Expansion plans for the Brooklyn Music School got a boost this month when New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved a substantially-revised design for the project.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 9 to 1 to accept, with some modifications, FXCollaborative’s design for a 23-story, 265-feet-tall residential tower at 130 Saint Felix Street that would contain an expansion for the music school at its base.
The vote came six weeks after the commission declined a previous plan for a 24-story, 285-feet-tall building on a surface lot next to the school’s current home.
After seeing the revised design, most panel members said they believe the architects had responded to their concerns and that the shorter tower is now appropriate for the historic district.
“I was a little skeptical about how they were going to make it work, but there are many things about this new version that are extremely successful,” said Jeanne Lutfy, one of the commissioners who approved the revised proposal.
“This is a vast improvement,” added panel member Wellington Chen. “The applicant has done a great job.”
The Brooklyn Music School has been working with a developer, the Gotham Organization, on plans for a high rise that would contain 20,000 square feet of space for the school on the first two levels and basement and about 120 condominiums above.
The school’s expansion will include a digital music lab and dance and rehearsal space. A portion of the upper-level residences will contain Mandatory Inclusionary Housing units for moderate-income homeowners, and the rest will be market rate. The developers still need city zoning approval for the project.
The earlier plan drew opposition from neighbors and preservationists who said it would overwhelm the much lower townhouses across the street and block views of the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, a 41-story landmark on the same block that has been converted to condominiums and is now known as One Hanson Place.
Members of the preservation panel also expressed concern in the earlier hearing that the massing of the tower was too close to St. Felix Street. And, because the top of the proposed tower was the same height as the “shoulder” of One Hanson Place, several commissioners said, they were afraid it would be mistaken for an extension of the older building.
After the first meeting, New York-based FXCollaborative came back with a design for a tower that no longer rises to the shoulder of One Hanson Place. The architects also set the mass of the tower back 40 feet from St. Felix Street and more toward Ashland Place, on the opposite side of the block. They lowered the height of the building’s base on St. Felix Street so it has more of a townhouse scale, gave the tower an additional setback near the top, simplified materials and colors, and moved the service entrance to Ashland Place.
Daniel Kaplan, a senior partner of FXCollaborative, said the panel’s earlier comments helped improve the building’s design.
“We’ve pushed the tower 30 feet towards Ashland and away from St. Felix. We’ve reduced the tower height by […] 20 feet so it’s clearly differentiated and subservient” to One Hanson Place, he told the panel.
The design team wants to create a tower that offers a “contemporary take on Art Deco” high-rise architecture and “does not feel like an addition to One Hanson Place,” Kaplan said. “We believe that the revised proposal is appropriate and really will be a positive addition to the historic district.”
Not everyone was satisfied with the changes. Although public testimony wasn’t permitted at the meeting for the revised design, the panel received more than 70 letters in opposition versus only 11 letters in support, according to Rich Stein, the commission’s intergovernmental and community affairs coordinator.
Commissioner John Gustafsson said that despite the changes, he just didn’t believe a tall building was appropriate for that location.
“For me, it’s not about the design and the details,” he said. “There’s a more threshold issue, which is, I find the height and the massing to be inappropriate. And I think, if you could see a panoramic video in 360, it would become clear what the level of the impact of this building is on the Williamsburgh Savings Bank/One Hanson Place.”
Even with the lower profile, “this building is alien to the district” because of its height and massing, Gustafsson said. “It ruins the memory of the architectural drama of the Williamsburg Savings Bank and it’s shoehorned into what is not a skyscraper district. I think it quite clearly undermines the historic sense of place of this terrific little district.”
Gustafsson said he appreciated the team’s efforts to modify the design. “I think it is a good building and the applicants made a strong effort,” he said. “But I still continue to believe that it’s in the wrong place.”
Gustafsson was outnumbered by the other commissioners.
“I think that what they have come back with is a much-improved proposal,” said commissioner Anne Holford-Smith. It “fits much better in with all of the existing buildings…Moving the mass over to Ashland was a big improvement.”
“It’s very important that they took some height off the building,” Lutfy said. “It helps it fit better…And the fact that they shifted the bulk of the building to Ashland also tucks the building in a little more neatly on St. Felix Street. I also think the way they handled the setbacks was very important at the base of the building on St. Felix Street and further up, so that it does not compete…significantly with the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building. “
Commissioner Michael Goldblum said he believed this is an atypical situation because the Brooklyn Academy of Music historic district contains buildings of various scales, all close to each other.
“I’m usually very skeptical about mid-block towers that rise in a place where towers usually don’t rise in the typology of the city,” he said. “But this block and this particular neighborhood…make this I think an unusual case where a midblock volume like this could be acceptable. “
With the revisions, “I think the relationship with the bank building is improved,” he said. “It just seems much more natural. I think that at that scale it totally works.”
In their motion, the panel members asked that the development team continue to work with the commission staff to refine the design of the St. Felix Street entrance and the Ashland Place street wall. The developers have indicated they’d like to start construction in 2021 and complete the building in 2023.