Height of BBP’s Pierhouse Hotel: What Exactly IS the Deal?

To understand the disputed height restrictions of the Pierhouse Hotel structure in Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 1, a number of variables need clarification, including the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation’s (BBPC’s) adherence to its own agreement, how the NYC Department of Planning Brooklyn Heights Scenic View District figures into the discussion, and the impact of Hurricane Sandy on New York City waterfront construction requirements.

What is not in dispute is that in the fall of 2005, Otis Pratt Pearsall—the well-respected preservationist from Brooklyn Heights—representeing the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) met with Matthew Urbanski, project manager for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Wendy Leventer, President of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, as BBPC was then called.

In a recent email to Mr. Urbanski obtained by BHB, Mr. Pearsall states the meeting’s purpose was to discuss “limiting the height of the hotel proposed for Pier 1 so as to assure an uninterrupted view of the Brooklyn Bridge roadbed from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.”

According to a 33 page BHA document dated November 2, 2005, which was meant to codify the discussions early that year, Mr. Pearsall stressed: “Clearly the hotel (including any mechanicals visible from the Promenade) should not in any circumstance be permitted to exceed the 98 foot roofline of the [National] Cold Storage buildings [which occupied the approximate space where the Pierhouse is being built] without the bulkheads.” (See photo below, from Bridge and Tunnel Club, via Brownstoner, of the warehouse building before its demolition, and compare with photo at top, by Claude Scales, of Pierhouse structure taken from approximately the same position on the Promenade–between Pierrepont and Clark streets–today.)

This is where BBPC institutional memory comes into question. Regina Myer replaced Ms. Leventer as President in December 2007. Presumably, a transfer of responsibilities included a commitment to the carefully negotiated deal about the Pierhouse structure, especially because the importance of Brooklyn Bridge views from the Promenade was clearly documented on page 14 of BBP’s RFP for Hotel and Residential Development at Pier 1 from 2011.

“Respondents must comply with the requirements of Article X, Chapter 2: Special Purpose Districts, Special Scenic View District establishing the SV-1 Brooklyn Heights Scenic View District. These requirements seek to protect the waterfront views of the Lower Manhattan skyline, Governors Island, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.”

Given that the Pierhouse Hotel as now built is an estimated 130 feet high—including three stories of visible mechanical equipment as well as an outdoor bar—Marvel Architects, designers of the Pierhouse complex, did not honor the 2005 agreement which is also documented in BBP’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), Chapter 24 “Response to Comments on the DEIS.”

[Editor’s Note: Marvel Architects did not respond to repeated requests for information regarding the Pierhouse Hotel structure].

According to the aforementioned NYC Zoning Resolution, Article X on Special Purpose Districts, the Brooklyn Heights Scenic View District is “…to be protected pursuant to the provisions of this Section includ[ing]: the panoramic view of the lower Manhattan skyline which includes such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge archway, the South Street Seaport, the Whitehall Ferry Terminal, and the vistas of the Statue of Liberty and Governor’s Island.”

The purposes of this district, specifically designated as SV-1, are:
“(a) to preserve, protect and prevent obstruction of outstanding scenic views as seen from a mapped public park or an esplanade or a mapped public place directly accessible to the public; and
(b) to promote the most desirable use of land and direction of building development, to assure the maintenance and enhancement of the aesthetic aspects of scenic views, to conserve the value of land and buildings and to protect the City’s tax revenues.”

SV-1 might be invoked because the Pierhouse Hotel’s height clearly obstructs the Promenade view of what’s called the “necklace” of the Brooklyn Bridge – its elegant and much admired cable structure.

But in his email to BHB, Mr. Pearsall disputed this interpretation. “There is no Scenic View Plane for the Brooklyn Bridge,” wrote Mr. Pearsall. “There is the SV-1 Brooklyn Heights Scenic View District…. It barely touches the Bridge. It has no application to the tall part of the hotel, which is in the unprotected triangle north of the View Plane.”

