The Bed-Stuy community is heartbroken after a mansion was viciously torn down last week by developers. Local electeds and leaders were fervently racing against the clock to get the “beloved” building landmarked, but were unsuccessful.
Brooklyn Councilmember Chi Ossé, Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman, and members of the Willoughby Nostrand Marcy Block Association were heavily involved in the fight to save the mansion. They were as equally distraught as passersby that saw the building torn into with a giant wrecking ball and excavator last Thursday, July 21.
“I’m definitely disturbed by the process that led to this point,” said Ossé, “especially the unacceptable lack of transparency and community input from these developers. Tomer Erlich in particular. Bed-Stuy has an important history to preserve.”
Ossé said that there is of course a housing crisis that necessitates building, but he condemned the “shady tactics” that developers used in this case.
The over 120-year-old French gothic revival mansion was located at 441 Willoughby Avenue, on the corner of Nostrand Avenue, in Brooklyn. It had been owned since 1967 by the Free Masons of New York United Grand Chapter Order of the Eastern Star, which is a Black, Christian non profit organization that contributes to the NAACP, The Deborah Heart Foundation, The Sickle Cell Anemia Fund, and Save the Children of Somalia Foundation, as well as various other causes.
The masonic organization reportedly had a $2.3 million lien on the property, and they ultimately decided to sell to real estate developer Tomer Erlich for about $1.5 million. Erlich has been erecting residential buildings across Brooklyn since 2015. “They were in financial trouble,” said Zinerman. “They were offered money and they took it.”
The BKReader reported that Erlich had filed a permit for demolition back in May before the sale of the building was finalized. In a hail mary, electeds and the community tried to get the mansion landmarked to prevent developers from destroying it. On June 7, Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) held a hearing about landmarking the building. Zinerman said that it was a 74-2 decision, the dissenting votes being that of the developers and the masons. That delayed any action on the building for the required 40 days while LPC deliberated, even though there was already a cease and desist order from the Department of Buildings (DOB).
“Apparently what happened was the developer was the only one looking at the clock,” said Zinerman.
LPC did not decide whether or not to landmark the mansion within 40 days, which was on July 17. Two days later, on the 19th, the demo permits were approved. Henry L. Butler, district manager for Community Board 3, said that this was the “most disappointing part” of the whole ordeal.
“The question everyone should be asking is why LPC did not make a decision,” said Butler, “Why call a hearing and then don’t make a decision.”
Under the ‘Landmarks Law,’ said a mayor’s office spokesperson, a DOB demolition permit issued prior to designation is valid and the work can move forward. Zinerman said that the mayor’s office learned of the demo permits then and reached out to Ossé. She said that “legally” the mayor told her that he couldn’t stop DOB or LPC. So she pivoted to file for an injunction with affidavits instead. But it was too late.
“I went over there and literally stood there while they just demolished the building,” said Zinerman. “And the crime is, what I’m calling environmental violence, the fire chiefs were there. Somebody called them, because there was no covering around that building, no sheeting or anything that could protect anybody living on the block.”
Zinerman said she was across the street, in a yellow white polka dot dress, and was covered from head to foot with debris from the building.
“How does DOB allow a permit for something that’s being contested [and] not come on site to ensure that all the necessary precautions were taken care of? Are you kidding me?” said Zinerman.
DOB did receive a large number of 311 complaints for illegal and dangerous construction occurring at 441 Willoughby Avenue, said the mayor’s office. DOB inspectors investigated the complaints and at the conclusion of their inspection of the property “determined the complaints were unfounded.” However, in response to calls, they routed inspectors back to the scene, said the mayor’s office.
On scene, the inspectors found that the contractors were using an ‘unpermitted’ excavator on site to assist with the permitted demolition work. DOB then issued a Full Stop Work Order at the site, which was more or less pointless at that point considering the building had already been caved in.
“As the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered this building for potential designation as a landmark, the developer was able to legally obtain demolition permits. We will continue listening to and working with the community to help address any concerns about the future of this site,” said a mayor’s office spokesperson, who declined to be named.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w