Q & A with Joan Zimmerman, president of Brooklyn preservation group Fulton Ferry Landing Association

TRD New York /
Sep.September 20, 2010 11:00 AM

Zimmerman talks about the tensions over city demolition plans, the problems with the illegal tour buses and the best use for the Jehovah’s Witnesses HQ building

Joan Zimmerman

Longtime industrial areas can take decades to become fully livable, like Fulton Ferry, Brooklyn, a tiny waterfront enclave at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. Although people began to colonize this area in the 1980s, they had to fight for years to get stop lights and medians, so they could safely cross the street.

Leading that charge was the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, a staunch advocate for the landmarked 10-block neighborhood, which fans out between Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights. Since 1988, the group has tried to help get basic city services to a relative frontier area, according to Joan Zimmerman, its president.

But tensions over conflicting uses still exist, like over the city’s planned demolition of Nos. 11, 13 and 15 Old Fulton Street, a row of five-story brick Greek Revivals, due to their instability, said Zimmerman, a 12-year resident who also works as a management consultant. In a conversation with The Real Deal, Zimmerman also talked about nightlife worries, an alternate site for a planned hotel and why she likes the neighborhood despite its growing pains.

Why is stopping the demolition of those buildings so important?

They truly are a rare example of Greek Revival architecture, and they are some of the few buildings, if not the only buildings that were here before the Brooklyn Bridge. These structures are remarkable for their age. It’s hard to believe when you look at those little things, but it’s true.

What about your concerns about tour buses that you have profiled on your blog?
We counted 44 buses in one hour on a recent Saturday night, and 28 were in the first half-hour alone. They park illegally on Furman Street, on the median on Old Fulton Street, and the north and south sides of Old Fulton Street. The passengers are there to take [photos] of the bridge and Manhattan from the pier, but they’re being loaded and unloaded illegally from the middle of the street. So, it’s a clear safety issue, but beyond that there’s a noise and pollution issue, too.

Your group recently opposed the attempt by restaurant No. 1 Front Street to expand its business with a cabaret license, which it eventually got. Why the opposition?
It was about noise going to 5 in the morning. There are some here who were not exactly open to a large-scale club. But we weren’t being any different than Tribeca or Soho or any other mixed-use district that’s gone through a transition.

Some in the neighborhood would like to see it become a townhouse or condo, and I can’t speak for them. Others like to have restaurants here. It’s a beautiful building, an old bank, and I think we would just like to see it maintained. Generally, the attitude in the neighborhood is to co-exist and cooperate, but we hope in return that businesses have equal respect for what makes this place unique.

Should the zoning be changed to discourage future problems?
There were conversations about what we should do about rezoning, before the rezoning of 12 blocks in Dumbo [in July 2009]. It was mostly about doing away with the spot zoning approach of Vinegar Hill, Fulton Ferry and Dumbo, to bring some consistency that would reflect the architecture across these three historic neighborhoods. We have no problem with a certain amount of upzoning and weren’t saying, ‘Downzone.’ We were trying to create something comprehensive.

Do we want to reconsider rezoning now? We have to discuss it with residents. We were zoned in the 1960s and clearly things have changed since then. We no longer have an active waterfront. It has been developed into [Brooklyn Bridge Park, which opened this year], and it will continue to develop into a park.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, which have been based nearby for years, are considering selling their 25 buildings all over Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn. How would you like to see them used?
Their world headquarters is on Doughty and Everit streets [abutting the Fulton landmark district]. It’s a wonderful building with remarkable views. We would like to maybe see that used as a hotel-condo complex, in lieu of the new hotel complex [called for in the city’s master plan to redevelop the waterfront] planned for the park near Old Fulton Street. To insert an enormous hotel at that critical point would seem to violate some of the beauty of that entrance. But we are still examining the issue.

How did you end up living in Fulton Ferry?
I moved to the Eagle Warehouse Loft [a brick co-op in an old printing press] from the Upper West Side in 1998, and it felt very different even then. It was strikingly quiet, and it was a culture where people talked to one another, as opposed to on the Upper West Side, where you wouldn’t know anybody else in your elevator bank. And it had a beautiful and unique view. I think the bridge is a magnificent structure, both architecturally and from an engineering standpoint. And I still appreciate it daily. Weird, huh?


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