Mr. Pearsall’s insistence that SV-1 is not the ruling authority in this matter underscores his belief that the only binding height restriction on the Pierhouse Hotel is the 2005 agreement.

“The deal at issue was between the BHA, Van Valkenburgh Associates, and the Park Corporation,” Pearsall said to BHB. “What documentation it required was up to the Park Corporation. I surmise that the Park Corporation was responsible for controlling the height of the hotel, although this process all took place after my involvement.”

According to Belinda Cape, BBP Vice President for Strategic Partnerships, the actual Pierhouse Hotel height was driven by building conditions imposed as a result of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

“After Hurricane Sandy,” Ms. Cape said in an email yesterday to BHB, “the need to place additional back-up mechanical equipment, as required by NYC building code, did increase the size of the bulkhead to about 3 stories in one isolated location, which is permitted under NYC zoning.”

A conversation with the NYC Department of City Planning’s Press Office determined that Brooklyn Bridge Park building heights are not subject to City Planning approval, but are solely governed by documents specifically drafted by the BBPC and approved by the state, including the BBPC’s FEIS.

In her email Ms. Cape added that “Throughout the design process – inclusive of post-Sandy alterations – BBP kept the community and BHA fully apprised.”

Last Wednesday in a statement posted on its website, the BHA clearly stated that it was not informed about the Pierhouse height. “We are saddened and disappointed that the new buildings seriously compromise that iconic, world class view [of the Brooklyn Bridge]. We have communicated this to the BBPC and we request that its leadership and the developers of this project take any steps possible to mitigate the Pierhouse development’s visual obstruction of the Bridge.”

As Mr. Pearsall stated so succinctly in 2005, “Please remember, there are views and then there are views. This is one of the world’s best. Let’s not nibble at it.”

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  • TMS

    What cheaters. Disgusting.

  • Davidsoul

    Absolutely infuriating. Is it wrong of me to hope that someone tosses a brick through a window? Probably, but so what.

  • NeighboorHood

    Yet again another example of why the BBP board should be totally replaced by the mayor. Once again they show themselves to be actively deceiving the public they should be responsible to ad serving. This is beyond ridiculous that they would even try and split this hair. Those of us who were against this from the start can clearly remember the (often snarky) reassurance that (it wont be any bigger than the cold storage warehouse, would you rather look at that?” Interesting I noticed the other night that ALL the work lights were out on the floors above the roadway which makes it hard to discern the over height floors. Not 1 lone lightbulb whereas previously all the floors had lights all night. Is the BHA planing on a suit o get the floors removed? It’s been done in this city before and this certainly warrants it. Please email the mayor and cc the BBP board demanding the same!



    PS. BHBlog…why put that picture up then ? The cover photo of the hotel from your previous story was taken from the far opposite end making the hotel look small!

  • gc

    The Cold Storage picture should be deleted from the text. It totally distorts the comparison between the two buildings.

  • R.O.Shipman

    I previously supported the building and said complainers had nothing to really complain about since the cold storage building blocked substantially the same view. That was before the building went three stories higher and I appreciate why this is troubling and I too am offended by this change.

    That being said, I’m not sure what can be done. Looking at the diagram above, it seems to me, that the pierhouse structure, or at least the tallest part, falls outside of the scenic view district. The scenic view district is 20 degrees off of the promenade from Orange Street. I’m not going to pull out the protractor, but I bet that view was determined as to specifically exclude the highest structure the BBP intended to build. Same probably for the pier 6 side.

    The building as constructed almost certainly violates the spirit of the agreement, but it may not violate the letter of the agreement. As there really is no alternative with the mechanicals at this point, I would be highly surprised if any court forces them to change based on a violation of the spirit of the agreement.

  • Mike from Brooklyn

    It’s the only picture that I had available of the building. My hope was that Otis Pearsall’s clarification at the end of the piece would suffice.

  • NeighboorHood

    I’m afraid the builders are counting on the “well it’s built what can we do” argument and should not be allowed to get away with it. As for the city requiring certain new mechanicals, why can’t the building be lowered (ie. floors removed) to the point where the mechanical floors top out where the agreement promised?

