A nonprofit that operates supportive housing wants to expand its facilities in Crown Heights, but it will have to do more work on the plan. Last Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission did not approve plans for the Institute for Community Living’s campus at 839 St. Marks Avenue, on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue in the Crown Heights North Historic District.
The property currently involves essentially two portions. There most important is the Dean Sage Mansion, a two-and-a-half-story High Victorian Gothic style freestanding mansion designed by Russell Sturgis and built in 1870. It remained a private residence into the 1930s, though the porch had been removed. Subsequently, a single-story projecting bay was added next to where the porch had been.
Then secondary portion is a three-story addition constructed after the structure was converted to institution use. In the 1970s, the campus was a senior center. Now, it is occupied by the Institute for Community Living (ICL), which provides housing for people with mental and developmental disabilities.
ICL’s Joseph Biber introduced the proposal, which calls for demolishing the three-story addition and constructing a somewhat L-shaped six-story structure. It would shift from an SRO situation to permanent housing. The number of units for the mentally disabled is currently 48. That number would be reduced to 45, but 30 units of affordable housing would be added, for a total unit count of 75. It would come in studio, one-, and two-bedroom configurations. The mansion itself would become a common area and community resource.
The design was presented by Lisa Easton of Easton Architects and John Woelfling of Dattner Architects.
It starts with restoration of the mansion, including the installation of new wood windows and the recreation of the historic porch. Additionally, the removal of the current institutional addition would expose a portion of the mansion not seen for decades.
In designing the new L-shaped building, Easton pointed to the heavy use of institutional design in the neighborhood, including the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Crown Heights Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, and the George V. Brower School.
Woelfling said the new building would not actually be attached to the mansion, but have a connector. Additionally, the floors of the two structures would not align, in part to keep the height of the new building down and to be “deferential to the mansion.”
The main residential entrance would be separate from the mansion’s front entrance, with an ADA-accessible walkway leading from St. Marks Avenue to that portion of the new building.
The commissioners weren’t wholly uncomfortable with the proposed concept or massing, but they did have some issues and ideas.
LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said they were dealing with a “really challenging site” and that the approach proposed would build on what’s already there, and noted and praised the re-exposure of part of the mansion. However, she suggested that perhaps there should be just one entrance.
Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron wondered why the applicant didn’t just build on the Brooklyn Avenue side, leaving the garden untouched. Woelfling responded that that would have cut the number of units in half.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum said “a gauntlet [has been] thrown down to us.” As proposed the new building belongs to the neighborhood. Goldblum suggested that the approach be one where the new building belongs, instead, to the mansion.
Commissioner Diana Chapin suggested that more bulk could be constructed on Brooklyn Avenue, to offset a reduction on the St. Marks Avenue portion.
The Historic Districts Council, like Commissioner Goldblum, suggested more respect for the mansion.
“This is a rare freestanding mansion in Crown Heights North, which, between roughly 1890 and 1920 was host to many grand mansions, which were largely concentrated on St. Mark’s Avenue. The avenue was such a prominent address that the broader neighborhood was briefly called the ‘St. Mark’s District.’ While most of the freestanding mansions were demolished to make way for middle class housing with the arrival of the subway in the early 20th century, number 839 survives, described in the designation report as ‘one of the oldest and most important 19th century mansions remaining in the Crown Heights North district,’” said HDC’s Barbara Zay.
“It is with awareness of this history that HDC approaches this application, which inarguably represents a major change to the character of the building and its context,” she said. “We feel that more effort should be made to respect the mansion, especially on the St. Mark’s Avenue side, where more bulk should be sacrificed and setback to retain and honor the mansion’s freestanding orientation and allow for some breathing space. HDC also finds the garage opening on the St. Mark’s side to be inappropriate in its placement next to the front of the mansion. This feature would be more appropriate on the Brooklyn Avenue portion of the addition.”
A representative of the St. Marks Independent Block Association opposed the proposal, saying that “squeezing” two new buildings (viewing the single L-shaped structure as two structures) on to the campus would not be beneficial to the community.
Two residents testified against the proposal. One said it would be a “travesty” and that this neighborhood is “the definition of why we have a historic district.”
A woman named Diana Foster, who identified herself as a former drug addict and shelter resident who grew up in the neighborhood, gave her support for the project. “To those much is given, much is required,” she said.
In the end, the commissioners took no action, suggesting the applicant consider scaling back the St. Marks Avenue portion of the project, increasing the bulk on the Brooklyn Avenue side of the project, and re-working the entrance arrangement.
View the full presentation slides below: