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Future of Astoria Village pondered at town meeting

Aging mansions lined with white columns and careful woodwork stare across at three plain two-family houses...

By Dustin Brown

On a block along 12th Street in the neighborhood known as Astoria Village, old and new converge in a way few residents describe as harmonious.

Aging mansions lined with white columns and careful woodwork stare across at three plain two-family houses sharing a flat brown facade. While the mansions hide behind crawling ivy and ornate landscapes, they face a property devoid of vegetation except for closely shorn grass and two shrubs hiding the utility meters.

Although they sit along one street, the two rows of houses look as if they come from different centuries — because they do. When the two-family houses were built last year, residents cried out that 21st century architecture was upsetting the integrity of a neighborhood where 19th century designs had been preserved for 150 years.

The conflict was the centerpiece of discussion at a town hall meeting held Monday by the Greater Astoria Historical Society at the Astoria Reform Church, one block away from the houses in question.

Seated in a church hall believed to date back to 1836, 60 residents gathered to hear nine panelists discuss how the neighborhood may be preserved — and specifically what would happen if the area were designated a historic district by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The panel included City Councilman John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights), who chairs the Landmarks Subcommittee, Charles Sciberras of Remax Realty in Astoria, Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council, Jeffrey Kroessler of the Queensbridge Preservation League, as well as five preservation advocates representing other historic districts around the borough. Members of the audience wrote their questions on index cards, which were then read aloud by a moderator and addressed by members of the panel.

Across the city, 77 historic districts have been designated by the commission, an action which imposes stiff regulations on what types of development are allowed. Although property owners in these districts can maintain their homes exactly as they stood before designation, any changes in a building’s outdoor appearance must be approved by the commission so the historic integrity of the neighborhood is preserved.

Greater Astoria Historical Society President Bob Singleton said the meeting was intended to inform residents about the landmarking process, which panelists said must be initiated by the community.

“If the community wants it, it’s up to you to convince your neighbor,” Kroessler said.

Only five communities in Queens have neighborhoods officially designated as historic districts: Hunter’s Point, Douglaston, Jackson Heights, Ridgewood and Fort Totten.

Although living in a historic district limits homeowners’ ability to modify their houses, many panelists said the resale value of such homes are substantially higher.

Sciberras was the only panelist to speak passionately against historic districts, insisting that property owners should be able to do whatever they choose with their land.

“It’s my money, it’s my constitutional rights,” he said. “I don’t want to be told by somebody what to do with it.”

Even Sciberras agreed that new homes built within a historic neighborhood should conform to the architectural style of the area, which panelists and residents alike said the three houses built along 12th Street decidedly do not.

“I was appalled when they tore that mansion down and I saw what they put in place of it,” said Natalia Paruz, a longtime Astoria resident who purchased a home on 14th Street three years ago. “It takes away from the beauty of my neighborhood.”

Panelists warned that more architecturally inappropriate development in the Astoria Village area could thwart community efforts to have it designated a historic district.

“A couple more of those go up and the historic district exists only on paper,” Kroessler said.

Singleton described Astoria Village as “a reasonably intact 19th century Long Island antebellum village,” one of the oldest communities in the borough.

While Sabini hesitated to say how the commission might respond to a request to designate Astoria Village a historic district, he said the neighborhood has the right ingredients for it.

“The age of the architecture is such that if you have a cohesive-enough block or group of blocks, it should be something that’s looked favorably upon,” Sabini said.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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