  • gc

    Maybe some organized community threats to:
    protest at the hotel site now and after it opens,
    boycott the hotel,
    submit bad reviews to tripadvisor and yelp etc after it opens,
    might have some impact.

    It’s going to take more than talk to beat back the real estate interests!

  • http://selfabsorbedboomer.blogspot.com ClaudeScales

    I’ve substituted the photos originally in the post with one of the warehouse building as it was, from Bridge and Tunnel Club via Brownstoner, and one of the Pierhouse as it is, taken by me this morning from what I judge to be roughly the same location on the Promenade. Consequently, I’ve deleted Mr. Pearsall’s clarification.

  • marshasrimler

    this is what they do.. lie. change the topic, insert wedge issues and build as they wish.. If they snookered Otis Persall who is so well rsepected they will do it on all upcoming projects (including Pier 6 and the library site

  • miriamcb

    It’s so frustrating. Even more frustrating that they will get away with it. It will stand and the view will forever now be obstructed. When I walk from Remsen on the Promenade, I now just get off at Clark — walking to the end is pointless.

  • JoT

    I also have a very visceral reaction to this situation (as destructive as it is, would I be sad if a brick went through a window? Nah.) – intensified by feeling completely helpless as to what can be done. Someone mentioned that the developers/supporters/BBPC are probably hoping to shrug it off as, “Oh well, it’s built, what can we do?” Disgusting. Does anyone know of past situations similar to this one with successful (from the community’s perspective) outcomes?

    Someone mentioned a protest – heck, I’ve got my sign ready: Hell No, We Won’t Go…to the Pierhouse!

  • Doug Biviano

    Don’t forget LICH, which btw, the NYSNA lawsuit was dismissed yesterday clearing the way for the Fortis deal to go forward (work of Seddio and Carone?). De Blasio is on the record, per the Daily News, saying that quality healthcare for the neighborhood was always the goal, that is, not saving LICH HOSPITAL as he got arrested for as a campaign stunt,

    “We’ve been very active in the last few days at City Hall, a number of us, in the effort to bring that deal back together. I feel good about the possibilities that we will make that deal work.

    “NYU’s a very strong health care provider. You know, I think we have an opportunity here to ensure that the neighborhood has quality health care, which was always the goal. So I feel that we’re on the right track.”

  • David on Middagh

    Tinkle a Pierhouse window with a brick? I’ve been fantasizing immolation by meteor—same as for that other imposition, the carousel cube. For the AT&T/Bell Atlantic/Verizon *menhir* across the river, I pray for German pranksters to steal the logo. (Actually, take the whole stupid monolith away, or don’t bother.) I haven’t yet decided how the god-given Dock Street DUMBO development should meet its maker, but I don’t think I’m picky, at this point.

  • TMS

    Would anyone here like to live in the Pierhouse? Think about it. Other than the breathtaking views, which is public, residents will have to deal with hoards of tourists descending upon their homes, constantly, day and night, 365 days a year. No peace. They will have to deal with the loud summer movies and concerts. Helicopters. Traffic. Flood zone. No privacy. Crowded schools. And the scorn of the neighborhood people. And the bedbug risk from the hotel that will be attached to it. Relentless afternoon sunshine (it’s very bright and hot). Knowing what I know, I wouldn’t want to live there.

  • Park Lover

    Yep– BBPDC is the 800 pound gorilla now, and they know it. No need to admit or correct design mistakes if they don’t want to, no need to mitigate any impacts from their programming, no need to be a good neighbor to the surrounding communities. After all, it’s a “destination” park, which apparently entitles BBPDC to do whatever it pleases (and come up with whatever justification it wants), however it pleases, whenever it pleases. BBP is a very special place, but it’s time for a thorough review of its management, especially given the attitude that anything that pre-existed BBP is just unworthy….

