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Flatbush to LPC: Us, too!

The neighborhoods of Victorian Flatbush have long been known as quiet enclaves whose detached homes, dating to the early years of the last century, are gracious survivors.

As such, they are cherished by their owners, who have fought to preserve them in every way that they can.

Recently, a large chunk of Flatbush was rezoned with a goal to protecting the scale of existing dwellings. While the rezoning encompassed numerous neighborhoods, much of the focus was on Ditmas Park Westand South Midwood, where the old zoning encouraged redevelopment rather than discouraging it.

In addition, some of the Victorian neighborhoods -- most recently Fiske Terrace and Midwood Park -- have achieved landmark status, which protects buildings in the area from inappropriate additions or modernization.

While, therefore, much of the news for Victorian Flatbush homeowners has been good, there have been some disappointments, most notably the decision by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) not to move forward with applications to designate historic districts in Ditmas Park West and Beverley Square West at this time.

Rather, the commission has opted to evaluate the expansion of the historic district in Park Slope, a neighborhood largely dominated by brownstone and other rowhouses, as well as the Fort Greene/Brooklyn Academy of Music historic district. LPC is also looking at designation of a Vanderbilt Avenue historic district.

These decisions were revealed in a January 20 letter from Mary Beth Betts,LPC’s director of research, to Robert Furman, of the Brooklyn Preservation Council Foundation.

Of Beverley Square West and Ditmas Park West, Betts wrote, “Although it has been determined that these areas may merit designation, they are not considered priorities at this time.”

“We’re deserving,” contended Joel Siegel, the president of the Ditmas Park West Association who added, “I think it’s wrong of them not to move forward with us at this time.”

While the downzoning of the neighborhood took some of the pressure off, he said, it was simply “step one in a long process. We never thought landmarking would be easy,” he added. But, he stressed, “It’s regrettable. We’ve got to figure out how to get it done, otherwise we are going to lose the neighborhood.”

While, said Siegel, he understood that budget constraints means LPC has to pick and choose, he stressed that Victorian Flatbush was “a really unique thing” in the metropolis. “They are not doing the city a service by not taking care of it,” he added.

Borough President Marty Markowitz concurred. In a March 5 letter to Betts, he contended, “While it is wonderful that LPC designated sister Victorian Flatbush neighborhoods of Fiske Terrace and Midwood Park in March of 2008, it is not appropriate public policy to place the remainder of the community on hold while purely Brownstone Brooklyn is pursued.There must be an equitable balance.”

However, a spokesperson for LPC said that the commission was forced to make hard choices, given the number of communities looking for landmark designation.

“The commission’s staff carefully surveyed 348 buildings in Ditmas Park West, and 238 in Beverly Square West,” Spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon reported in an email. “The survey showed that many of the buildings have been re-sided with modern materials and that there have been other unsympathetic alterations (such as built-out facades, which are difficult to reverse) that have compromised their historic character. “

In addition, de Bourbon stressed, “The commission has not determined that the areas are ineligible for future consideration, but given the numerous other districts the commission is pursuing in Brooklyn, the commission determined that these two districts are not a priority at this time.”

De Bourbon’s comments ring true, opined Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council.

“There are neighborhoods throughout New York City that are suburban in nature that LPC has moved or intends to move on,” Bankoff said. In addition, Bankoff noted that, while many rowhouse districts have been designated, “There are still many that require preservation, including Park Slope.

“The basic fact of masonry rowhouses is that there is less to regulate,” Bankoff went on. “You are only looking at two façades, not four, and masonry stands up better than wood. If you have a neighborhood that’s over 100 years old, there will be perforce more alterations on wood structures than masonry structures.

“In a perfect world,” Bankoff added,“there would be enough resources to do everything. There are a lot of areas that are meritorious and should be looked at seriously and probably landmarked, but just saying there is a bias in the agency for rowhouse districts vs. suburban districts is an oversimplification.”

Ditmas Park West requested landmark status in 2005. Beverley Square West most recently made a request for landmark status in 2007.

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