Residents and preservationists in Northeast Queens are furious that, after 14 years of trying to make the suburban neighborhood of Douglaston Hill a New York City historic district, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has rejected their proposal—just as one of the area’s premiere houses is facing the wrecker’s ball.
Putting the neighborhood on the calendar for landmarking is the one thing that could save the “Free Classic” Queen Anne house at 240-35 43rd Avenue, built in 1901. The local preservation community sees the commission’s refusal to act as the latest in a long history of decisions prejudiced against the outer boroughs.
“The LPC’s stated mission is to ‘preserve and protect’ structures and neighborhoods of historical significance in New York City. Unfortunately, their real mission appears to be to preserve and protect Manhattan,” said Bill Seivers, vice president of the Douglaston-Little Neck Historical Society, which first applied to have the neighborhood designated by the city in 1989.
He pointed out that only five neighborhoods have been designated as historic districts in Queens, while Manhattan has more than 60.
Ironically, Douglaston Hill was landmarked by the state and federal government in 2000. These designations allow groups to apply for grants and loans to fix up properties, but only the city status can protect the exterior facade and has guidelines for districts.
The district consists of 35 properties, roughly bounded by Northern Boulevard to Douglaston Parkway to 42nd Avenue, 240th Street, all of 43rd Avenue, 244th Street and back to Northern Boulevard.
The area was cited as one of the first garden suburbs in the mid-1800s, and developed just after the turn of the last century, with all homes except one built before 1930. It is distinguished by Colonial Revival, Queen Anne and Shingle Style architecture.
When rumors began circulating that the property on 43rd Avenue was up for sale to developers with plans to demolish the house, the community swung into action to try to expedite the sluggish city landmarking process.
Seivers asked Councilman Tony Avella to call Landmarks Commissioner Robert Tierney personally to try to get an answer about when the district would be put on the calendar. Neither Avella nor Seivers was prepared for the answer they received: the district was not going to be calendared, now or ever.
“This is almost like a line in the sand now,” Avella said. “Many of us thought this was an easy designation for them, and the fact that they are not doing this means that others are not going to be designated. Expect a huge public outcry.”
Avella recently commissioned Paul Graziano to do a zoning study for Northeast Queens, and Graziano recommended several new historic districts. But none of them have Douglaston Hill’s history of community support.
Aside from the state and federal government, the list of people and agencies supporting Douglaston Hill is long, including a host of local civic organizations and elected officials.
Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic District Council, a preservation advisory group, visited the area over the summer and said it had a “very rare quality within New York City and one deserving of preservation.”
Now, he says the community has a right to be outraged. Although the 11-member LPC, appointed in three-year terms by the mayor, doesn’t have a legal obligation to explain its decision, the combination of community support for Douglaston Hill’s landmarking, its recent 150th anniversary, and its state and federal designations make it difficult to understand. “I think the Landmarks Commission owes the people an explanation,” Bankoff said.
Douglaston Hill is the fourth Queens neighborhood to be rejected in recent years. Richmond Hill, Waldheim in old Flushing and Parkway Village in Ridgewood were also denied. Bankoff thinks this hesitancy to landmark in the boroughs stems from the nature of suburban buildings, which tend to have to be repaired more often than Manhattan’s stone and brick historic districts.
“When you are regulating wood frame, detached houses, there is a whole different set of concerns than when you are looking at masonry row houses, which is what most of Manhattan is. Masonry row houses are much easier to regulate,” he said.
But this explanation only goes so far. Last week, Fieldston, a Bronx suburb similar to Douglaston Hill, had a public hearing on its historic district status, which it applied for in early 2002. The vast majority of districts that make it to the public hearing stage receive the designation.
Graziano attended the meeting, and was shocked to hear that half the testimonies were from residents opposed to the designation. “I don’t begrudge Fieldston the designation, but there are other deserving neighborhoods that have been left out in the cold.”
Graziano considered the fact that Commissioner Tierney won’t even have a hearing about Douglaston Hill, which is far less protected and more historically recognized than Fieldston (it has deed restrictions and other preservation measures), evidence of unfair application of the Landmarks Law of 1965, and possible grounds for suing the commission.
Calls to the Landmarks Commission were not returned.
Avella plans to take up the issue at a zoning rally at 221st Street and 39th Avenue in Bayside on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.