Three weeks ago, Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert Tierney told Sunnyside Gardens residents that the process to landmark their neighborhood could formally begin while there was “still snow on the ground.”
While snowfall remains elusive thus far, the sense of impending change has sparked a new round of debate.
Last Saturday morning, residents gathered to voice their opinions at a meeting organized by a group of residents skeptical that landmarking is the best way to save the historic aspects, character and open space of Sunnyside Gardens.
“The open meeting was called for due to the large number of residents who have felt shut out of the dialogue and shut out of the process surrounding landmark designation,” said Judith Sloan, a 16 year resident. Sloan also penned a letter of protest to the Landmarks Commission asking for a halt to the process.
At the meeting, Susan Meiklejohn, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College and a Sunnyside Gardens resident, presented her ideas for possible alternatives, including working within the existing special zoning designation or exploring federal programs for preservation.
Meiklejohn admits there is a problem enforcing the rules of the community preservation district already in place, and often inappropriate changes slip through unnoticed. Still, she is unconvinced that landmarking is the solution.
“In the quest for historic preservation, there has been a pushing aside of what’s historically significant. Landmarks Commission is primarily concerned with bricks and mortar, which is the least significant part of the development,” she said.
What is essential, she argues, is the economic and ethnic diversity of the neighborhood, which some say could be threatened by landmarking.
Preservationists say such fears are unfounded. “The economics behind it say no, gentrification is not caused by designation,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. On the contrary, Bankoff continued, landmarking can actually insulate the community from extreme highs and lows of the real estate market.
Another top concern for Meiklejohn and others is the preservation of the open spaces and the shared gardens that make the community unique. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has publicly committed to preserving that space and Bankoff and others insist the agency has the authority to do so.
Jeff Kroessler, a historian and Sunnyside Gardens resident, pointed to landmarked neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan where the commission protects open space. “There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t do that in Sunnyside,” he said.
At very least, Meiklejohn wants the process to slow down to allow an inclusive dialogue—something in keeping with the spirit of the neighborhood. “We want to talk about what is historic about Sunnyside Gardens. It was the founder’s intention to have a politically aware, active and integrated community,” she said.
But others feel time is of the essence, and the commission should move forward as planned. “Based on the amount of illegal work going on in my neighborhood, I say the Landmarks Preservation Commission can’t arrive on the scene soon enough,” Kroessler said.
The conversation is far from over. On Tuesday, Community Board 2 Chairman Joe Conley met with members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to set up a meeting with the community and the Department of Buildings and City Planning. A date has not yet been set.
A spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission added that the agency has accepted an invitation to next month’s Community Board 2 meeting, to be held at Sunnyside Community Services, Thursday, Jan. 4 at 7 p.m.