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Time ticks away in battle to preserve Astoria history

On the west side of 12th Street in a neighborhood known affectionately as Astoria Village, a small white house with a peeling green roof is slated for demolition.

The building is empty now and shows its age, sporting a porch with no railings and a yard overgrown with weeds.

When the house falls, it will become only the latest casualty in an ongoing battle between preservation and development that has changed the character of an historic neighborhood that predates the Civil War. With no restrictions in place to stop it, new construction is progressing rapidly as property owners raze historic mansions for apartment buildings and townhouses.

“It breaks your heart, but that’s what they want,” said Maria Corso, a longtime homeowner who believes her house will ultimately be razed when she decides to sell it. “This is not the same street that it was when we first moved here.”

The neighborhood along 12th and 14th streets by 27th Avenue is a patchwork of historical imagery, where churches dating to the early 1800s sit among the square brick faces of recently constructed multi-family homes and tall white columns of antebellum mansions.

An aggressive community campaign to save the neighborhood by having it designated an historic district has run aground, thwarted by homeowners’ resistance to the restrictions that would accompany it. Although some advocates are still fighting for landmarking, many now feel the development has simply gone too far to be stopped.

A few dozen blocks away on 36th Street, along a stretch of single-family homes known as Norwood Gardens, a similar pattern of development has arisen. The frame of a four-story apartment building now under construction towers above the roofs of two-story homes, which were built as a group in the 1920s with alternating facades of red brick and white stucco and gardens along the front — a distinctive style many residents say lured them to the neighborhood in the first place.

Over the past month, neighbors have held vocal protests on the street to denounce the construction at 30-31 36th St., and their yards are marked with sheets scrawled with slogans such as “No overdevelopment of Norwood Gardens.”

“It’s obvious to me just by walking down most Astoria streets that no one is really thinking about how things are being developed,” said Anna Perris-Rigoutsos, a Norwood Gardens resident who helped spearhead the fight against the new building. “They’re just taking a lot and just putting up as much as they can without any kind of thought to what it’s going to look like or how it’s going to fit in the context with the rest of the neighborhood.”

Lot by lot, the face of Astoria is changing, fueled by a housing crunch and the area’s growing population. What remains to be seen is whether residents can exert enough muscle to shape development in a way that preserves historic neighborhoods, or at least maintains community character.

Bob Singleton, president of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, said the haphazard direction of new construction destroys neighborhoods that were originally conceived as “wonderfully laid-out and thought-out communities.”

“The problem in this borough is not development, it’s quick-buck builders who attack these lovely communities piecemeal and greedy people who sell to them and don’t care about their former neighbors and community,” Singleton said. “They may make a profit from their efforts, but the rest of us are stuck with their visually jarring clutter and most importantly, the tax bill that we have to pay out of our pockets from their impact on overburdening communities and service.”

Norwood Neighborhood Association President Phil Rovere said the community is garnering support either to have its block landmarked, or to have the city downzone the neighborhood from an R6 district to an R4, which reduces the maximum height of new construction to 35 feet.

A similar zoning change approved for Astoria Village in the 1980s failed to thwart development there. Community Board 1 District Manager George Delis said residents can only effectively preserve Norwood Gardens by receiving an historic district designation from the city, which would force homeowners to get permission before making changes to the exterior of a building.

In Astoria Village, however, many of the developers putting up new structures say the homes they are razing have outlived their usefulness. Insurance salesman Steven Sideris purchased a 150-year-old house at 26-19 12th St. with the idea of renovating it for his family. But he found the home in such disrepair that he chose to replace it with a pair of attached townhouses, currently under construction.

“Some of the old houses, if you look at them, they look bad,” Sideris said. “Those new houses, they look better than some of the old houses.”

The next casualty in Astoria Village is imminent. Nan Zhao, a pharmacist who owns the white building with a green roof at 26-04 12th St., has filed preliminary papers with the city’s Buildings Department to tear it down. His mother Emily Zhao said the interior of the house is in “such bad condition” it cannot be saved.

In the end, without any sort of protection in place, the debate settles along the lines of the property owners’ personal preferences. Do you prefer shiny and new, or aged and venerable?

For Anastasios Sarikas, an attorney who owns an 1868 home on 27th Avenue, the answer is simple: He has already devoted tens of thousands of dollars to “get it back to its 1868 quality.”

“This house has soul, it has a spirit and I can actually feel the spirit in the house getting better,” Sarikas said. “For me, investing in my house is investing in my life.”

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

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