In Brooklyn: Norah Jones’ brownstone WindowGate- and what it means for you

Singer Norah Jones has been in the news lately. Actually, let’s be more specific: Her Brooklyn townhouse has been in the news. And in what’s been branded as WindowGate, there’s a lesson learned for homeowners—especially those who plan to buy or currently live in historic areas, condos, planned communities and such.

First, a brief recap of the news:

Later last year, preservationists in Brooklyn’s historic Cobble Hill neighborhood learned that Jones’ planned backyard renovations, which had already been approved by New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, had “been secretly amended” to include 10 new windows added to her building.

The windows were to be installed in a windowless side façade on Jones’ Greek Revival-style townhouse. Jones’ Brooklyn neighborhood is populated with many homes like hers that were built between 1827 and 1845.

Local preservationists were aghast, claiming the windows were structurally questionable and, more to the point, historically inconsistent with the neighborhood.

There were lawsuit threats. Eventually, Jones offered a compromise. She has since added only seven windows instead of 10 (giving a new meaning to the term ‘Windows 7.’) You can read more about the story on Curbed NY and Brownstoner. (The photo below is from Brownstoner.)

What this means for you

Jones isn’t the first homeowner to assume that, once a house belongs to them, they can do what they want to it.

City planning commissions have zoning ordinances that can restrict what you’re allowed to do to your building or property, or even what you can do in it (such as zoning codes that ban running a business from a home).

If your home lies within a designated historic district, you’ll likely face additional restrictions, especially regarding changes you want to make to your home’s façade.

For instance, I know of some San Franciscans who’ve wanted to add a garage to their home but were denied. Why? Because a garage would be inconsistent with the historic character of the house and the neighborhood.

In fact, you might think your home won’t be subjected to historic preservation restrictions–and you could be wrong.

Consider this: According to the California Environmental Quality Act, “all buildings constructed over 50 years ago and possess architectural or historical significance may be considered potential historic resources and proposed changes to these buildings may require some level of environmental review,” according to the San Francisco Planning Department’s Web site Historic Preservation FAQs.

Those who own condos or homes within planned communities may also face restrictions as to the changes they can make.

So if you’re planning to buy a fixer-upper or want to make big changes to a property, do your homework before making a move. Talk to an architect about what you have in mind. Many will give you a free initial consultation. Check out the Web sites of your city’s planning department and any relevant neighborhood historic associations. Talk to your would-be or current neighbors to find out if others before you have tried to make major changes that were denied.

If you don’t, you might end up like Norah Jones—singing the blues.

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