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Planned Crown Heights Facility for Mentally Ill Angers Homeowners

By Sonja Sharp | September 26, 2013 8:29am
 Scores of longtime Crown Heights homeowners oppose plans to build apartments for the mentally ill on their block.
Scores of longtime Crown Heights homeowners oppose plans to build apartments for the mentally ill on their block.
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DNAinfo/Sonja Sharp

CROWN HEIGHTS — Longtime homeowners in Crown Heights are raving mad over plans to build an eight-story housing complex for mentally ill New Yorkers on their quiet, residential block. 

More than 100 angry locals heckled and jeered through a Tuesday night presentation by The Bridge, a supportive housing developer with plans to build a 64-unit mixed-use apartment complex for mentally ill and low-income residents with entrances at 829 Maple St. and 918 East New York Ave. 

"There's nothing but people who own their homes on that block," said homeowner Darren Herrington. "Everybody from my street and my block association is here trying to find out how they can stop it. There's not one person [from the neighborhood] who's not here." 

Developers were quick to explain that the facility would house "men and women who have advanced significantly in their recovery from a serious mental health condition," adding that The Bridge's other New York City facilities have all been good neighbors.

Bridge CEO Dr. Peter Beitchman detailed what he hopes would be benefits of the project, including 13 units of affordable housing, publicly accessible common areas and a community garden. 

"When I was at a mixed building recently, there were kids going into the community room, where there [was] milk and cookies laid out, and then they made a beeline for the computer room," Beitchman said.

"While people are concerned about our population or concerned about mental illness, once the buildings open, they fit very well into the neighborhood."

But locals said they've spent years dealing with mentally ill patients who wander from nearby Kingsborough Psychiatric Center, and that adding more to the mix would make the area unsafe for the scores of children who play there after school, sometimes until 10 p.m.

"I had a mental patient come up on my steps and take his pants off in front of my 12-year-old daughter," said longtime resident Frank Gilkes. "When I heard they were planning a home for mental patients, I had to relive that horror." 

The meeting took a particularly rancorous turn when Beitchman drew an analogy between those living with diabetes — an ailment that afflicts 12 percent of residents in Central Brooklyn, a far greater proportion than elsewhere in the city — to mental illness. 

"There's a very strong analogy between diabetes and mental illness," Beitchman said. "There's no cure for diabetes, or for people with mental illness. But if they take their medication...patients can live long, successful lives." 

Resident said they were especially galled that developers hadn't informed them of plans to build on the long-vacant lot until sharp-eyed neighbors spotted surveyors there during their annual block party in July.

At the urging of community board district manager Pearl Miles, Bridge representatives first contacted homeowners on Sept. 11, just two weeks before the Sept. 24 community board meeting where they informed unhappy locals the ink was already dry. 

"They came with their plans and they told us it was done," said Denise Mann, president of the local block association. "We were in the dark."

Unlike other parts of Crown Heights, the blocks surrounding the proposed complex are largely composed of detached homes, many of which have been owned and occupied by the same families for generations.  

"Me, my wife and my family, we had to break the barrier to move into this neighborhood in 1962," said homeowner Martin Adams, 78. "This is our investment. How are they going to put up a development in our backyard?"