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Borough’s newest houses, renovations shift ever-changing face of Glen Oaks

Glen Oaks is changing, and not everyone likes it.

For decades the quiet, unassuming neighborhood on the eastern edge of the borough has been an affordable, suburban enclave within the city limits, a tree-shaded grid of neatly laid-out streets where city workers, teachers and small business owners could buy their first homes. Good schools and low crime made the area attractive to young couples just starting families.

All that is still true today. But the houses are much larger due to recent construction.

“When they do this, it takes away from the residential vision,” said Alex Pineiro, a 13-year resident of the neighborhood. “You got this big house and nothing else.”

And the issue is further complicated by the delicate subject of race. Some area residents have referred to the new, larger homes as “Taj Mahals” because of the perception that recent South Asian immigrants — Indians with a sprinkling of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis — are responsible for much of the construction.

The change in the character of Glen Oaks’ houses is readily apparent even to a casual visitor. Small two- and three-bedroom homes with full ground floors and partial second stories capped with sloping roofs are still the norm on most of the numbered streets between Little Neck Parkway and the city line.

But a flurry of renovations and new home constructions has resulted in what some longtime residents consider a blight: large, two-story homes — often decorated in beach-style pastel colors — that are built as close to the edges of the small lots as the law allows.

Bernie Brandt, vice president of a local homeowner’s group, Lost Community Civic Association, said larger homes meant more people, and that was putting a strain on an area designed to support small homes. Lost Community represents residents of New Hyde Park, Floral Park and Glen Oaks.

“One of the biggest complaints we have is that we have services from the city which are for one-family houses,” he said. He cited water service in particular and said residents have complained of weaker water pressure. But residents also worry about the ability of emergency services to respond quickly.

“The one fire engine we have out here is one truck, a regular ladder truck,” he added.

Richard Hellenbrecht, chairman of Community Board 13, agreed.

“If these are more than one-family houses, it increases the parking congestion, schools, sewers and water supply,” he said.

But whether the houses are one- or two-family homes is a matter of some debate. Strictly speaking, structures built to accommodate two families — with two separate addresses — are prohibited by zoning in this part of Queens. But one local real estate broker said many homes were being built or renovated to make room for single families of unusual size.

“If a family with two or three children buys a house, but a brother or sister wants to live in the same community and doesn’t have the resources, they’ll pay the rent for some rooms in the same house,” said Irving Haber, an agent with Petkoff Realty of Queens Village.

The perception that one group is disproportionately to blame for the large houses may have some basis in truth. Several Indians interviewed said Indians were responsible for most of the construction projects. Many of the homes under construction bear signs advertising Indian-owned realty agencies and contractors.

One local real estate agent of South Asian descent said Indians were attracted to the area for the same reasons as the older residents: good schools, convenient location and low crime. But he pointed out that home prices had skyrocketed since the first Indians settled in the area in the early 1980s. A small, one-story home that sold for $80,000 at that time would now go for at least $400,000.

So new arrivals had no choice but to rent out rooms if they were to afford the mortgages, said the agent, who did not want his name mentioned.

But others believe the extra rooms in the large homes are being filled by members of the extended family, not rent-paying strangers.

Suprabhat Sengupta, an engineering consultant and Indian activist from Kew Gardens Hills, said many Indian immigrants define family a bit more broadly than native-born Americans.

“We are family-oriented,” he said. “We have large families. [People moving into the neighborhood] may want to bring in brothers and sisters.”

One Glen Oaks resident originally from India who did not want to be identified said living with members of the extended family was advantageous for home security and the care of young children.

Pineiro, a retired New York state police officer who lives near Union Turnpike on 260th Street, was sympathetic to that idea.

“I’m Hispanic,” he said. “We take care of our grandparents. I understand that.”

But that understanding is tested sometimes. One block down from Pineiro’s small home, a giant two-story behemoth is under construction. Judging from the exterior, the structure contains at least four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Space on the second floor has been maximized — as Hellenbrecht said — by extending it on stilts over the driveway.

“Where do you put the cars? You put them here,” said Pineiro, gesturing at the curb where his son’s movable basketball hoop was set up.

Even if the additional building causes overcrowding, there is not much residents can do about it. Most projects appear to be within zoning regulations, although some may come very close to violating minimum yard sizes or floor-area ratios.

Another objection focuses on the style of the large renovated or rebuilt homes.

“If you look at these houses and the color they use, the style of construction tells you right away this is not the same kind of community, the same kind of people,” said Brandt. “It’s like bringing a Florida-colored house up here, with pinks, oranges and a trim.”

One house on 262nd Street has drawn particular scorn. Two stories high and pink, with four white columns supporting a small roof over the front stoop and white window frames, it pushes to within what appears to be the legal limit in every direction.

Hellenbrecht, the community board chairman, said although some homes might stand out or even stretch the neighborhood’s services, home improvement was essentially a positive trend.

“The investment in the neighborhood is encouraging,” he said. “It brings up the value of the neighborhood, which is good.”

And Pineiro, Brandt and other Glen Oaks residents took pains to make it clear that they had nothing against South Asians moving into the neighborhood. They were very clear that their objections were strictly about the building — and not about race or culture.

“A large proportion [of the neighborhood] is becoming South Asian,” Brandt said. “Not that I don’t love them. They’re fine. But we don’t want them to overpower the neighborhood.”

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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