Neighbors of the historic, 120-year-old mansion at 441 Willoughby Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant have been advocating to protect the building from demolition for over 7 months, but haven't been able to get in touch with the owners of the building, a masonic organization—until yesterday.
On Sunday, July 10 at 10 am, Bed-Stuy Council Member Chi Ossé gathered residents, block association members, representatives from the religious organization that owns the building and the developer in the process of buying the building for an open conversation outside of the mansion.
The meeting, a passionate tableau of local voices under scaffolding that had already gone up around the site in preparation for demolition, was attended by roughly 30 people, including local Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman.
The forum came just one month after the city's Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted to evaluate the mansion for potential landmark status, which would protect the building from demolition.
"We did not try to blindside anybody," Lauren Cawdrey, vice president of the Willoughby Nostrand Marcy Block Association, said. The WNMBA is the group leading the charge to get the location landmarked.
"Six months ago, we tried to work with you first and we got no response. It's frustrating for us that it's come to this. If your organization was in such a dire financial situation, why didn't you come to the community and say 'We need your help?' We would have rallied."
The Grand Chapter of the Eastern Star, the masonic organization that has occupied the building since 1967, operated the building as a for-rent event space that hosted everything from church services, block association meetings, cub scouts programming, weddings, baby showers, birthdays and memorials.
The Grand Chapter of the Eastern Star also operated a food pantry there 3 times a week and was involved in other charitable activities.
But, during the pandemic, the building fell into disrepair and the organization was struggling financially, leading to their decision to sell and relocate.
"it's not our preference to sell the building—it has a tremendous historical standpoint to the community and also for our organization as a whole," Christopher Fenelus, the assistant treasurer of the Grand Hiram Lodge, said.
Part of why it had taken so long to get in touch with the masonic organizations, Fenelus said, was due to a lack of internal communication between the chapters. The Grand Hiram Lodge is the brother organization to the Grand Chapter of the Eastern Star, a women-only group. It was unclear if any representatives from the Grand Chapter of the Eastern Star were present at the meeting.
He then added that the organization has faced financial trouble and is facing foreclosure, and wanted to sell the building to a developer who has a history of creating affordable units in the area. Currently, there is a $2.2 million lien on the building.
By recouping the cost of the building, Fenelus said that his organization "Hopes to be able to continue on [its] legacy of charity and to ensure that whoever is going to build this property would have the ability to put community facilities, affordable housing, and parking to ensure it doesn't get more congested on this block."
During the meeting, residents also objected to the potential gentrification of the block in addition to the worries of increased traffic, more rats and risks posed by demolition and construction to the foundations of their brownstones and the air quality.
"We understand you're trying to put affordable housing, but my question is affordable to who?" Kenneth Lewis, the WMNBA president and a pastor who used to hold services in the mansion, said. "What we're losing is a community space."
The mansion is on the LPC's July 12 meeting agenda, during which the LPC will hear testimonies from the neighbors, developers and the owners involved and vote on the next steps. Ossé will also testify in support of landmarking the building.
If the building gets landmarked, it will go through a process that will determine what the building can legally be used for, which will all happen through Ossé's office. Ossé, who is in favor of landmarking the building, said he wants to see a space for the community take its place—whether that be offices for non-profits, space for local services like food pantries or health and wellness classes, or space for the community to gather.
Private real estate developer Brooklyn 360 is currently in the process of buying the building from the Grand Chapter of the Eastern Star and had filed a permit for demolition with the city Department of Buildings in May, and had already begun clearing the property.
If the landmark is not approved, Brooklyn 360 developer Tomer Erlich said he would demolish the building and turn the plot of land into a 7-story, 44-unit apartment building, with a sub-level parking garage with 22 spaces, 30% affordable units and at least 1,000 square feet of community gathering space.
On the chance that the building is approved for landmark status, he said he would not be able to provide the community gathering space.
"I'd have to make condos most likely once it goes through the rezoning process," Erlich said. "Maybe I could provide more community space, but at a minimum 1000 feet is what I can provide."
During the meeting, Zinerman asked if there was an amount Erlich could be paid to abandon the project, since he'd already invested in the property, and he said he'd have to think about it but could get a number to her by the end of the week.
"The fact of the matter is, we don't need another 44 units on this corner, or anywhere else in Bedford Stuyvesant for that matter," Zinerman said. "There are too many people and not enough services."
"All we can do is everyone comes to the [LPC hearing] on Tuesday that has a say in it one way or the other, and let the Landmarks Preservation Commission decide the fate. At this point, it's not really in our hands anymore," Cawdrey said.
To tune in to tomorrow's live-streamed LPC hearing, go here.