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'Monolithic' Clinton Hill townhouse passes LPC despite community dissent

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The four-story, single-family home is a modern interpretation of the carriage houses on the street

By Ramona Albert Architecture, P.C. via LPC

A “monumental” single family townhouse spanning four stories and located on a block mostly lined with brownstones and carriage houses has now been approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, despite opposition from neighbors and the local community board.

Plans for the townhouse at 311 Vanderbilt Avenue, which doesn’t quite fall in megamansion territory, were filed in July 2016. Since the property is located within the Clinton Hill Historic District, the owner needed the Commission’s approval to move forward.

The Commissioners were largely in favor of the project, with eight voting for approval, (including LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan) and two voting against. That being said, the LPC as a whole agreed that the owner and the architect should work with the LPC staff to change the faux-travertine facade, and perhaps pick a darker color that blends in better with the surrounding buildings.

That enthusiasm was in stark contrast to public opinion of the project. Though fewer than 10 people testified about the project, all spoke out against it, saying it was completely out of context both in the neighborhood and on that particular stretch of Vanderbilt Avenue.

Next-door neighbor Kathleen Walsh, who said her family has lived in the neighborhood since the 1890s, said the pre-construction work on the site had been disruptive, and expressed concerns about what a full-scale build would do to her home and the other structures on the block.

“We don’t understand why this last pit of land has to be built on,” Walsh said, talking about the house being built on an empty lot. “The last little piece of open space on this block will be gone. Please preserve what’s left of brownstone Brooklyn.”

In her presentation, architect Ramona Albert said her firm’s design had been inspired by the carriage houses in the neighborhood, particularly the geometry along the facade like so:

She also pointed to the David Adjaye-designed Modernist home at 208 Vanderbilt Avenue as an example of out-of-context buildings existing harmoniously with the neighborhood’s historic structures.

Kelly Carroll from the Historic Districts Council disagreed, pointing first to the fact that the Adjaye home fell outside of the historic district, and saying that “it is of a smaller scale with no visible rooftop addition, thus defaulting to its historic neighbor. Its non-traditional material choice is broken up into panels on the façade, eradicating an appearance of a monolith. Its window openings, while not symmetrical, also play to a tripartite configuration.”

She didn’t feel the same about Albert’s design.

“The proposed design is a grand gesture imposed on a monolithic, asymmetric façade which results in an interruption of the scale of the block,” Carroll said, reading from a statement.

“Monolithic” and “monumental” were words several of commissioners used in their description of the design, and pointed to the church at the corner of Vanderbilt and Lafayette Avenues (Queens of All Saints Church) as a seemingly stronger source of inspiration for the architecture firm.

The commissioners ended up having a robust discussion over the design elements with many commending the modern, contextual interpretation of the surrounding homes, while others had concerns about the design being too overstated, and the building itself having an institutional look. In the end however, the commissioners decided to approve the project.

“This block is varied enough to allow for a different palette,” LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan noted. “I think the building is very contextual, it has a subtle design, and it is evocative. It is a contemporary expression and I don’t think it needs to be literally the same [as the other buildings].”