Crown Heights residents and preservation organizations have come together to sue the Landmarks Preservation Commission and a developer to stop the construction of a new apartment building on the site of the Hebron Seventh Day Adventist church and school.
On April 8, attorneys from Hiller, PC filed a petition on behalf of the residents in an attempt to overturn the LPC’s approval of the project at 959 Sterling Pl., accusing the LPC of breaking the laws by failing to hold a public hearing on the revised project plan.
“Once again, the City has provided a so-called ‘public hearing process’ that is plainly designed to give the appearance of public engagement, when, in fact, the process serves only to disenfranchise communities from having a say into the Commission’s decision-making,” Jason Zakai, one of the attorneys for the petitioners, said in a statement.
Residents have fought against developers Hope Street Capital for three years over the new construction on what they call “crown jewel” of the neighborhood. Originally built in 1889 as the Methodist Home for the Aged, the landmarked-protected building on the site is one of the last Victorian era institutional buildings with grounds largely intact in all of New York City, the petitioners say. The site is also in the landmarked Crown Heights North Historic District II.
The project was approved by the LPC in May 2021 following a long back-and-forth process that included several design changes, and significant community opposition.
The existing building’s south wing will be demolished in order to build the residential development. Residents say that at seven stories tall, the buildings would block views of, and loom over, the historic church and school and all of the neighboring row houses, and would deprive the community of green space.
In a deal with the church, necessary repairs would be made to the existing Hebron building, developers Hope Street Capital have said.
The LPC received nearly 300 letters in opposition following a hearing on the development last March, including ones from then-Councilmember Robert Cornegy, Community Board 8 and the Crown Heights North Association. BK Reader reported at the time that the hearings on the development largely ignored the vocal community opposition.
“Thousands of residents, local officials and community groups were utterly dismissed after months of protest,” a representative for Friends of 920 Park, a community group formed to fight the development, told BK Reader in May. “We put our weight against the door of an invading developer, and LPC has nonchalantly unlatched it, and let them in.”
The group has been fundraising for the lawsuit since the new construction was approved.
Michael Hiller, lead counsel in the litigation, said the lawsuit was part of a larger fight against a “systemic, institutional bias at the Commission,” that included a “pattern of approvals of contested applications.”
He said that the way the LPC closed public hearings after initial plans were filed and did not require them for resubmitted plans amounted to “a direct violation of the Landmarks Law, not to mention the requisites of due process under the Constitution.”
“In every conceivable way, the Commission is engaging in procedural malpractice that harms the cause of preservation and the interests of New Yorkers dedicating to maintaining the integrity of historic neighborhoods and properties,” Hiller said.
If the petition succeeds, the developer will have to stop the existing project and start again to seek a new approval.
The lawsuit comes after the new development received a $55 million construction loan in February, 2022. SCALE Lending announced that it would be financing the 150,000-square-foot, seven-story development, which the lender said will have 158 units, 48 of which will be set aside as affordable housing under the Affordable New York program.