Landmarks Commission Debates Brooklyn Heights Cinema Demolition

By Janet Upadhye on December 21, 2012 12:04pm 

BROOKLYN HEIGHTS —  As a teenager, Brooklyn Heights Cinema owner Kenn Lowy stood in line outside the historic theater's double doors, eager to catch the latest flicks alongside a string of first dates.

He saw Steven Spielberg's classic "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" at the historic theater in 1977. And nearly 40 years later he bought the struggling but beloved neighborhood staple, vowing to keep it in business for generations to come.

But Lowy's skirmish to revive the plucky film house has become a battleground between developers and preservation advocates, as the Landmarks Preservation Committee debates whether to allow the owner of the landmarked 1895 building the cinema calls home to demolish and replace it with a 5-story condo.

According to LPC spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon, not all 11 commissioners attended the meeting and the six votes needed to approve or deny the proposal at their Nov. 27 meeting.

She said the commission discussed a revision to the design for the new building, which Commissioner Michael Goldblum felt was “too reminiscent of the industrial Art Deco architecture, an inappropriate style for the district,” but no definitive request was made or conclusion reached.

De Bourbon said the LPC does not have an upcoming meeting scheduled yet, and could not immediately say when a decision might be made.

Jane McGroarty of the Brooklyn Heights Association called 70 Henry St. — one of the last buildings from 1800’s left standing in the area — “one of the handsomest commercial buildings in the district."

To some movie-goers, the building’s muraled ceilings, stained star-patterned carpeted floors, dual entrance stairways and 150-seat sloping theaters hold historical value. The ornate cornice-covered facade and and boxy construction have survived centuries of nearby demolition which claimed most of the other buildings that were made in the same era.

“70 Henry Street is a contributing building within the historic district on two levels: it is both architecturally and culturally significant to our neighborhood,” Council Member Stephen Levin wrote in a statement to the commission.

Others worried about the precedent set by demolishing protected relics of the past.  

“If we allow for one building to be lost, what is to happen to others?” asked Levin. “That is why we have a landmarks law in the first place: to protect the buildings most at risk of being lost to overzealous development.”

But according to Randy Gerner, architect of the proposed new building, 70 Henry St. has been renovated so many times over the last 75 years, including a commission-approved makeover in 1971, that it has lost its historic claim.

In addition, he said, its columns are falling apart and the building is deteriorating. He believes that his design — which includes space for a “state-of-the-art” theater — will provide a much-needed upgrade to a cinema that is coming apart at the seams.

The building was designed “with a great deal of thought and respect for the historic neighborhood,” Gerner said.

Lowy said Caruana guaranteed the cinema would have a place on the ground floor of the new condominium once it reopens, albeit with a rent hike and less square footage.

He said he's been told to expect an 18-month displacement, but said he's grateful to be included in the plans for the new building.

Still, Lowy said that he's focused less on the battle over the building, and more on the fate of the cinema. He's eager to secure permission to move on with securing a temporary space or upgrading his current site, and is hopeful for the future of his little cinema that could.

“I am an eternal optimist,” he said. “I know we will continue to screen films whether in this building or one that is yet to be built.”

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