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Downzoning will preserve Richmond Hill: Historians

Just off Jamaica Avenue on 110th Street, a large stone-faced boxlike structure juts out to the property line, seemingly out of place on a block of quaint one-family homes.

At the same time, on 105th Street between 85th and 86th avenues, a Victorian-style home that was destroyed by fire is being rebuilt in its original style.

The two properties demonstrate the potential Richmond Hill has to be either a haven for the developer or a sanctuary for the architectural historian, Richmond Hill Historical Society President Nancy Cataldi said.

“If I was the person living next to that house, I would not be too happy,” she said, referring to the 110th Street property she contends is not consistent with any of the other homes on the block.

The boxlike structure Cataldi described as “very big” and “very close to the curb” has been built on the site of a formerly open space she said served as either a parking lot or garage.

“Whatever it was it was not obstructing anything,” she said. “You didn’t even notice what it was.”

Many of the houses in Richmond Hill North are Queen Anne Victorians, built from 1869 through the early 1900s. The Queens Historical Society used the neighborhood to launch its Queensmark program in 1996, granting special status to 12 homes in the area.

Now the Richmond Hill society is no longer relying on the goodwill and good taste of homeowners and developers to preserve the character of its neighborhood. The historians, with the unanimous support of Community Board 9, recently presented a proposal to the Department of City Planning to downzone an area of Richmond Hill North from its current R3-1 status to an R2 classification.

If the city accepts the proposal, the area between 104th Street and 117th Street south of Myrtle Avenue and north of Jamaica Avenue would be limited to one-family homes under the R2 zoning.

“We’re determined to prevent developers who don’t care about the historical significance of the neighborhood from putting up box structures for the purpose of making a buck,” said Community Board 9 Chairman Paul Sapienza.

Members of the historical society pointed to a Victorian-era home on 118th Street in Kew Gardens that was recently demolished by developers as an example of the dangers historical properties currently face.

Though the house, which had received a Queensmark designation from the Queens Historical Society in 1996, is not in the area proposed for downzoning, proponents of the change said it shows what can happen when developers motivated by profit rather than history swoop into neighborhoods.

Nearly 95 percent of the area proposed for downzoning would already conform to R2 standards, said Ivan Mrakovcic, an architect, who is a member of both the community board and the historical society.

“There is a continuity of what we’re asking for,” he said. “It all fits.”

A spokeswoman for the City Planning Department said the department is in the initial stages of reviewing the request and could not comment on the proposed changes.

Sapienza said Richmond Hill is so overcrowded that the downzoning would have the added benefit of helping to keep the population density of the area from rising at rates city services cannot keep up with.

The two high schools that serve the community are operating at 180 percent capacity, on-street parking spaces are hard to find and sanitation pickups are overtaxed, he said.

“If you have unscrupulous developers coming in, one of the other things they’re doing is increasing the density in an already overcrowded area and adding to an extremely overburdened school system,” Sapienza said. “We don’t think these students are being served well.”

Ultimately, the historical society is hoping to establish a Richmond Hill historical district, Cataldi said. A plan presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission four years ago has yet to be acted upon. Members of the organization said they also hope to use deed restrictions to prevent multi-family homes from arising on lots intended for single family use.

“The houses are stupendous and beautifully done with porches and these people are just building square boxes that are out of context with what Richmond Hill looks like,” Cataldi said.

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

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