The Civic Scene

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The history of mankind has always been a battle between those who respect historic sites and those who want to build new things no matter what will be torn down. New buildings can be interesting, but we should appreciate the past to understand it and where we are headed.

There are many historic areas in Manhattan with a lot of old money power, but community facilities and builders are constantly trying to break the historic and preservation districts to build big things. On the Upper West Side, Congregation Shearth Israel wants permission to build a gigantic condo over its property on West 70th Street, where gigantic buildings are not supposed to be built.

In the Greenwich Village Historic District, St. Vincent's Hospital wants to build a big extension. You might say this is a worthy desire for a community facility, but it wants to tear down nine buildings in the district and build luxury condos. The community wants to preserve this nice historic place, so it has vocally attended hearing after hearing by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission. Facilities like St. Vincent's always seem to want variances to build bigger than they can legally build.

These community facilities colleges like New York University, the New School or St. John's University, or hospitals like St. Vincent's or Bellevue in Manhattan or St. Mary's in Bayside want to expand for the "good of the community," but add cement, bricks, glass walls, congestion, cars and air and noise pollution and lose grass, flowers, trees and a quality of life.

Then there is the Trump Corporation's desire to build a gigantic SoHo condo-hotel. A dozen historic and preservation groups from Manhattan and Brooklyn have been fighting the permits the city gave for this gigantic development. Also opposing the development was City Council Zoning Subcommittee Chairman Tony Avella (D-Bayside). The only people who spoke for this project were the lawyers for the city Department of Buildings and the developer. The hearing was held at the city Board of Standards and Appeals. There should be a decision soon.

Queens, although not as old as Manhattan, has been quietly and steadily pushing for historic protection of certain neighborhoods. Parkway Village and the Fresh Meadows development were made historic and preservation districts, respectively, years ago. Recently, a part of Bayside and now Sunnyside Gardens have been made historic districts.

A few months ago, the Queens Civic Congress sponsored a Historic Preservation & Landmarking Workshop/Conference in a tower meeting room at the Shops at Atlas Park. The Glendale Civic Association provided refreshments and the Historic Districts Council provided reference materials. More than a hundred civic leaders and preservationists filled the room that rainy night.

The moderator was James Trent, president of the Metropolitan Historic Structures Association and the Queens Farm. The conference co-chairs were Patricia Dolan, Queens Civic Congress executive vice president and president of the Kew Gardens Hills Homeowners Civic Association, and Katy Masi, Queens Civic Congress vice president.

The panelists were City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin (D-Manhattan), chairwoman of the City Council Landmarking Subcommittee; Simeon Banicoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council; Frank E. Sanchis III, senior vice president of the Municipal Arts Society; Herb Reynolds, director of the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance; and Kevin Wolfe, architect and preservationist of the Douglaston/Little Neck Historical Society.

The discussion was very animated. People were interested in preserving historic sites and neighborhoods in Queens. The desire to preserve Queens history has been growing over the years. City officials have shown some interest. People just have to care and be willing to fight the builders who just want to make money and the community facilities who say they are building "for the good of the people."

GOOD NEWS OF THE WEEK: St. Savior's Church in Maspeth has been saved from the wrecking ball. The speculator who bought the property is giving the Juniper Park Civic Association a month to raise money to move this pre-Civil War building. The owner cut down old trees a few months ago. So much for having 1 million more trees by 2030.

BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: It looks like the new state budget will again cater to the special economic desires of local communities. Additional education money will not only go to poor communities who need it, but also to wealthier communities who do not. Also, upstate legislators and union officials prevented the closing of unneeded prisons. Likewise, juvenile jails were left open when other ways could better help youth. Why does the United States have more people in jail than anywhere else in the world?

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