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On February 24, about eight East New York residents stood on a post-industrial street corner, bundled in boots and scarves as they braved the brutal minus-6-degree wind chill (the actual temperature was a balmy 19 degrees) to protest the demolition of an iconic neighborhood bank, which currently sits at 91 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The four-story building, formerly home to the East New York Savings Bank, was built in 1889 in the Renaissance Revival style by respected American architect Richard Upjohn Jr. It’s one of the few tall buildings in the mostly low-density neighborhood. And community members like Chris Banks, director of East New York United Concerned Citizens, say it’s a local treasure.
“People think nothing is here. They look at East New York as a ‘new frontier,’ ” he says. “There are things here that exist. There are working people here. There are families here. We need to protect the things that have kind of been ignored, not tear them down.”
Arthur Warren, thirty, has lived in the neighborhood since he was seven years old. “What I’m really fighting for is this right here — it’s a landmark,” he says. “When I saw the scaffolding I thought it was under renovation. I didn’t even know they were tearing it down…this may be a lost cause, but we still have to try.”
Residents in this tight-knit, low-income community say they’d like to see a plan for the building that makes it a multi-use space and preserves the historic exterior.
Banks, who is also a member of Community Board 5, says he only learned on February 23 that the building’s owner had successfully applied for a demolition permit. His group snapped into action, he says, and called a press conference for the following day.
“I read about it in Brownstoner,” he says, referring to a February 11 report about the demolition plans. “Community Board 5 knew nothing about this. I think there’s not a lot of respect for the community.”
Despite that sentiment, East New Yorkers are already organizing — and seeing results.
After learning about the demolition plans, Banks has already talked to U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who represents Brooklyn. Jeffries is looking into whether it’s possible to apply for landmark status for the building through the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission: “We’re hoping the mayor can rescind the permits,” Banks says.
But according to the city commission, someone had already applied for a “request for evaluation,” to decide whether the building at 91 Pennsylvania Avenue was a historical landmark. The application was submitted on the week of February 9, the same week that a Brownstoner article about the planned demolition was published.
“Since a valid Department of Buildings demolition permit for the building has already been issued, the commission cannot override the permit, as per the Landmarks Law,” says Damaris Olivo, a spokesman for the commission. The permit was issued in May 2014.
But perhaps the chill-inducing (meteorologically speaking) rally was the beginning of a thaw in the proceedings. Banks says he received a call from developer Jonas Rudofsky, who owns the property, only shortly after the 11:15 a.m. press conference. “We had a conversation. No commitments, but he does want to meet,” says Banks. “If he’s willing to work with us, it may turn out to be good.”
Calls to architect Udo Maron, who filed the plans for the new building, were not returned. Rudofsky declined to comment, instead saying he would pass information on to his public relations representatives. If they get back to us, we will update this story.