A 19th Century Real Estate Covenant has Shaped Brooklyn Heights and Incited Litigation

A very big hat tip to readers “Karen and Chad” for putting a link to this New York Times article, co-written by Brooklyn Heights Association President Jeremy Lechtzin and Times correspondent Aliza Aufrichtig, on last week’s OTW. The portrait, from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, is of Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont (the name was originally Pierpont but Hezekiah changed it to Pierrepont “for added cachet”; yes, J. Pierpont Morgan was a cousin), one of many New Englanders — he was from New Haven; his grandfather, James Pierpont, was one of the founders of Yale University — who came to Brooklyn in the early ninteenth century seeing opportunity in new industries, a seaport, and, in Pierrepont’s instance, residential development. He bought large tracts of land in what is now Brooklyn Heights.

With the opening of Robert Fulton’s steam ferry service between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn at Fulton Ferry, just below the Heights, Pierrepont saw the possibility of selling homesites to well-to-do Manhattanite businessmen and professionals who could commute by ferry to work. “Pierrepont mapped out his land with today’s familiar street grid and filled it with 25-by-100-foot building lots.” Beyond that,

More important but less celebrated, Pierrepont then shifted his pitch to promise that the neighborhood character would be backed up by a legal guarantee. Only dwelling houses would be allowed — no rear-lot cooperages or blacksmith shops mixed in with residential uses. The homes had to be made of brick, with slate or metal roofs — no cheap, fire-prone, wood-frame, shingled-roof houses. They had to be actual (or aspiring) mansions — a minimum of 25 feet wide and two stories tall. All “to be set back 8 feet to form a straight line of fronts the whole length on each side of the streets.

It’s this eight foot setback requirement that has made news recently. In February of last year we noted that St. Francis College had sold its vacated campus to Alexico Group for $200 million. Then, not quite two months later, we noted that the sale had gone through, not to Alexico but to Rockrose Development Corp. with a $40 million haircut to the price. Alexico is now in litigation against both St. Francis and Rockrose, claiming that

after Alexico tried to delay the closing, both defendants breached contracts they had with the plaintiff. Alexico also offered an explanation for their delay: uncertainty over an eight-foot property-line setback requirement that restricted the site’s redevelopment and affected its value.

Insert your favorite aphorism here about the dangers of ignorance of history.

Lechtzin’s and Aufrichtig’s Times article is well worth reading for an abundance of details about Brooklyn Heights history.

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  • clarknt67

    What a strange sticking point. Did they really think they would build right to the curb? Perhaps it’s just a legal maneuver , and they just changed their mind about the sale for another reason.

  • Karl Junkersfeld

    What a great article. Initially when I read this article I didn’t look at the author but after seeing the excellent documentation and attachments including original deeds, I knew it had to be Jeremy. His attention to detail is extraordinary. Proud to say I use to be his neighbor.