Heat rises in Sunnyside Garden zoning battle

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True to its name, Sunnyside Gardens was conceived as a community where the predominant color would be green, where plants would grow in lush abundance along streets and in courtyards.

Although the description still applies nearly a century later, the face of Sunnyside Gardens has been changing as the garden gives way to concrete driveways and chain-link fences. Many of the courtyards that originally had been created as open expanses of common land now are cut into small individual plots, and many front yards are defined by cars instead of plants.

“There are some people that just see it as convenient to the city and they’re oblivious to the character of the community, and they do some pretty terrible things with the houses,” said Dorothy Morehead, a real estate broker who has lived in the neighborhood since 1975 and now sits on Community Board 2.

But the conflict between preservation and development has put the gardens in a holding pattern for decades as residents repeatedly make illegal changes to their property because the regulations governing the area are poorly understood and too strenuous to follow.

The community board now is trying to mediate a compromise by gathering input on a series of proposed changes to the zoning regulation, most recently at a public hearing held June 25 at Queens of Angels Parish Hall on Skillman Avenue. Efforts to revise the rules date back to the late 1980’s, and the recommendations now on the table emerged out of a committee formed in 1995.

The 55 acres of Sunnyside Gardens were designated a Special Planned Community Preservation District by the City Planning Commission in 1974, which means no new development or major changes to the landscape are permitted without first passing through a rigorous review.

“It’s a very timely and costly process to go through,” said CB 2 Chairman Joseph Conley. “People that would be interested to do something to preserve their home to make some improvements, this would be ... an unfair economic hardship.”

Residents say the regulations are so strict that they not only prohibit negative development, such as paving driveways where gardens once stood, but also bar homeowners from building small expansions that have little impact on the neighborhood character. Meanwhile, both types of alterations continue in abundance in spite of the rules.

The first “garden city” in the United States, Sunnyside Gardens was built between 1924 and 1928 as a planned 1,202-unit community in which each block of homes overlooked a common garden or landscaped court.

The original homeowners all signed 40-year restrictive covenants that preserved the community’s original character by protecting open space and forbidding major changes to the buildings.

But when the covenant in Carolin Gardens, the neighborhood’s oldest court, expired in 1964, it gave way to a flurry of changes that led residents to petition the city for the preservation district designation, which they achieved a decade later.

Today Carolin Gardens, which sits between 47th and 48th streets, is an overgrown stretch of land defined by tall fences and mounds of dirt. It stands in stark contrast to Hamilton Court, where owners signed perpetual easements that define the central courtyard as a common area, still verdant, grassy and alluring to residents who camp out on blankets within the open garden.

The revised rules would let homeowners make certain common changes, such as expanding a house by enclosing an existing porch or building dormers on a peaked roof to expand headroom by a window. Any other alterations, such as paving a driveway, would have to follow the same procedure as they do now: passing through the city Uniformed Land Use Review Process, ultimately to be decided by the Board of Standards and Appeals. They likely would be rejected.

The community board plans to mold the zoning regulation changes through public input before they finally can be approved by the City Planning Commission and, finally, City Council.

“We really want to participate in future discussions in developing the consensus of what would work best for the community,” said John Young, the Queens director for the Department of City Planning.

But the changes still fail to resolve questions of enforcement, a matter the Buildings Department handles by issuing violations when homeowners make changes that are not permitted in the district. Although the driveways still would be forbidden under the new plan, the Buildings Department is not empowered to do more than assess fines, which often is not a sufficient deterrent.

Still, Conley expects enforcement will improve once the regulations are clarified.

“We’re hoping it’ll bring clarity to the Buildings Department so there is the ability to enforce it,” he said. “Clearly what we want to do is prevent any further damage to the Gardens.”

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

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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