The large stucco house that anchors the corner of Fenimore Street and Bedford Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens may not have a secure future, but it won’t be torn down for apartment buildings after a court backed an 1899 covenant saying the site can house no more than a single-family home.
In a February ruling, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Joy Campanelli sided with Fenimore Street residents Jean Howard, her son Michael Howard, and Sandra Sutherland who filed a lawsuit against property owner 1919 Bedford Realty LLC. The trio sought the enforcement of the 1899 covenant for the property at 174-176 Fenimore Street, also located at 1919 Bedford Avenue, after the developer applied for a demolition permit for the circa 1896 Tudor Revival house and filed permits for three new four-story apartment buildings.
The grand structure, no stranger to scandal, the most recently housed doctors’ offices and is officially listed as a professional building/standalone funeral home. It is part of the Lefferts Subdivision, a deed-restricted subdivision made up of approximately eight blocks, bounded by Lincoln Road to the north, Flatbush Avenue to the west, Rogers Avenue to the east, and Fenimore Street to the south, including the south side of Fenimore Street between Bedford and Rogers Avenues, according to the lawsuit.
Although the house does not fall within the nearby Prospect Lefferts Gardens Historic District and is currently zoned for large, multi-family development, the covenant put in place in 1899 by James and Robert Lefferts, as executors of the estate of John Lefferts, restricts the area to just single-family homes, barring any multi-family developments, the suit explains.
The house and other nearby buildings are part of an earlier 1893 subdivision of the Lefferts Estate, and are still subject to the same single-family covenant restriction, that was omitted from the local historic district, according to a 2017 National Register nomination for The Lefferts Manor Historic District Boundary Increase.
In February 2017, 1919 Bedford Realty LLC bought the property from Downstate Enterprises Inc. for $2,635,000, according to city records. The month before, a demolition permit to tear down the property was applied for, with developer Cheskie Weisz listed as the owner’s representative.
In April 2017, new building permits for three four-story apartment buildings were filed for the site, again with Cheskie Weisz listed as the representative of the owners. Two of the new developments proposed nine apartments each, including one penthouse apartment each, and one had 10 apartments including a penthouse.
In March, the Fenimore Civic Block Association and four individuals fundraised for and filed a lawsuit against 1919 Bedford Realty LLC asking the court to enforce the covenant, saying the original deed restriction was legally binding.
Fenimore Street resident Cheryl A. Francis, who has lived on the block since 1961, said in an affidavit that the house had been used for doctors’ offices for a number of years. “Many doctors and dentists lived and had offices in their homes in Lefferts Manor. It was unofficially known as Doctor’s row. That is still true today, although on a smaller scale since the practice of medicine has changed dramatically,” Francis said.
She said in 1961 a doctor named Elliott Levine lived in the house with his family and had a practice on the first floor. The house then changed hands twice, with two families taking residence, until it was sold in December 1995 to Downstate Enterprises. “From then on, the house was used for medical offices,” Francis said. “The sign in the yard said ‘Bedford Medical Group.’”
Responding to the lawsuit, developer Cheskie Weisz said in an affidavit that prior to closing, Bedford Realty had a title search done on the property “to locate any potential encumbrances or defects in title.” “That search did not reveal any defects or restrictions on the use of the Property,” he said.
“Although the building appears to have been originally constructed as a house, by the time Bedford Realty learned about the property, the building had been converted into a medical office and was not being used as a residence,” Weisz said.
“We believed that there would be no issues with this plan, as the title search had not revealed any restrictions on the use of the property, and both Bedford Avenue and the south side of Fenimore Street are zoned R6, which allows for multifamily residential buildings .”
He added that the New York City Department of Finance approved altering the tax lot designs for the property from one to three and that “existence of this language in the initial deed, for at least the past 50 years the deeds conveying ownership of the property have not included or referred to the restriction.”
“Prior to receiving the Association’s letter, Bedford Realty had no idea that the restriction ever existed,” he said, adding the company would “suffer substantial harm if the restriction were found to be enforceable and binding.”
The judge signaled the case would have to go to trial, which the developer liked and the block association cross appealed. To date there has been no movement in the trial, according to the 2022 lawsuit.
“Meanwhile, the defendant has allowed the property to decay and become derelict,” the Howards and Sutherland allege. Since 2020, 1919 Bedford Realty LLC has accrued two real property tax foreclosure actions on the property, they say.
In February, Judge Campanelli ruled that the covenant was “valid and enforceable” and said 1919 Bedford Realty LLC or “its successors” could only build a “private dwelling house for one family only” in the section.
Following the ruling, the house was listed by Brown Harris Stevens with an asking price of $2,995,000. The listing says: “The spacious lot provides room for a large home, generous yard, and parking – a truly unusual combination in NYC.”