Can Cobble Hill Landmark Its Hospital Into Staying?

Cobble Hill really wants to keep its hospital. Ever since the State University of New York trustees voted unanimously to close the Long

Brooklyn politicians hope that landmarking LICH will keep SUNY Downstate from closing it.
Brooklyn politicians hope that landmarking LICH will keep SUNY Downstate from closing it.

Cobble Hill really wants to keep its hospital. Ever since the State University of New York trustees voted unanimously to close the Long Island College Hospital in Cobble Hill, local politicians—and just about everyone else involved—have been desperately trying to keep the medical center open. A group of unions and doctors won a temporary reprieve, but the prognosis for the hospital is not good.

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SUNY chairman H. Carl McCall claims that “There is no plan whatsoever with respect to real estate,” but local councilman Brad Lander, who represents the 39th District, snaking from Cobble Hill to Borough Park, thinks otherwise.

“It’s hard to pin down motives,” Mr. Lander told Crain’s New York Business, “but it doesn’t seem like all the avenues have been explored to make this facility profitable and have it continue to function as a hospital.” He estimated the value of the real estate at $500 million, if converted to housing, as is allowed by the current zoning designation.

But besides converting it to housing, the issue of what can be done with LICH is a thorny one. And if Mr. Lander and a coterie of Brooklyn politicians have their way, the range of possibilities for the buildings will get a lot smaller.

The current zoning designation for the hospital is R6, the same as the surrounding neighborhood, and the predominant development type in R6 zones is the workaday townhouse. Though a tower-in-a-park-style development would be possible under the current zoning, a would-be developer would have to sacrifice about 20 percent of the floorspace to do it.

To hedge against this possibility and remove the incentive for SUNY Downstate to sell the campus for cash, Mr. Lander, along with Councilman Steve Levin, Borough President Marty Markowitz and a few state senators, are calling for the land use protections in place in the rest of Cobble Hill—a 50-foot height limit and the historic district landmarking—to be extended to the hospital’s campus.

LICH’s two main blocks south of Atlantic Avenue, between Henry and Hicks streets, would be the biggest prize for any would-be developer. But LICH’s main building north of Pacific Street is also massively overbuilt according to the current zoning—if it were torn down and rebuilt, the developer would have to downsize the building by more than 200,000 square feet.

The biggest threat (at least, if you see development as a threat) might not be a wholesale razing of the site, though, but rather an obscure land use move: demolishing most but not all of the building, in order to keep from having to comply with the underlying zoning.

According to section 54-41, a little-known provision of the New York City zoning code—the same provision that L&L intends to use to resculpt a post-war office tower at 425 Park Avenue into a Foster + Partners masterpiece—land owners are allowed to reconstruct overbuilt buildings without downsizing, so long as they keep 25 percent of the existing floorspace and the new building doesn’t violate any zoning provisions that the old one did not.

And while the 50-foot height limit wouldn’t stop a future landowner from using 54-41, inclusion in the Cobble Hill Historic District might, as it would require the notoriously fickle Landmarks and Preservation Commission to sign off on any renovation.

Mr. Lander and others are hoping this designation would dissuade SUNY Downstate from trying to sell off the property in the first place—but what happens if they call hospital advocates’ bluff and do it anyway?

The Observer spoke with Ross Moskowitz, a land use attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, who pointed out that if the landmarking goes forward but efforts to save the hospital are unsuccessful, the protections could backfire.

“There could be unintended consequences,” said Mr. Moskowitz. For example, “the building could sit dormant and be an eyesore in the community”—or the building could simply be converted to residential use without any alteration to the façade, leaving the less-than-stunning structure, built in 1972, in place forever.

Brad Lander, speaking with The Observer, said that they were in it to win. When asked if landmarking the building could backfire, preventing the uninspired brick building from being remade into a more attractive building, Mr. Lander called the choice between the possible residential alternatives a “lose-lose.”

“As opposed to tearing it down and building newfangled ugly condo towers?” the councilman asked. “You’re offering me two very bad scenarios, and saying, are you afraid you’re choosing one very bad scenario instead of another?”

Can Cobble Hill Landmark Its Hospital Into Staying?