By Sophia Chang

Sponsored by the Coalition of Civic and Preservation Groups in Queens, an umbrella group of more than a hundred organizations, and officiated by borough historian Stanley Cogan, an estimated 200 civic leaders and residents rallied. They protested against the destruction of “perfectly good older homes to make way for multi-family dwellings that are out of character with existing structures” and the “rebuilding of existing homes with oversized, non-contextual architecture,” according to fliers passed out by organizers.

They also targeted the population increase in the borough over the past few decades, charging that the burden of new residents “stresses our resources and adds congestion and pollution.”

Many of the protesters voiced their displeasure with the perceived lack of attention from the city government, and much of their anger was directed at City Hall and the city agencies, Department of Buildings and Board of Standards and Appeals, which they say are too willing to grant developers variances to defy zoning laws.

“They take us for granted here, and we don't want to be taken for granted any longer,” said Sean Walsh, president of the Queens Civic Congress. “We want City Hall to act now.”

He also called for the elimination of the controversial basement exemption, where developers do not have to report basement residences as part of the total number of stories, another way to skirt zoning regulations.

Area politicians came to lend their support, particularly those who represent the communities hardest hit by development.

“Let's protect our residential communities, and our quality of life, for once and for all,” said Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) as he listed the development legislation he has sponsored, including bills that support downzoning and would place restrictions on community facilities.

Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) criticized the BSA, saying the agency has been granted too much power and now there is a “lack of accountability, a lack of responsiveness.” After he spoke, protesters chanted “Save the Bowne Street Church!,” a reference to the historic Flushing church's land that may be sold to developers if it is not landmarked by the city.

Phyllis Shafran, chief of staff for state Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin's (D-Flushing) office, said he was in Albany that day “working on issues designed to protect and preserve our way of life.” She pointed out that McLaughlin, in conjunction with state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose), has sponsored legislation to eliminate the tax exemptions that developers get to construct the controversial homes, which she called “monstrous pieces of debris.”

“If you bought a home, you bought into a neighborhood,” said Jim Trent, treasurer of the Queens Civic Congress. “If you moved into a nice looking neighborhood, you deserve the nice looking neighborhood.”

Organizers made sure to bring at least one resident of each Queens neighborhood, and people held up neon placards declaring their residences. Henry Euler held a “Bayside” card and listened intently to the speakers.

“I'm sick and tired of seeing my neighborhood change for the worse,” he said. “There are multi-family homes that overstress community resources. It's changing our way of life.”

He said he hoped to see passage of anti-development legislation, including Councilman Michael McMahon's bill (D-Staten Island) that requires the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to review the landmark eligibility of any structure more than 50 years old.

Other protesters held up signs declaring that “The Department of Buildings is not effective,” “Developers-Overbuild where you live” and “Self Certification leads to Bad Development,” a nod to the spate of contracted developers without proper licensing. At times, between speakers, the protesters chanted “Enough is enough!” and “change now!”

Paul Graziano, urban scholar and preservationist, noted that with a population of around 2 million people, Queens would be the fourth largest city in America if it were independent of New York.

“We have zoning in place to allow 7 or 8 million people,” he said. “The rules are written not for us but written for the builders.” He went on to criticize some of the politicians present for not actually signing the bills they say they support, citing Liu for not signing a demolition delay bill.

“They don't think about who lives here. They only think about the dollar,” Laurelton resident Bess DeBetham said. “We really want the elected officials to know that we live in Queens. It's not just Manhattan. If we don't think about ourselves, who will?”

“We also want to feel the breeze, see the sky without having to look up, and we will remember that come November,” DeBetham added. She glanced up at the sun, which she had been standing under for over an hour without shade.

“If I can stand in the hot sun, I can cast my vote.”

Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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