By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
On a Saturday morning in April, neighbors on a quiet Brooklyn block on the southern edge of Park Slope looked into their backyards to see workmen erecting a construction fence on their properties. In brownstone Brooklyn this is the face of war: sneak attack by developers. One irate woman called her lawyer, who told her to call the cops, who promptly tossed the workers off the site. But it was a brief retreat. The developer quickly arrived, offering $3,000 in cash for the right to work on their properties. His goal, he said, was to start digging a big hole where a new building would rise on what had been a 100-by-100-foot parking lot on 15th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues near Prospect Park.
Instead of taking the money, neighbors got busy. Arthur Strimling, a theater producer whose rear yard faces the site, consulted with others to find out what was up. What they found amazed them. For reasons officials are still at a loss to explain, the city's Department of Buildings had wrongly issued a construction permit for a nine-story structure. The permit, which had been evaluated several times before being approved by agency plan examiners, called for a new apartment house dwarfing its low-rise neighbors. The 57,000-square-foot building was to include three below-grade floors for parking and a medical facility, its air vents pointed at backyards on 16th Street.
Even odder, the 47 apartments were designated for use as "faculty housing" for staff of an Orthodox yeshiva located some four miles away in Brooklyn's Midwood section. This claim was immediately suspect since the permit listed the wrong address for the yeshiva. Neighbors also learned that the so-called "faculty housing" exception that let buildings be twice as big as otherwise allowed was declared null and void last year by the City Planning Department.
There is good reason these days for residents of Brooklyn's neighborhoods to feel a bit paranoid. Last week, an internationally acclaimed architect, the Canadian-born Frank Gehry, who lives in Southern California, unveiled his idea of what downtown Brooklyn should becomea maze of skyscrapers surrounding the proposed new Nets arena on Atlantic Avenue. Gehry's concept immediately made people think of the sun-starved canyons of midtown. Brownstone Brooklyn recoiled in horror. We moved here to get away from big high-rises, residents cried.
But Manhattan-style shadows were already looming long before Gehry, and it wasn't a famous imported architect who designed the proposed building on 15th Street. That work was the creation of a local professional named Henry Radusky, one of the borough's most prodigious architects, whose nickname could be "Too Tall." Radusky's big buildings already clot the Brooklyn landscape. The new six-story building on Clermont Avenue towering over its Fort Greene neighborhood that was supposed to be luxury apartments but turned out to be a homeless hotel? That was Radusky's work. The one on Taaffe Place that collapsed a neighbor's warehouse in 2000? Radusky's as well. The monolithic condo tower at Prospect Park Southwest and 16th Street, built with a windowless rear wall that neighbors dubbed the Tombstone? Radusky.
The architect has also been citywide champion at using the "faculty housing" bonus, a canny developer tactic dating to the early '90s. On his clients' behalf, Radusky successfully won more than two dozen approvals for projects twice as big as otherwise allowed, arguing that they fell under the zoning code's "community facility" rules if built for school faculty. In an example of municipal cross-purposes, the city's planning department never recognized faculty housing as legitimate, but the buildings department allowed it. The practice was most widely employed in the housing-hungry Orthodox section of Williamsburg, where, despite the original claim, many units were later sold as condominiums. City officials who challenged the claims did so at their peril. In a notorious episode, former Brooklyn buildings commissioner Joseph Trivisonno tried in 1997 to revoke a faculty housing permit for a Williamsburg property only to find himself out of a job after developers complained to aides to then Mayor Giuliani.
To see Radusky's latest work, the Park Slope neighbors had only to take a short walk to 22nd Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, an area near Green-Wood Cemetery that real estate marketers are now calling "So-Slo," as in South Slope. There, Radusky, in tandem with the same developer as on the 15th Street site, last year designed another nine-story edifice, one that pops out amid the two- and three-story frame homes like an NBA center in a kindergarten class. There, too, Radusky won the faculty housing bonus, saying the units would house staff of the same school listed in the 15th Street project, Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel, located at Avenue J and Ocean Avenue in Midwood.
The yeshiva never used the apartments, however, and the units were instead rented to Methodist Hospital for use by interns and residents. A Methodist spokeswoman said the hospital began renting the building early last year. The yeshiva's principal, who gave his name as Rabbi Steinfeld, denied any knowledge of the deal. "We made an application in Park Slope? I know nothing about it," he told the Voice.