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Howard Beach homeowners destroy to create

In a process that started in the 1980s, but which has occurred more frequently during...

By Daniel Massey

New homeowners typically remodel a kitchen or install extra lighting, but in Howard Beach the first step some residents take after buying houses is to knock them down.

In a process that started in the 1980s, but which has occurred more frequently during the past few years, people are purchasing Cape Cod homes for as much as $400,000 and tearing them down to clear room for sprawling houses.

“We have prominent builders in the area that take Cape Cods, raze them and turn them into mini-estates that go for $1 million,” said James S. Panzarella, president of Panzarella Realty & Company, which has served Howard Beach for 45 years.

Real estate and construction experts estimated there have been more than three dozen “knockdowns” in Howard Beach since contractors Vinny Lucisano and Steve Tulipani performed the first one in the mid-1980s. They said the trend will continue to change the architectural face of Howard Beach in the years to come.

“Until there are no more Capes it will continue,” said Panzarella, who noted that homes in Howard Beach do not stay on the market long.

A drive down 90th Street from 159th Avenue to Shore Parkway reveals two completed brick-faced mini-estates and another one that is under construction. The homes are the handiwork of Joe Battaglia, who runs J.B. General Contracting, a company started by his father in 1973.

Battaglia has built many of the Howard Beach mini-mansions, including the one he calls both his home and office.

“He’s an artist,” said Panzarella. “You can see the construction style. He’s very meticulous.”

Battaglia said he performed his first knockdown in 1988 and now custom builds three mini-estates each year. He said their popularity stems from neighbors’ desires to keep up with each other. The most extravagant request he ever received was from a homeowner who asked him to install an elevator.

“A lot of times people ask me ‘What’s in that house? Can I do it better?’” said Battaglia. “They are very jealous of each other and they all try to outdo each other. It’s a case of keeping up with the Joneses. That’s what keeps things moving.”

Panzarella said knockdown homeowners are attracted to the area in part by property taxes that are lower than those on Long Island.

Battaglia said the stability of the tight-knit community is also an important factor when people consider investing nearly $1 million in their homes.

Most of the homes have four bedrooms and are built on lots 50- to 60-feet-by-100. They take up half of the plots as allowed by zoning law. But some builders take advantage of a zoning rule that discounts the first floor, if it contains a garage, when calculating the size of the house.

All builders must keep a minimum of five feet of space on one side yard and eight feet on the other, said John Young, director of the Queens office for the city’s Department of Planning.

Developers often avoid zoning hassles by leaving a wall from the existing cape so the new structure is classified as a renovation and not new construction, said Panzarella.

When Maria Ardeljan, a Howard Beach resident since 1986, was looking for a bigger house four years ago, she opted for a Battaglia home on a 60-by-100 square foot plot. Unlike many people who have their homes custom built, she bought a finished house.

“He did a beautiful job,” she said, referring to Battaglia’s work. She said even people who are not buying houses and knocking them down are investing money in their homes. “Everyone in Howard Beach seems to be improving their homes,” she said.

Unlike many communities, where development often raises concerns in neighbors, Howard Beach residents have embraced the large houses evolving in their midst. Despite the fact that Battaglia said he is “getting busier and busier every year,” Young said he was not aware of any complaints.

On 90th Street near the Shore Parkway, Louis Bruno watched as J.B. General Contracting workers built a mini-estate across the street from the home he has lived in for 44 years. He said residents had selfish reasons for applauding the big houses.

“It’s good for the neighborhood. It’s worth money,” he said. “It’s $1 million. All the property goes up.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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