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Avella to amend landmarks law

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Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) introduced the legislation on July 21 in hopes of addressing what he has described as "the devastating effects of 'demolition by neglect' of landmark-designated property."

Avella has watched historic buildings being destroyed in College Point, where the Boker Mansion, a former military academy overlooking the Flushing Bay, was demolished earlier this year after being boarded up for months. His district also covers Whitestone, Bayside, Little Neck and Douglaston, where the loss of valued old properties has been a major concern.

Since the 1980s, four other notable historic buildings in College Point have been slated for demolition or razed, including the Ledkeuker House at 18th Avenue and 125th Street; Lesermans Academy at 119th Street and 22nd Avenue; Fuerst's Academy, which was torn down on the southern part of College Point Boulevard 10 years ago; and Flessels at 119th Street and 14th Road, which was demolished in 1999.

"Landmark designated properties are being lost to future generations as a result of owner neglect which results in constructive demolition of the property," said Avella in a release. "Many of these buildings are damaged and destroyed by current owners who receive violations for their conduct and in turn abandon the property until it is destroyed by elements and in essence falls down upon itself or is condemned by the Department of Buildings."

Under Avella's amendment, the Landmark Preservation Commission would be allowed to impose hefty fines on owners who have neglected their landmarked property to the point of dereliction. The Landmarks Preservation and Historic District laws currently only penalize owners who have done additional work on the property without pre-approval from the commission.

A primary motivation Avella gave for the proposal was to put a stop to what he called a loophole in the current law, which permits owners to intentionally allow the landmarked property to fall down in order to make room for possible new, more profitable, development. He used developer Tommy Huang, whose two-decades-long neglect of the RKO Keith's Theatre in Queens turned the landmarked building into a notorious eyesore, as an example.

"We want to send of message to the Tommy Huang's of the world that this sort of thing is not going to happen," Avella said.

Another supporter, Simeon Bankoff, agreed, saying the new legislation would enable Landmarks to do its job better as the overseers of the city's historic sites. Bankoff, who is executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said he has been in discussions with Avella for over a year on the issue and now plans to muster community support from among the 125 neighborhood groups his council represents.

Advocates such as Bankoff suspect that the majority of opposition to the new legislation would come from the real estate industry and the property owners themselves. The real estate industry "is under the notion that preservation is the enemy of development," said Bankoff. "But really preservation only creates appropriate development."

Paul Graziano, an urban planning and historical preservation consultant, is another supporter, having worked closely with Avella on zoning issues that include examining landmark-designated sites.

"My guess is more tools is better," he said, referring to the amendment as a protective measure. He then cited a recent example of what could result from not having such a tool. According to Graziano, an historic mansion accompanied by a smaller carriage-house in Douglaston have fallen into deep disrepair over the years despite being landmark-designated. Attributing their conditions to neglect, Graziano claimed the owner was purposefully allowing the smaller building to "fall to the ground in order to then subdivide the property and build a new house."

The owner, Michael Chang, agreed that his property was in poor condition and that he was indeed trying to "tear it down," but when asked whether the fact that the property was landmarked concerned him, he refused to comment and abruptly ended the phone interview.

Graziano stressed the need to restore such buildings and applauded Avella's amendment as "a step in the right direction."

The fate of the legislation, however, remains far off and uncertain. Although the measure has now been introduced, Avella said the proposal must still be circulated among certain organizations such as the landmarks commission and the Department of Buildings before a Council hearing can be scheduled. Officials from both groups said they had not seen the amendment and therefore could not comment on its contents.

Although optimistic that his amendment would pass, Avella indicated the process could be slow. "Unfortunately, the [Department of Buildings] does not have the most cooperative relationship with the Council," he said.

Updated 7:13 pm, October 10, 2011
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