Withdrawal of Eminent Domain Findings Gives Hope to Duffield St. Preservationists: Brooklyn NY Daily Eagle, 10/17/07

But City Says It’s Only a Technical Error

By Sarah Ryley

Advocates for the preservation of homes allegedly once involved in the Underground Railroad are viewing the city’s recent withdrawal of eminent domain findings concerning one of those homes as a renewed opportunity to save them. City officials, on the other hand, say the reversal was due to a technical oversight.

Seth Donlin, spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said a blight determination that included the 21 lots on three blocks in Downtown Brooklyn in question was prepared for the department by environmental consulting firm AKRF in November 2003. But it was mistakenly not entered into public record at last May’s eminent domain hearing, requiring the reversal of the findings and a new public hearing scheduled for Oct. 29.

He said the blight determination would have to be obtained by making a formal Freedom of Information Law Request before it’s entered into public record.

“It is something that was produced specifically for the proceedings for eminent domain, and there is a specific time for which it is supposed to be made public,” he said. “Unfortunately, because of some oversight, it was not entered as it should have been [at the first hearing in May].”

Track Data, a financial firm with 150 employees; a rent-stabilized apartment building that houses 40 families; a handful of parking lots; and Amber Art and Music Space are also at risk of being displaced. Attorney Jennifer Levy, who represents one rent-stabilized tenant, and Joy Chatel, the partial owner of a home allegedly involved in the Underground Railroad, said she doesn’t believe there were any specific blight findings. Levy said the original urban renewal plan for Downtown Brooklyn found blight in very specific properties, but was later expanded to include a general area deemed blighted. This may not be substantive enough, in the eyes of the court, to justify the seizure of personal property. “I guess we’ll have to see what they have that they haven’t produced.”

“I was never briefed or given a copy of any blight study,” said Councilwoman Letitia James, a supporter of the Duffield Street homeowners. James said AKRF did a study in 2003 determining that the area was in need of redevelopment as part of the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, which City Council enacted, authorizing the use of eminent domain to achieve that goal. “Separate and apart from that, one has to do a blight study,” she said. “I don’t think they did any study at all.”

The city plans to seize half the block bounded by Duffield, Gold, Fulton and Willoughby streets to build a one-acre public plaza and an underground parking lot, which would eventually be walled in by high-rises if the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning manifests itself as envisioned. The two other blocks under consideration for eminent domain are within the BAM Cultural District.

The public parking lot would also be used by the 500-room Aloft/Sheraton hotel duo now under construction on that block.

Gene Kaufman, president of Gene Kaufman Architect PC, which designed the hotels, said underground parking is an enormous cost for hotel developers — at least $25,000 per space when considering excavation, and more if the water table needs to be broken — that provides little return since many spaces go unused. “Fortunately, we’re directly across the street from an 800-space underground parking garage and one-acre public plaza that the city is building at no cost to us. We see that as an ideal parking solution.”

“That certainly explains more than the strange allegiance to the idea of having the park right there,” Levy quipped.

Although a perk for some customers, Kaufman said there would be little effect on the hotels if the parking lot is not built, since most visitors to the city take mass transit.

The City Council made one contingency on the seizure of the Duffield Street homes when it passed the rezoning plan — that a study look into claims that the seven homes on Duffield and Gold streets were once used by fugitive slaves as safe havens along the Underground Railroad.

AKRF also conducted that study, but found no conclusive evidence to support those claims.

Advocates of preserving those homes for a museum have questioned the findings, although the study was by all accounts the most extensive done on Downtown Brooklyn’s abolitionist activity.

“I think it was wrong for [the City Council] to say that the area needed further study, yet signed off on eminent domain,” said Levy. “I don’t think they should have approved the expansion of the urban renewal area without determining that each specific site was blighted.”

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