The fate of two century-old rowhouses in Forest Hills remains uncertain this week in the wake of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s decision to reject them for landmark status.
Preservationists fear that the specter of losing the cherished homes to developers is looming larger than ever now, as the properties have recently been put up for sale.
The historic houses, located on the west side of 72nd Avenue between Austin Street and Queens Boulevard, are currently selling for about $4 million, with realtors advertising four offices, 11 apartments and — most troubling for some locals — air rights that would allow future owners to modify or raze the structures.
Since putting the houses on the market, realtors have said they cannot predict what might happen to the properties if they are sold.
In up-and-coming Forest Hills, the historic houses stand out with their low-rise stoops, red-brick and limestone facades, stained glass windows, wooden doors and gargoyles, says Rego-Forest Preservation Council founder Michael Perlman.
Five similar properties across the street have been demolished in recent years — and there may be little anyone can do to save the remaining two.
For a structure to qualify as a landmark, it must be at least 30 years old and possess “a special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city.” And the Forest Hills houses “did not rise to the level of a historic district,” said Lisi de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Still, many residents believe the houses should be saved for their historical significance. “Cord Meyer, the developer of Forest Hills, built these houses for the area’s first plumber, electrician and carpenter,” said Jeff Gottlieb, president of the Central Queens Historical Association. “There’s enough history in these houses to make them a historic district.”
A plaque hung last year on the front of the property at 108-19 72nd Ave. commemorates the two houses’ 100th anniversary. It reads: “Built in 1906, they were the beginnings of this historic, beautiful community.”
Perlman believes that creating a miniature historic district for the houses is of the utmost importance. “It would be ideal if these properties were adaptively reused, rather than making way for a ‘McMansion or McOffice.’”
Since the houses were rejected for landmarking status, Perlman has accused the commission of holding a Manhattan bias. “It is clearly evident that the LPC plays favoritism for such townhouses and buildings in Manhattan, but … shortchanges the outer boroughs.”
The commission’s own data appear to bolster some of Perlman’s charges. According to figures obtained by Councilwoman Melinda Katz’s office, there are a total of 53 historic districts in Manhattan, in contrast to six in Queens. Additionally, there are 16 in Brooklyn, nine in the Bronx and three in Staten Island.
“The commission’s own data does reveal a stark disparity in the number of historic districts in Manhattan and throughout the rest of the city,” said James McClellan, a Katz spokesman.
Nancy Cataldi, president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society, was surprised by the commission’s especially swift rejection of the two Forest Hills houses, with the request submitted and overturned in the span of just about a month.
“The (commission) usually never moves with that kind of speed,” Cataldi said. But she added that the commission had made strides with the recent move to landmark Sunnyside Gardens progressing steadily.
For now, however, the fate of the Forest Hills houses remains uncertain.
Asked about what might happen to them, Gottlieb hopes they’ll be sold and turned into residences. Just as long as they are not torn down or changed beyond recognition, he and other preservationists will be happy.
“Why,” asked Perlman, “should properties that tell the story of the evolution of Forest Hills feed a landfill?”