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  • Joseph Dolman

Save the brownstone grace of Cobble Hill

I'm not one of those Bill de Blasio cultists who thinks the governor and State University of New York cravenly handed Long Island College Hospital to a pack of salivating real-estate titans looking for a cash tsunami.

LICH had to go. The Cobble Hill institution was outmoded, hemorrhaging money and doomed. The giant medical consortiums across the harbor in Manhattan had LICH thoroughly beat with extensive services and world-class care.

So Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the SUNY board did what they had to do. They agreed to sell LICH at a decent price to the Fortis Property Group, which has said it would use the land to build 820 apartments, some kind of shopping nexus and a small-scale medical center.

But here's the catch.

As the laws are written, Fortis now has the right to put up a 44-story apartment tower (along with shorter buildings) in a part of brownstone Brooklyn where the height limit on surrounding structures is 50 feet.

If Fortis does that, it could kill a vital and irreplaceable neighborhood.

Since the 19th century, Cobble Hill has swept gracefully from Court Street down to the waterfront. And with the exception of low-rise LICH near Atlantic Avenue, the district for maybe 150 years has retained its human-scale character: short blocks, tree-lined streets and elegant buildings with grace notes as carefully measured as baroque sonatas.

Put a 44-story tower in the middle of that, along with shopping and other services, and you've obliterated the district's ambience and a crucial piece of Brooklyn's identity. There's nothing inherently wrong with looming apartment towers and zillion-dollar views and people who can afford such things. They just shouldn't be allowed to destroy a classic neighborhood.

Cobble Hill has faced this peril before. Robert Moses, the man who built modern New York, tried in the late 1940s to blast the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill via Hicks Street. When I moved to the Heights in 1989, old guys on park benches were still cursing his name.

But when the BQE and its feeders were finished, it was Red Hook that got sliced right though the middle. Moses compromised in Cobble Hill and the Heights. He took the BQE down to the waterfront in Cobble Hill and tucked it under the Promenade as it skirted the Heights.

Now a similar compromise needs to happen on the LICH site. What fills the void left by the hospital should be in character with the neighborhood. That doesn't include skyscrapers.

Perhaps there are options.

Taking a cue from Moses in retreat, maybe pricey apartment towers with drop-dead views could go down near the water instead of right smack in the middle of Cobble Hill. And maybe the LICH site could be better used for schools and a greater array of health-care clinics.

A neighborhood coalition now taking shape seems open to alternatives, and Fortis appears eager to avoid a pathological Moses-style Armageddon.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reports that when the "as-of-right" option for highrises on the LICH land was unveiled at a community meeting, a representative of the architecture firm working with Fortis said: "We don't like the as-of-right-scheme and probably you don't either."

That's at least a glimmer of reassurance.

A city as densely packed as New York is a complex organism that flourishes or founders on the strength of its neighborhoods. If you thoughtlessly choke them off for a quick profit, the whole city suffers. If you keep them healthy and choose your sites for new development with discretion, the whole city booms.

There is no excuse for killing Cobble Hill.

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