character especially important, Levine wrote.
What factors are within Landmarks’ jurisdiction?
Levine’s ruling was a victory for community groups and neighborhood residents who’d filed suit against LPC and the Institute for Community Living. Those groups were the St. Marks Avenue Independent Block Association, the Bergen-Kingston Block Association and the Crown Heights North Association.
The case is an Article 78 proceeding, which means it was brought against government agencies. In this type of suit, the plaintiffs are called petitioners. The defendants are called respondents.
An important architect, Russell Sturgis, designed the High-Victorian Gothic mansion. Dean Sage, who made his fortune in the lumber industry, constructed it in 1870.
The commission erred in its decision-making by considering factors outside its legally mandated jurisdiction, Levine decided. In her ruling she cited landmarking law, which instructs the commission to consider “the factors of aesthetic, historical and architectural values and significance, architectural style, design, arrangement, texture, material and color” as well as “other pertinent matters.”
The phrase “other pertinent matters” should be narrowly interpreted, the judge said in her decision.
“It would be absurd and contrary to the raison d’etre of the [landmarks law] to give the [LPC] carte blanche to consider, as pertinent to its determinations, factors that did not enhance and protect and perpetuate these buildings such as the LPC’s finding that it was socially desirable to build more housing for the developmentally challenged and/or the economic and fiscal constraints of developers of such projects,” Levine wrote in her ruling.
But in public hearings, commissioners “lauded the social and economic values espoused by the Institute for Community Living in expanding its mission at the [Dean Sage Mansion] site,” Levine wrote.
The Institute for Community Living is ‘very disappointed’
The city is considering whether to appeal Levine’s decision.
“The [Landmarks Preservation] Commission thoroughly reviewed this proposal and determined the proposed changes will not detract from the historic and architectural character of the mansion or the Crown Heights North Historic District,” City Law Department spokesperson Nick Paolucci told the Brooklyn Eagle.
“The Commission stands by its approvals and is evaluating its legal options, including whether to appeal this court ruling,” he said. Law Department attorneys represented LPC in the case.
A spokesperson for the Institute for Community Living told the Eagle the organization is “very disappointed” by Levine’s ruling, “which disregards the long-held principle that the Landmarks Preservation Commission is an expert panel whose decisions should be accorded deference.”
The Institute is “considering all options for moving forward and remains fully committed to continuing with our mission as a nonprofit to help New Yorkers lead healthier lives,” the spokesperson said.
“We went above and beyond to ensure the project was in sync with the historic district requirements and met with various community organizations to take questions and suggestions,” he told the Eagle. “We allocated considerable funds to fully restoring the mansion, which will benefit the entire community and enhance the historic district.”
The spokesperson said there’s a “great and growing need” in Brooklyn for services the institute provides for people living with mental illness, substance abuse issues and developmental disabilities.
“Our plans for the Dean Sage Mansion, where we have provided services since the late 1990s, would not only have allowed us to continue to provide support services to New Yorkers, but also created much-needed affordable housing for many more,” he said.
‘Wrong compass’ for the commission
Community groups took the Dean Sage Mansion case to court to compel Meenakshi Srinivasan, who was then LPC’s chairperson, to “reassess her priorities in fulfilling the agency’s mission, which is historic preservation, not housing,” Ethel Tyus of the Crown Heights North Association told the Eagle.
“We felt vindicated for expending the money and time to closely examine what was actually happening within the inner workings of the Landmarks Preservation Commission,” she said.
“The former Chair brought the wrong compass with her from her prior positions with the Board of Standards and Appeals and the Department of City Planning.”
The community groups want the Dean Sage Mansion to be “preserved and celebrated for its design, its architecturally significant character and its importance to the entire historic district,” Tyus said.
“We hope the Institute for Community Living will continue to use their other properties (of which they have more than 10 in Brooklyn) to provide supportive housing services to their target population,” she added.
“We are extremely pleased by Judge Levine’s decision and believe it may have a wider impact,” Derrick Hilbertz, a petitioner in the Dean Sage Mansion case, told the Eagle.
‘Refocus the lens of preservation’
Preservation experts say Levine’s decision will remind LPC that its purpose is to preserve sites with historic, social or cultural significance rather than to promote affordable-housing construction.
“Landmarks should be adaptively reused, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s oversight plays a crucial role in determining how historic buildings can appropriately evolve to be functional in the 21st century,” Kelly Carroll, the Historic Districts Council’s director of advocacy and community outreach, told the Eagle.
“It is excellent that this ruling serves as an example that preservation, under the Landmarks Law, has nothing to do with [a building’s] use,” she said.
“Hopefully this ruling will refocus the lens of preservation and aid in reminding all parties involved that preservation is about buildings, not their uses, however lofty or attractive aspirations might seem,” she added.
Carroll provided an expert affidavit to support the petitioners in the Dean Sage Mansion case.
If the commission’s approval of the housing development in the mansion’s garden had been allowed to stand, “an unruly precedent would be introduced into Landmarks Preservation Commission proceedings,” HDC Executive Director Simeon Bankoff told the Eagle.
“Regardless if one wants the Landmarks Preservation Commission to have the ability to consider use in their judgments, they do not and this decision rightly doubles down on this determination of authority,” Bankoff said.
“To have not done so might open the door to great uncertainty within the regulation of our city’s landmarks and an erosion of their continued existence,” he added.
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