Bed-Stuy residents near 441 Willoughby Ave., where the 120-year-old Dangler Mansion used to be, are still mourning the loss of the historic building they fought so hard to try and get landmarked. They’ve pivoted their fight with a list of demands centered around reforming the city’s bureaucratic landmarking and permit processes.
The Jacob Dangler Mansion was a 120-year-old French-Gothic building at the corner of Willoughby and Nostrand Avenues. It was owned by the Free Masons of New York United Grand Chapter Order of the Eastern Star, a Black nonprofit organization, since 1967. 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 of Brooklyn 360 Realty.
The JusticeFor441Willoughby group is composed of community members and neighbors who sprung into action to save the mansion. Michael “Unofficial Mayor of the Block” Williams, Willoughby Nostrand Block Association Vice President Lauren Cawdrey, Becca Abellera, Jules Bartkowski and Joanne Joyner Wells, among others, are all residents in the area.
“You look at a building that’s been there all my life and now you walk to the corner and it’s no longer there,” said Williams, a longtime Bed-Stuy resident. “Everyday I walk to that corner, I’m totally upset ‘cause the memories—my parents, my brothers and sisters and I all attended that building.”
Wells added that she as well as her parents had their wedding receptions at the mansion. She said they are not against housing but would like that the new building at least match and honor the historic significance of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood.
Along with elected officials Councilmember Chi Ossé and Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman, the group attempted to get the building landmarked. The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) failed to make a decision before the Department of Buildings’ (DOB) stop work order ended, which allowed for a technical window to open up. Erlich quickly filed for a demolition permit and began knocking down the building almost immediately with illegal equipment. Throughout the process, Erlich had over $100,000 in fines, 13 citations, 89 complaints, and visits from cops and the fire department.
“There is no doubt that New York City, and this neighborhood in particular, face an acute housing crisis…We need to build more housing,” said Ossé in a statement.
“The opaque tactics the developer, Tomer Erlich, used in this case mirror those used across the city, and prove that most are not good-faith partners in addressing this need.”
Several witnesses and electeds said that Erlich did not follow proper procedures and “recklessly” took the mansion down in haste, causing a wave of dust and debris all over community members present. Most of the JusticeFor441Willoughby crew believe this was done antagonistically towards them since demolition plans indicated Erlich had intended to take it down in phases not all at once.
Now the community group has compiled a list of demands and reforms to combat the distinct lack of transparency on the part of the LPC, the DOB, the Mayor’s Office and Erlich. The list includes calls for a major overhaul of the LPC in order to ensure adequate accountability, breaking up the DOB into more manageable departments, a community land trust at 441 Willoughby Ave., and landmarking of brownstones on Willoughby Avenue between Nostrand Avenue and Marcy Avenue.
“It’s bigger than Willoughby Avenue,” said Wells. “When you look at a borough like this and you know that Black and brown people are getting edged out, pushed out, shoved out of a community via a lot of methods like deed theft and violations. The rules need to be for everyone. The same permit process I have to deal with should be the same one Tomer Erlich has to deal with.”
Additionally, JusticeFor441Willoughby has appealed to State Attorney General Letitia James to prohibit the sale of the mansion’s lot to Erlich and to investigate his other real estate dealings. “He has made himself a millionaire by maintaining this tempo of destroying, dismantling, offensively replacing,” said Bartkowski, another resident, “and then quickly relinquishing to vultures the land ownership and the historic buildings of Bed-Stuy, while flouting rules that are poorly enforced and easily corruptible.”
Erlich’s building proposal is a 44-unit 7-story high rise building with 30% affordable housing. The Amsterdam News reached out to Erlich about the tensions between him and community members. “The demo is done. It’s done by rights and courts. Nothing was done wrong. We got the permits from the DOB and we demolished the building,” said Erlich. “It’s private property and that’s it.”
He said that he had “nothing to say” directly to community members.
“Earlier this year, as the Jacob Dangler House at 441 Willoughby was going through the designation process, a technological limitation predating this administration resulted in an extremely rare process error, which prevented LPC from receiving information on the status of its pending demolition application at DOB. We have already taken immediate steps to prevent such issues from happening again. Mayor Adams is committed to preserving the rich history of our City while also promoting the necessary development needed to help get New Yorkers out from underneath the ongoing housing crisis,” said DOB and LPC in a joint statement.
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://bit.ly/amnews1