Otis Pratt Pearsall, who, along with his wife, Nancy, was the prime mover behind the drive to prevent Robert Moses from destroying the northeast part of Brooklyn Heights by tearing down existing houses and stores to build luxury apartment towers, and whose efforts were rewarded by the Heights' being designated the first historic district in New York City, is still active in the fight for neighborhood preservation. Most recently, he argued eloquently for denial of the developer, Two Trees', application for a variance to exceed the fifty foot height limitation on new construction in the Cobble Hill Historic District. (Breaking News: City Councilman Bill DeBlasio comes out against Two Trees plan [Cobble Hill Blog]) Two Trees sought the variance for a new apartment building to be constructed on the parking lot behind the former South Brooklyn Savings Bank building (soon to be occupied by Trader Joe's), on the north side of Atlantic Avenue between Court and Clinton Streets.
In a letter to Borough President Markowitz seeking his support in opposing the recommendation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission that the variance be allowed, Pearsall wrote:
For 40 years, almost to the day in the case of Brooklyn Heights and almost as long for Cobble Hill, their LH-1 50 foot Limited Height Districts have stood as a key bulwark, hardly less important than the Landmarks Preservation Law itself, safeguarding the historic architecture and scale of these two jewels of Brooklyn's famous brownstone crescent. They have accomplished this goal, as they were designed to do, first, by removing the incentive to purchase and demolish the low-rise houses and commercial structures characteristic of these districts and, second, by limiting new construction to the predominating 50 foot historic height of the area.
Over this 40 year period it has come to be accepted as an absolute given that in these Limited Height Districts new construction exceeding 50 feet is simply not permitted. There has in fact been no exception. This would be the first. And what a terrible precedent it must surely prove. If, our 40 year unbroken history notwithstanding, one developer on some rationale or another is now permitted an exception, can anyone believe that henceforth every developer will not also seek his own exception? And on what basis of subjective differentiation, of hair-splitting distinctions will it be possible to deny such exceptions? Please, make no mistake. The dam will be broken. And the LH-1 50 foot Limited Height Districts, as a bar in these narrowly limited areas to discordant development, will be history.
After discussing the history behind the adoption of the 50' limit, including the fact that real estate interests supported it, Pearsall concluded:
Marty, I respectfully submit that when weighed against the important public interest in maintaining the integrity of the Cobble Hill LH-1 District, the private interest of the developer here in adding an additional 10 feet to one new building is insufficient to justify the requested exception, with all of its inevitable consequences.
Pearsall's argument was persuasive to the Borough President, who adopted his arguments in a recommendation concerning Two Trees' application which concluded as follows:
Be it resolved that the Brooklyn Borough President, pursuant to section 197-c of the New York City Charter, recommends the approval of this application by the City Planning Commission and City Council subject to the following conditions:
– That the requested Special Permit to exceed the LH-1 be denied.
However, City Councilman Bill DeBlasio, member of the Council's Land Use Committee from Brooklyn, decided, contrary to the Borough President's recommendation and the opposition of civic groups, to recommend that the exception to LH-1 be granted to the developer.
Update: As this post was being written, word came in that, at a hearing before the City Council Zoning Subcommittee today, Councilman Bill DeBlasio (D-Park slope) announced that he had reversed his earlier position concerning granting Two Trees a variance from the 50' height limit applicable in the Cobble Hill Historic District (the same limit applies in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District), and would recommend to the full Land Use Committee that the variance not be allowed. Mr. Pearsall made a statement to the Subcommittee opposing the variance, amplifying and expanding on the arguments discussed below.