  • Park Lover

    The BBPDC includes many *important* deBlasio supporters– deBlasio is thrilled to have them on board; don’t think for an instant that he’s not totally ok with what’s going on! (And NB– there’s lots of overlap with the Brooklyn Public Library Board, the Navy Yard, etc. So, a small group of folks are making major land use decisions for the entire area, regardless of consequences.) After all, deBlasio is firmly supporting the pier 6 skyscraper, refusing to review the original Bloomberg fiat or to instruct BBPDC/EDC to do anything about hitting the pause button so there can be real planning for the neighborhood instead of buildbuildbuild. Rather than respond to this huge mistake, they’re just re-inventing history (as you say) and coming up with justification after justification, which City Hall will support.

  • Park Lover

    What about the Empire Stores shopping mall, also part of the BBP development project? ;)

  • marshasrimler

    Those responsible for this include Hank Guttman. Joanne Witty, Nina Collins and Peter
    Askanoszky. They should be held accountable.
    Askanoszky has be wining and dining our electeds for years. Just for your info
    Guttman, Collins and Askanoszky are on the Library Board and Marvel Architects is active on Pier 6.. interesting!

  • Jorale-man

    I’m so regretting having donated $ to BBP last year at tax time, thinking I was going to help support a good thing for our community. It wasn’t a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but they won’t be getting any more from me. I hope other donors vote no with their wallets too – and let the park know why.

    Between dishonoring this agreement, planning the 30-story tower based on old financial data, and a host of smaller blunders, they just don’t deserve a penny from neighbors. Let them make their revenues from the view-blocking hotel now.

  • petercow

    Same with me. Contributed last year. This year, there are better causes.

  • NeighboorHood

    Amen brothers. Please consider calling and emailing the mayor and board. If enough voters make enough noise in concert with BHA action,they may do something. I’m not optimistic but better to have tried! If you ever sat through one of their “community” meetings and saw the smirking disdain they have for the public you’d ask for your money back! I’m pretty cynical, but I was shocked by how overt it was.



  • fultonferryres

    @R.O.S. – I appreciate your cynicism, but the scenic view plane was created by the City Planning Commission in 1974, decades before the hotel dimensions were established in the FEIS and EIS.

  • C Batista

    I walked through the park a few times over the last month and each time was disgusted at the loss of the full bridge view from the ground. The new structure is so close to the bridge that the admired view is now permanently lost by the imposing building. I then walked we over the other side and could clearly appreciate the same angled from the north, which has surprisingly been spares (at least for now). How could such a loss have been acceptable to the original planners and advocates of the bridge? The free view once lauded and beloved by millions can now only be bought by the millionaire condo buyers and the transient high-paying hotel customers.

  • Carlotta

    Agree on all points of disgust. Infuriating. Can’t look that way any longer. All of those involved in agreeing to this plan should be removed from any position in any organization in this city. They must all live in their own special bubble. Can we stop this??

  • Tim_N

    The height problems with this building have been known for some time. It just proves what has always been suspected… that anyone who thinks the BBP was supposed to be anything but the yuppies’ back yard is woefully naive. It was a corrupt bargain from the off and now it’s too late to do anything about it.

  • Willowtownrez

    More willful misconduct from BBP. They have lied to the public with regard to park finances and the need for the towers. They must be held accoutable. Stop the tower.

  • gatornyc

    Donating to the BBP Conservancy is not the same as donating to BBP. Donations to the Conservancy are worthwhile and laudable.

  • R.O.Shipman

    Reading everything a little more closely, I guess it comes down to weather the 2005 agreement was actually cemented. This post does not make it clear that it was. You have the BHA document that supposedly codified the discussion, but the document itself doesn’t read like that. Then you have the FEIS which purportedly incorporates responses to the BHA document, but the post doesn’t tell us what exactly is said. Unless they specifically limited themselves to a 110 feet tall building and did not amend somehow. I’m not sure there’s a legal recourse.

  • Banet

    I’m curiosu what you think Nina Collins has to do with Pierhouse? She used to be on the board of the park *Conservancy* but 1) she left the board years ago, and 2) the Conservancy has absolutely no legal or official say over what gets built in the park — that’s up to the Conservancy.

    Please try to get your facts right before you make inaccurate accusations.