Newspaper Articles

Historic district renews old fights

Queens Chronicle - North/Northeast Queens News

March 28, 2013

By Joseph Orovic

Douglaston’s landmarks appendage brings out a battle among residents

The Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to intervene with changes filed with the Department of Buildings to a house that has become the new flashpoint of a proposed historic district in Douglaston.

The decision ended the commission’s precarious placement in the middle of a Hatfields-McCoys situation brewing in Douglaston for over five years, as the purpose — and alleged downsides — of protective landmark designations have been called into question.

Residents, civic association members and activists gathered in front of 38-60 Douglaston Parkway to call upon the LPC to fully vet plans submitted by a new owner to alter the house and block any proposed changes.

The agency faced three options: Move to landmark just that home, move forward with landmarking the entire district or allow the changes to go through.

"While the house has many intact features, in light of the challenges of researching the provenance of a building of this age, which has been moved from its original site, and in light of the fact that partial permits have already been issued, we determined the building would not be recommended to the full Commission for further consideration as an individual New York City landmark," said LPC spokeswoman Lisi de Bourbon in a statement.

Plans to stop unspecified changes to the house failed, but the bigger target of the Douglaston Historic District Extension’s passage remains more than five years after it was first considered.

A separate faction of homeowners within the district, led by the brothers Frank and Roger White, remains strongly opposed to a designation they claim they never wanted, don’t need and hope to nix.

"They’re trying to use historic designation as a zoning tool, which it’s not intended for," Frank said.

To the White brothers and their compatriots, the designation would represent a complete capitulation of their rights as property owners. The cost of complying with the constrictions of a landmark restriction? Onerous, they say. The value of the home? Diminished, they claim.

"You lose control and autonomy; you’re technically not the owner," Frank said. "It’s like another condemnation."

Joe Torres, who counts himself among the historic district’s opponents, contends home values drop after a landmarking passes.

"I’m an owner, a builder, a developer; I know the value of real estate better than anyone. [Landmarking] actually limits the value of your property," he said. "Why would I pay more to be restricted? No one worth their salt would do that. The value is going to drop."

But a 2003 study conducted by the city’s Independent Budget Office contradicts the assertion, finding homes in historic districts saw their value increase faster than similar houses outside the historic district.

The Whites dismiss the notion. "If you’re lucky enough to find these ardent preservationists to buy it, then you’re fine," Frank said.

But at the heart of the matter lies a rather toxic accusation: The groups pushing for the designation haven’t been particularly neighborly in their efforts, the Whites claim.

Those opposed to the designation assert the paperwork and push have been done by the Douglaston and Little Neck Historical Society behind the backs of the affected homeowners. They point to exchanges between the society’s members and LPC Chairman Robert Tierney, addressed to the chummy nickname "Bob."

But proponents of the designation claim the obstructionists constitute a minority with a limited understanding of the word "community."

"Zoning is against your will too if you look at it the way the White brothers do," said Kevin Wolfe, co-founder of the historical society. "If you look at a community, and Douglaston is a heavy-duty community where everyone is deeply involved, those of us that live here in the community don’t look at it as ‘The Manor’ and ‘The Extension.’ We’re more inclusive."

The Whites do not count the Manor Apartments and Douglaston Community Church in the ranks of the opposition.

The distinction is critical. Without those two entities, the district is reduced to 17 houses, whose owners are caught in a tug of war between various proponents or opponents of the historic district.

Wolfe, who was named by the Whites as one of the main thorns in their side, said it’s unfair to simply discount the apartment building and church.

"The Manor Apartments is in favor of the Extension. How come the 58 families there don’t count?" he said. "And then there is Community Church, whose consistory also voted in favor of designation last week, representing more than 100 families that support that church and its facilities — why don’t they count?"

More importantly, the exact number of residents for or against the designation is in dispute. According to pro-district resident Jim McCann, 11 of the 17 homeowners in question have signed a petition supporting the district.

"We the all want this. You get the most noise from the empty barrels," he said referring to the naysayers.