Crumbled bricks and tangled weeds lie untouched on the ground of 2 Fillmore Place, a vacant lot surrounded by a barbed wire fence, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved an application on Aug. 12 to construct a glass preschool on the southwest corner of Fillmore Place and Driggs Avenue. The school will occupy the former site of a toy factory that sat idle for over 40 years. But despite the site’s disuse, some residents have mounted a fight to preserve the character of the mid-nineteenth century brick row houses on Williamsburg’s only landmarked block, Fillmore Place Historic District.
“This is the only home I know and I don’t want to lose it,” said Maribel Medina, a longtime Fillmore Place resident. The red brick house that sits adjacent to the vacant lot is the home that Medina, 46, has memories of that date back to the age of four. Her main concern is keeping the 140-year-old house intact during construction. “With any project, to my understanding, when you’re going to do some kind of construction, you have to also think about the people who are next to you.”
High noise levels and increased traffic on the one-block-long street are other concerns of residents. The School at Fillmore Place is seeking a zoning variance from the Board of Standards (BSA) that would permit it to increase its number of students from 47 to 77, and permit the construction of a rooftop playground. A decision will be made by the end of September, according to Martin Finio, architect of the school.
“This building has been designed to protect everyone and everything around it during and after construction,” said Finio. “Our team has taken great care to design foundations and walls that won’t put any additional weight or force on the adjacent buildings, and we will continuously monitor the conditions of these buildings during construction to make sure they remain stable and secure. We want to work together with our neighbors during construction to ensure their safety and security.”
Although the district has a long history of urban development, it is one marked by almost constant flux in terms of the ethnic origins of its population and the nature of business activity there. Most of the buildings were Italianate style, three-story brick residences occupied by working-class tenants. These multi-family flats were the brainchild of merchant tailors from New York City, Alfred Clock and Ephraim Miller. In the late 1840s, they bought property on the block. The houses came into the picture nearly 20 years later.
Upon the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, Jewish immigrants moved from the Lower East Side to Fillmore Place. Eastern Europeans were largely represented in the community as owners and renters. The block became predominantly Puerto Rican in the 20th-century. The majority of the residents own their property and have lived and raised families there for several decades.
Residents express skepticism about the population that the for-profit school is meant to serve, because it requires an annual minimum tuition of $20,000 per student, a price tag no resident can afford.
“A modern design can be perfectly appropriate at the designated location,” Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, said. The residents’ prediction of higher rents that will force low-income minorities out are dramatic assumptions, said Dolkart. According to him, architects should have the freedom to design architecture of the time and because a preschool is being built instead of luxury apartments, the residents should not be concerned about being ousted.
“Buildings are built within historic districts all of the time, but it’s a bad proposal and the design is inappropriate to the historic context,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of Historic Districts Council.
The idea of modern buildings being built in addition to or in the vicinity of designated historic landmarks is not new. The Domino Sugar Factory complex and the Brooklyn Museum of Art are results of the landmarks commission deeming contemporary construction to be permissible on the grounds of protected, historical districts.