The Cass Gilbert-designed warehouse at 184 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg was a marvel of ingenuity in the first decades of the 20th century. A $1 million design in 1914, it featured railway tracks running on the first floor, elaborate conveyer belts, integrated piers, pneumatic tubes, and freight elevators.
The building became the home of the city’s largest grocer, Austin, Nichols & Co., after Tribeca became overcrowded with warehouses. Perched on the edge of the East River, it was known as a marvel of reinforced concrete construction and ingenuity, traits synonymous with architect Cass Gilbert.
The Kestenbaum family purchased the massive building in 2000, ending years of abandonment by its previous owner, leasing apartments in the 179-foot-by- 440-foot, six-story structure. As Northern Williamsburg rapidly became a hotbed of New York real estate, the Kestenbaums turned to the New York City Council for a variance to build penthouse apartments on the top of the building.
A political battle ensued. Roiling fights between the City Council members, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, residents of the building and of Williamsburg occurred, embroiling the owners, preservationists, and Brooklyn City Councilman David Yassky. A round of rough political jockeying eventually saw the City Council reverse a Landmarks Commission recommendation, allowing the penthouses to be built. The Kestenbaums plan to build luxury condos after adding to the original warehouse. Most residents have already been evicted.
Sara Dunn is one of two remaining residents on her floor who refused to sign a 60-day eviction notice and will remain in the building until the spring. Her 1,700-square-foot apartment rents for $2,775 a month, split between three roommates. She expects her apartment will sell for at least $750,000. Though she planned to stay for much longer than she’ll be able to, she describes 184 Kent like a ghost town.
“It’s scary being in this big building without people,” Dunn said. “A lot of people started moving out in November and December, but by Jan. 1, almost everyone was gone. All the back and forth [politically] was draining. Now there are homeless people living in the stairwells. The landlord just wants everyone out.”
Martina Salisbury, a designer, lived in 184 Kent for almost three years. She moved out on Nov. 21 when her 60-day notice was up.
“In January 2004, the landlord asked us to sign riders to our leases,” Salisbury remembered about the 60-day notice. “He threatened that if we didn’t sign we would be put on a month-to-month contract. If we’d taken that to a lawyer we never would have signed it.”
Salisbury testified before the Landmarks Commission. She explained that a building in Manhattan, known as the Cass Gilbert, on West 30th Street, marketed its luxury lofts using the Cass Gilbert name. She said she hoped the Kestenbaum family could use similar tactics at 184 Kent while keeping the building intact.
Kenneth Fisher, the lawyer for the Kestenbaums, said that was never seriously considered. When asked why the owners didn’t just go with the historic landmark status and build in accordance with those rules, Fisher said he thought it was unlikely the commission would have approved the upward extension. Now that landmark status has been denied, he said they can start planning and determining real costs.
“I wouldn’t say they’re going to start from scratch,” Fisher said. “The existing building has thick walls and windows that are considered narrow for residential use. From the get-go they’ve planned on opening the windows to make one large window where there are currently three. Only now they need to look at the costs and decide if that’s worth it.”
Fisher said the owners are sensitive to using an “aesthetic design.” The dimensions won’t change other than the extension on the roof, but he said: “It’s not going to look like a warehouse.” Jordan Gruzen, the architect selected for the redesign, wasn’t available to comment on current plans.
Regardless of the plans, David Maundrell, president of aptsandlofts.com, said the condos will sell well.
“I’ve never seen a building like that in New York,” Maundrell said. “We used to do a lot of rentals in there and people were dying to get apartments there. I’d bet they’ll get about $700 per square foot on the Kent Avenue side and $1,200 per square foot on the water side.”
If not for the politics involved, one could argue the story of 184 Kent was another chapter in the ongoing gentrification of the city.
But critics say this is about the loss of a vital architectural heritage. In a rezoning study completed on Mar. 4, 2005, the City Council identified 184 Kent as one of eight buildings that should be considered for landmark status. While the council can’t grant landmark status, the building is mentioned four times in it’s report regarding the impact the building would have if it received landmark status, which the report implied was likely.
The council’s December 43- to-6 vote, with one abstention, to overrule the Landmarks Commission’s designation of the building represented a flip-flop from the earlier study.
“In our study we identified 184 as a building that probably deserved landmark status, so it is completely disingenuous of the council to identify a building in this study and use its protection to negotiate the rezoning [of the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront] and then turn around and tell the community, ‘Oh actually we didn’t really mean that,'” said Councilman Tony Avella of Queens, who had one of the six votes to uphold the commission’s decision.
“The council made this decision based on the property owner and councilman Yassky,” Avella said. “That’s politics. There’s been more politics in this decision than in most.”
Reports identify the Kestenbaums as prominent donors to Yassky’s political campaigns, with totals reaching into the thousands of dollars. Evan Thies, a spokesman for Yassky, said residents of the community have made many more contributions, in regards to the number of individuals donating, than the Kestenbaum family.
Thies said, politics aside, these new condos will be good for the community. Waterfront properties command the highest prices. The more the condos sell for the more property tax dollars will flow to the community. He said with developments like 184 Kent one in every three new apartments will be affordable units. The timeline for that ratio will be established based on the rate of development; Thies didn’t have a projected date for the fruition of this ratio.
Avella said it was “irresponsible” of the Council to override the expertise of the Landmarks Commission. More than seven historic and neighborhood organizations worked together in support of preserving the building and submitted testimony to the Landmarks Commission. The Landmarks Commission also received more than 500 postcards, primarily from residents in Williamsburg, calling for landmark designation.
But Thies pointed to the American Institute of Architecture’s book or “bible” on preservation.
“It lists 13 Cass Gilbert Buildings in New York, none of which are 184 Kent,” Thies said. “The only people who thought it [184 Kent] was worthy [of preserving] were the current commission and the current residents.”
When asked what Cass Gilbert would think of all this, Helen Post Curry, his great-granddaughter, and a member of the Cass Gilbert Society of Minnesota, had a mixed reaction.
“We worked so hard to save 184 Kent to keep as an example of his great design for a specific purpose. I feel, looking back, it should have been saved,” she said.
“But that said, Gilbert did a lot of renovations, especially to residential buildings in St. Paul, [Minn.],” she added. “I am saddened that the process didn’t work, but here is a building that’s not being used for its original function and it’s going to be renovated for residential use. I don’t know what he’d think.”