By Helen Klein
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Ridge Boulevard between 76th and 77th Streets may be the poster child for everything that careful, contextual zoning can’t accomplish.
Dominated by a trio of expansive, traditional homes for decades, the strip is now a study in change, and a dramatic illustration of the limitations on preservation inherent in zoning which can put restrictions on bulk, height and density but which imposes no aesthetic strictures, and also allows open space to shrink.
The house on the corner of 77th was illegally demolished about a decade ago and the replacement that finally is being erected by a subsequent owner, with the blessing of the city’s Department of Buildings, is larger, with less green space around it.
The house on the corner of 76th, a classic brick beauty, is still untouched. But it was recently sold; people who know the new owners say that they are going to restore it carefully, keeping it as it currently appears.
As for the house in the middle of the block, 7616, a white frame structure that dates back to the early 20th century, it also recently changed hands, and now has a construction fence around it, which set off alarm bells for preservationist Victoria Hofmo, who has spent decades working to maintain Bay Ridge’s graceful and gracious streetscape.
Hofmo happened to be walking along Ridge Boulevard when she noticed activity at the home, with people removing items from within. She asked what was going on and was told “renovation.” The word triggered a flood of concerns, for her and then for other area residents, after she posted her questions about the fate of the structure on Facebook.
Research reveals that half a dozen DOB permits have been pulled, for the fence, for a curb cut and for storm drains. But, an interview with the new owner, Bay Ridge native Najeeb Cabbad, revealed that this is just the beginning.
In an exclusive interview with this newspaper, Cabbad said that he would be keeping the basic structure, while constructing an addition on the left side, as you face the house, in an area that is currently grass-covered.
However, he confirmed that he would be removing the existing vinyl siding and was unsure, at this time, what its replacement would be, possibly white siding, possibly siding of a different color, possibly something else such as brick. “It’s going to look like the same house but better,” he said. “It’s going to be upgraded.
“I’m not knocking it down,” stressed Cabbad – who said he had previously restored a brownstone on 76th Street. “The house is very old and needs to be updated. I’m trying to keep the integrity and history of the home by keeping the existing structure. I’m going to be putting a lot of money into the house. It will enhance the neighborhood.”
Inside, the house is being totally gutted, said Cabbad, who said that he had given the architectural details, including stained-glass windows, a stained-glass door and pocket doors, to a friend to reuse. “I wasn’t throwing them in a landfill. He will give all that beautiful old work another life.”
Why gut it if he loves the details so much? They “don’t go with the new classic look” he’s striving for, Cabbad said, and also limit his ability to relocate rooms to enhance life in the home. “I’m looking to grow old in the house and raise my kids there,” Cabbad said.
Hofmo, whose first major preservation effort resulted in the landmarking of the mid-19th century Bennett-Farrell House on 95th Street and who subsequently helped found the Bay Ridge Conservancy, said she was saddened by the home’s fate.
Mourning the removal of all the details that made the home special, she told this paper, “What will become of the exterior? Will it be preserved or will it be replaced with substandard brick that has become so popular or, worse, Styrofoam and cement? Will the existing footprint remain, or will it overbuild like the monstrosity next door? Will the beautiful green space and landscaping survive or will they be replaced with concrete and hard surfaces? Nobody knows.”
Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Community Board 10, stressed that contextual zoning, which was employed in 2005 when the Special Bay Ridge District was updated, effectively “reflects existing housing.”
However, it doesn’t, she went on, have requirements as to what materials are used in new construction and renovations. “A lot of setbacks [the distance between the façade and the property line] and some of the architectural features are just lost during renovation,” she said. “The buildings look very different. Bulk, height and density are the parameters. There are no protections for aesthetics in the text.”
The house at the corner of Ridge and 77th is a perfect example of that. The new building going up, Beckmann noted, “is very different. The green space is no longer there.”
Given climate issues, the loss of green space has resiliency implications that go beyond aesthetics, Beckmann added. However, currently, “The only protection is the Streetscape Text Amendment,” which requires only “a measly 25 percent,” said Beckmann. The question for the board then becomes, “Within the Special Bay Ridge District, is there an opportunity to preserve and protect front and side yard plantings?”
This issue, and others raised by Hofmo, will be brought before the board’s Zoning and Land Use Committee, said Beckmann, to see if there’s anything that can be done, going forward.
Beyond the limitations of zoning, changes in rules for renovation have had an impact. While, once upon a time, the city of New York considered taking a single wall of a structure down to be demolition, triggering notifications to the local community board and nearby neighbors, that was changed several years ago, said Beckmann.
Now, if a single wall is left standing, explained Hofmo, it’s “not a demolition,” so there’s no need to notify anyone, once the DOB issues permits. And, indeed, often these can be gotten through a streamlined self-certification process, which means a plan examiner doesn’t even check the architect’s plans.
The result, Hofmo contended, is a “lack of oversight.” Basically, unscrupulous architects can make assertions that are inaccurate (such as underestimating the bulk of a building), and if they’re not caught by a random audit, they go through.
Another sore spot for Hofmo is that owners can get demolition plans approved without having approved construction plans for the building that is to replace the one being demolished. “A builder should have approved DOB plans before demolition,” she contended.
If that protocol were established, holes in the ground such as the one on Fourth Avenue and 76th Street where an old building that once housed a preschool was demolished in 2019 would be less likely to scar the neighborhood.
Overall, though, it’s the impact on the community as a whole that most perturbs Hofmo.
“Bay Ridge’s built environment is a huge component of what makes it special,” she said. “Our built environment determines our quality of life. Our stately homes are the pinnacle of craftsmanship and deserve to be treasured. They cannot be replaced and, once gone, are lost forever. The results have not created more affordable housing, but rising prices and the erosion of a key element that makes Bay Ridge unique and beautiful.”