Bed-Stuy Residents Fight to Save Houses

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The fight pits homeowners against the city.

By Laura Kusisto

Engineers say they can save this building. (Photo: Laura Kusisto/The Brooklyn Ink)

Engineers say they can save this building. (Photo: Laura Kusisto/The Brooklyn Ink)

Facing a deadline of Monday, engineers are scrambling to save three historic brownstones slated for demolition in Bedford-Stuyvesant , after they were given a court-ordered reprieve earlier this week.

Judge Burt Bunyan gave engineers until Monday to come up with a model to begin construction on the over 130-year-old buildings, located at 327, 329 and 331 Macdonough St., that includes enough escape routes for workers. Engineers said they were hopeful they could produce such a plan.

“We’re working night and day,” Jackman Prescod, the engineer for the building at 331, said before the hearing on Tuesday. Prescod said he’s come up with several scenarios that could save the  buildings.

“So far everything is behaving the way it should be behaving,” he said.

But on Tuesday a lawyer for the New York City Department of Buildings told a Kings County civil court judge that the plans for saving the homes are “tenuous, if not dangerous.”

Robert Providence began renovating his building at 329 Macdonough in early January. The brownstone is part of a historic district, but he received permits for the renovation.

Two weeks ago he tore down a 30-foot long, six-and-a-half-foot high supporting wall in the cellar. A gas alarm set off by the construction alerted Providence and his neighbors that something had gone wrong. Since then, he and seven other people who live in the three homes have had to evacuate. They have been sleeping on family and friends’ couches and taking turns keeping an eye on their homes.

The next day after the alarm went off, the Department of Buildings ordered No. 329 demolished. Residents said officials had told them that without the supporting wall in the basement, the building was a threat to public safety and could collapse at any moment. Numbers 327 and 331 would also be endangered by the demolitions. The department declined to comment at the hearing on Tuesday.

Doreen Prince, a 74-year-old immigrant from Guyana, heard the gas alarm when she got up to get a glass of water. Since then, she has been staying with her son, a block away.

She bought the building in 1997, after living in the neighborhood for 23 years.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “It’s something I’ve worked for my whole life.”

Prince, Providence and the residents of 327 Macdonough hired engineers to devise a construction come up with a plan and lawyers to argue before a judge that the buildings could be saved.

More than 20 residents turned up at the Supreme Court Building on Adams Street on Tuesday to show support.

“Over my dead body will they tear down the buildings,” said Krystal Coddett, 27, who grew up a couple of blocks away and just bought a condo in 327 a couple of years ago. Advocating for the buildings has become a part-time job for Coddett, a young ad sales rep.

“It would leave a gaping hole in our neighborhood,” she said. “Just because they have the power doesn’t mean they can run over you.”

City Councilman Al Vann, who lives across the street from the endangered houses, was on vacation when the crisis began, but since he returned a few days ago he has lent his support to residents.

“We’re watching it minute by minute,” he said. “I would say I’m cautiously optimistic.”

On Friday morning, workers poured concrete into the basement, in an effort to shore up the tenuous foundation. Tim Donohue, who was monitoring the buildings on behalf of the department over the weekend, offered some information on Sunday morning about what’s going on inside.

Donohue said there are seven cracks in the building, but only three have spread.

“The buildings are fine,” he said. “I would have expected a lot more.”

Even if engineers can come up with a plan to save the building, there are concerns about who will pay for the renovation. One estimate is that the work could cost as much as $45,000.

“That’s a good problem to have,” said councilman Vann. “We’ll work with that.”

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