‘A landmark is not merely an old building, but a navigational point for a community. Landmarks are given meaning by our relations to them – they do not exist in a vacuum. And where developers are able to displace monuments, we fear they will also succeed in displacing communities.’

Simia Rassouli/Courtesy Friends of 920 Park

A view of the Hebron SDA school, a city landmark in Crown Heights.

“The emotional connection I have with the Hebron building in turn ties me to my neighbors, who feel that same bond.”

These words – spoken by Crown Heights resident Noémie Bonnet at the Oct. 20 meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission – will immediately ring true for the generations of New Yorkers who have stopped to marvel, mid-commute, at the same timeless landmarks like the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. 

The connection between people and our built environment is at the heart of the fight against a proposed development at 920 Park Place in Crown Heights, which would deface an historic and beloved community landmark – the Hebron SDA school, heralded as the “Crown Jewel of Crown Heights.” The development would destroy not only a priceless piece of New York City history, but also the community’s long-standing relationship to this space. In a hearing on Nov. 17, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) rightfully rejected this proposal, but unanimously agreed that the site at 920 Park Place can sustain development – meaning that the irresponsible developer that brought the initial proposal can return with an updated plan, and our fight for this beloved community landmark continues. We implore the LPC to remember that an attack on a community’s landmark is an attack on the community itself.

The historic Hebron Seventh Day Adventist School at 914-920 Park Place in Crown Heights – which Hope Street Capital plans to partially demolish to build a massive seven-story rental apartment complex – was declared a landmark in 2011 following years of organizing by community members. Formerly the Methodist Home for the Aged, construction on the building began in 1889 and it is the sole surviving 19th century institutional building in Crown Heights North, a stunning example of Romanesque revival architecture.

The initial proposal by Hope Street Capital demonstrated a complete lack of concern for the integrity of the local community. By the LPC’s own standards, the initial proposal violates the property’s landmark status in a number of ways, including inappropriate scale and incompatible aesthetic for the setting, obscured sightlines of the historic home, and character-altering changes to the surrounding green space. In particular, the project would have permanently blocked from view the south side of the building, which features stunning original stained-glass windows and a campus that serves as a play and learning area for children.

And then there are the issues that are not typically considered by the LPC – namely, that allowing development on this site will further exacerbate racialized displacement and health disparities in Crown Heights in the midst of historic housing and public health crises. As laid out in the initial plans, it’s clear that Hope Street Capital is looking to attract young, short-term tenants who are unlikely to integrate into the community long-term, which will radically shift the demographic makeup of the neighborhood and inflate rents even higher, in addition to dramatically increasing overall density. In addition to the building’s small unit sizes and lack of amenities, it’s unlikely that even the Mandatory Inclusive Housing units – estimated at about 30 percent of the building’s units – would be accessible to local residents. Worse, the program they appear to favor is really a subsidy for the upper middle class and would mean apartments that are unaffordable for residents in Crown Heights. 

Additionally, Hope Street Capital failed to include in its first proposal a green initiative demonstrating that they are aware of the environmental impact of the project, which would create a heat island and dramatically increase density on the block. It is unacceptable that in Crown Heights, where communities of color have suffered disproportionately from environmental racism, in the middle of a pandemic, local residents’ concerns around these environmental and public health issues have been met with silence even as the LPC has asked Hope Street Capital to return with another proposal. 

We understand that the Commission’s mandate is to protect New York City’s architectural and cultural buildings, not weigh in on the issues of gentrification and public health, but we must call attention to these very human issues as they are inextricable from the potential destruction of the Hebron SDA school. After all, a landmark is not merely an old building, but a navigational point for a community. Landmarks are given meaning by our relations to them – they do not exist in a vacuum. And where developers are able to displace monuments, we fear they will also succeed in displacing communities. 

The importance of this landmark can be seen in the outpouring of community support for its protection: the LPC received a record 950-plus letters asking them to protect Hebron, and more than 6,800 people have signed a petition opposing the development on its grounds. At the Oct. 20 LPC meeting, three dozen people testified, including leaders not only of Friends of 920 Park, but of the Crown Heights North Association, the Crown Heights Tenant Union, Sterling Place Civic Association, Bergen Block Association, as well as the district’s councilman Robert Cornegy.

The Hebron SDA school has stood as a defining marker of the Crown Heights North District for over 100 years, a fact which informed the LPC’s own decision in 2011 to grant the site landmark status. We call on the Commission to follow its own precedent and uphold the building’s protected status not only to protect this vital piece of Brooklyn’s architectural heritage, but to send a message that community touchstones are not for sale.

Deborah Young, Ingrid Saraguad, and Sarah Leonard are members of Friends of 920 Park, a community-led organization of residents fighting the proposed development at the Hebron building. Ms. Young is also a founding member of the Crown Heights North Association Inc. & serves as Board Chair/President.

Hope Street Capital responds: We want to thank the community for their feedback on our proposed project, we are currently redesigning the project following initial feedback from the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the community board. Many of the statements in the OPED are simply inaccurate and are designed to spread misinformation about the project. The fact remains that we will be saving this beloved school, which is currently inoperable and sitting vacant. We will help ensure the school’s contribution to the community for future generations to come. We look forward to presenting our revised design for 959 Sterling early next year.

2 thoughts on “Opinion: Developing 920 Park Place Jeopardizes the Community and the Landmarks’ Process

  1. Exceptionally expressed. The Hebron School (aka “The Old Folks Home”) was part of my childhood growing up in the building at the corner of Sterling Place & New York Avenue. In the 1970’s we would play in the back area and I have several nostalgic photos from back then. This “Crown Jewel of Crown Heights North” is worthy of an alternative solution to what these developers propose which would just result in gross displacement and in accessibility of long-time community residents and as such needs to be stopped in its tracks. There are so many other adaptive uses which would serve as a beacon of hope for my community such as outdoor farmer’s market with a food cooperative and urban gardening component which would provide educational opportunities to the school and community residents both young and old; partnering with the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation to establish a science and technology center within the school along with a rehabilitation/restoration component, etc. In the end, it is a matter of creative and concerned organizations like the friends of 920 Park Place and Crown Heights North Association coming together with proposals that would satisfy the needs of the School along with the “true” needs of the established community and not the greed of developers.

  2. Perfectly put. Landmarks should stick to its original function of preserving ‘institutions as beautiful, venerable or useful’. Leave the landmark status and alert the developers to that decision.

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