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The Civic Scene: Queens Civic Congress sponsors landmark meet

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Listening to one of the major concerns of the member civic associations, the Queens Civic Congress (QCC) recently sponsored a workshop to inform members how to preserve their historic communities from developers by landmarking them using the zoning rules of New York City. A distinguished group of preservationists shared its knowledge—zoning has always been of concern to the informed homeowners.

The QCC chair of the Land Use Committee, Paul Graziano, was the moderator. The panelists were Simeon Bankoff, chair of the Historic Districts Council, Nancy Cataldo of the Richmond Hill Historic Society, Joe Ameroso of the Kissena Park Civic Association, Cheri Bolton of the Long Island Preservation Society, and Patricia Dolan, vice president of the QCC and president of the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Asociation.

To protect their homes from developers or people who buy a house and then try to tear it down and build a bigger house or multiple houses on the plot, homeowners have been warned to rezone their property if the zoning is wrong. If a person has a one-family house on a property zoned R-2 then everything is fine, but if thewhole area is zoned R-4 then their house or the house next door can be torn down and a four-story building can be built there.

People were also told to look for deed restrictions which might limit commercial property on the land in their neighborhoods. Some deed restrictions are on the deed but some are hidden away in old city records. A civic association has to dig deep to look for a deed restriction. The city Planning Commission can help, but it takes time and effort.

Another way to protect old neighborhoods that have large plots of land with big, old houses is by using the New York City Landmarking Law. Houses or buildings with an historic facade can be given historic status so that the outside can’t be destroyed. Some areas that have received landmark status are Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope and the Upper West Side. Bankoff explained that about 24,000 properties, or about 3 percent of the property in New York City has this status. About 80 percent of the preserved properties are in Manhattan. There are five in Queens, with four added since 1993.

Landmarking does supersede zoning. Historic groups can give owners loans. Currently, several civic associations in Fresh Meadows are trying to obtain landmark status for the Klein Farm with the help of Councilman David Weprin and his assistant Jeff Gottlieb.

Bolton explained that homeowners can obtain technical advice from other towns, like Huntington where she is from. Landmarking protects the property if it is important in history or has architectural merit. Having the property on the National Registry of Historic Places can not keep the owner from tearing down the property, though one can obtain federal tax credits so there is an incentive to preserve it.

Ameroso, who is a veteran of many zoning battles, explained how a community can have its area rezoned down from say R-4 or R-5 to R-2 to reflect the single-family homes in the area. The city Planning Commission would have to inspect the area. Ameroso and others advised concerned homeowners to actually submit the rezoning plan themselves. People will have to actually catalogue every property in the area to prove that a zoning change should be made. Kew Gardens Hills did this by having Boy Scouts do the tedious work of looking at each property. The boys received service credit for their work, which was under the supervision of Patricia Dolan and other concerned civic leaders. The area was R-6 and is now R-2. The civic spent about $100,000 on this project, but the result is better than apartment houses.

The Queens Borough Zoning Task Force, created by former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, has worked with the city Planning Cornmission to downzone 30 properties in Queens, but the Queens Civic Congress says that there are about 30 more areas to be downzoned. Oh, the fancy word for this activity is Contextual Rezoning, by I like the word “downzoning” as being more expressive.

Cataldo and her collage Ivan explained how they have been working to have the city Planning Commission rezone their Richmond Hill R-3-1 and R-3-2 area of fine, old, large one-family homes to a lower zoning. They did the research themselves but can’t get the city to rezone. In 1997 they applied for landmark status but the city rejected their application with no reason given. In October 2001 they tried again. The city doesn’t have the resources to do the groundwork for rezoning so the quality of life suffers.

Cataldo described how a fine old wooden house was recently torn down in Richmond Hill. The Richmond Hill Historic Society is frustrated, but is continuing the fight for its comrnunity as are many other civic associations.

GOOD NEWS OF THE WEEK

Many civic leaders are fighting to preserve the quality of life in their neighborhoods with modest homes or fine old homes, which make thier communities some of the finest residential areas on the East Coast.

BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK

It is sad that some property owners or speculators buy houses and try to build large houses for either their own use or to make a lot of money. These are often built out of scale from the low-density homes found in these fine residential neighborhoods.

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