Before the first fireworks launched on the Fourth of July, booms and bangs were already reverberating around a residential block near Prospect Park.
That morning, despite a city order halting construction work, a small demolition crew revved up a backhoe and began ripping apart what had once been a three-story house at 1935 Bedford Ave. in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, alarming local residents.
“Everyone heard a huge crash,” said Cal Hadley, who lives adjacent to the property on Fenimore Street. “We all looked out the window, thought there was an explosion.”
For years, Hadley and a group of concerned neighbors have complained to city agencies and local politicians about what they asserted were unauthorized demolition, unsafe conditions and trash dumping at the site and a property next door at 1931 Bedford Ave.
The city Department of Environmental Protection found asbestos at the site in 2018 — and last year fined the owner more than $68,000 for multiple violations of asbestos-removal safety rules. While DEP certified the site asbestos-free as of this March, locals, especially many who live in a neighboring co-op and on Fenimore Street, fear they’re inhaling toxic particles kicked up by demolition.
Bedford Holdings JV, LLC, an entity associated with developer Gabriel Sakaff, purchased the side-by-side lots on the Bedford Avenue block in 2017. Where two homes once stood, only half of one remained until Wednesday, its backside gutted and debris strewn across the lots.
Sakaff intends to build a seven-story residential building with at least 39 apartments and a community facility, city records show. THE CITY could not reach Sakaff at any of the phone numbers or emails provided on applications his firm submitted to the city Department of Buildings.
Debris and Threats
Since work on the property began years ago, residents of the neighboring co-op in the fast-gentrifying neighborhood have complained about debris blowing into their homes. “I can’t get fresh air because I have to keep my window closed,” Olga Baly-Noel, who’s lived in the co-op for more than 20 years, recently told THE CITY.
During the clamor on July 4, residents called 911. Several agencies, including the NYPD, FDNY and DOB’s emergency response team, arrived and forced demolition to stop. DOB officials issued a $12,500 fine to Bedford Holdings for violating city orders.
After city officials left, a man neighbors identified as Sakaff began “raving up and down the sidewalk” and shouting obscenities, said Leif McIlwaine, a co-op resident. A neighbor, James Parks, recorded a video showing a confrontation between the man and McIlwaine. In another, the man blows a kiss into the camera before storming off down the street. THE CITY reviewed the footage.
The demolition crew returned the next day to tear down the home. Residents confronted and filmed the workers, who left before the authorities arrived. The DOB issued several more fines to the property owner on July 6, city records show.
On the night of July 14, a worker used a hacksaw to remove a lock that FDNY placed on a fence surrounding the property, according to local residents who filmed the incident and called the police. That heightened local concerns about demolition work.
A DOB spokesperson initially told THE CITY that demolition work couldn’t proceed until the owner obtained proper permits, contractors produced an engineering report on the site’s conditions and remedied unsafe conditions, and the DOB inspected the site.
Now, city officials are reversing course on their stop-work order.
The spokesperson, Andrew Rudansky, said after further inspections of the building on July 14 and 15, agency engineers determined the remaining portion is structurally unstable — and now must be razed in the interest of public safety.
“We have issued emergency orders to the property owners for the immediate hand demolition of elements of the remaining structure down to a safe level, under the supervision of the owner’s professional engineer, a full-time construction superintendent responsible for safe demo operations, and DOB personnel,” said Rudansky.
He added that the property owner’s contractors have resumed demolition with a professional engineer, site safety professional and DOB staff overseeing the work.
On Friday, work crews installed protective mesh on the windows of Baly-Noel’s building.
As of Wednesday afternoon, workers had demolished the structure. Debris, construction equipment and remnants of the toppled home remained on the lot.
Local residents say that the buildings department and other city agencies aren’t doing enough to rein in the developer.
“They’re trying to pass the buck,” said Lawrence Rushing, 83, president of the Fenimore Street Block Association. “Unfortunately, that’s what they do.”
Rushing and some neighbors say their research has identified deed restrictions that limit the lots — like many in the historic neighborhood — to the development of single-family homes.
On the same basis, the association is in court fighting against the demolition and redevelopment of a nearby property at 176 Fenimore St. at Bedford Avenue.
Rushing called Sakaff’s firm “totally irresponsible.”
“They don’t give a damn,” he said. “They don’t care about people.”
The neighbors point to multiple stop-work orders and fines for safety violations, culminating in demolition work without a permit.
In July 2018, the city Department of Environmental Protection audited the work of the owner’s certified asbestos inspector and found that asbestos remained on the 1935 Bedford Ave. site.
The Department of Buildings fined a contractor for making a false statement in paperwork submitted for demolition permits and approved by the department in December 2018.
In October 2020, Bedford Holdings received a $68,400 fine for multiple asbestos-related violations from the DEP, records show. The records also indicate the penalty remains unpaid.
And Agam Development, another firm associated with the owner, received a summons in January 2021 for not posting asbestos demolition warning signs on the property and not allowing DEP on site for an inspection, records show.
‘What’s the Point?’
DEP inspectors officially cleared the site of asbestos in March 2021, according to an agency spokesperson.
But by then, the developer’s demolition permit had expired.
“Due to COVID-19, there was a delay in completing the demolition of the existing building which in turn delayed obtaining a permit for this new building application,” reads a part of an application to DOB to renew the permit.
DOB has not approved that application, according to the agency spokesperson.
Rudansky said the DOB issued a stop-work order on the property in March, after an inspection found expired permits for a construction fence and a sidewalk shed. Another stop-work order was issued in June, after a construction superintendent pulled out of the job, he added.
The DOB immediately shut down the demolition on July 4 and 6, and closely monitored the site along with the NYPD, before the agency issued its emergency orders for demolition, Rudansky said.
“We will continue to actively monitor this work site, to ensure the safety of the public,” he said.
Residents said they’re fed up with the situation on the block and want the city to revoke all permits and plans connected to the property, and prevent the developer from getting work approved going forward. They said they’re concerned about potential problems construction of a new development could bring, given what’s already transpired.
“This should not be happening in any city in the United States, but it’s happening here,” Hadley said.
Carol Wright, whose family has lived on Fenimore Street since the mid-1960s, said city agencies need to pay closer attention to development proposals.
“There needs to be better scrutiny, better governance, around development plans, so that they adhere to the rules and policies and procedures that have been set up,” Wright said. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”