Locking Horns Over Preservation and Property Rights in Queens


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Roger White and his brother, Frank, at their home in Douglaston, Queens.

Credit
Andrew Renneisen for The New York Times

In 1968, Roger and Frank White’s father received a letter from the City of New York. It informed him that the family’s 1865 whitewashed farmhouse in Douglaston, Queens, was being condemned to make way for the extension of 39th Avenue.

After years in court, the city relented in the 1980s, but it was not until 2006 that the family was able to retake possession of the house. Barely a year later, as Roger White was preparing to restore the house, another surprise arrived in the mail, from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The house, along with 19 of its neighbors, was up for consideration as part of an expanded Douglaston Historic District.

“For 30-odd years, the city wanted to tear down our house,” Mr. White said last week. “Now they want to turn it into a shrine. It’s unbelievable.”

Like the Whites, the vast majority of homeowners in the area proposed for landmarks oversight are opposed to it, arguing for property rights over preservation. They have been fighting the city, local civic groups, and their friends and neighbors for eight years.

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Douglaston

Historic District

Douglaston

Hill Historic

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Proposed historic

district extension


“This is the crucible of Douglaston,” said Paul Graziano, a preservation consultant based in Queens who is leading the extension effort.

It is also a crucible for the fierce debate over historic preservation, a debate as enduring as the buildings the city set out to protect with the passage of the landmarks law 50 years ago. That debate raises difficult questions: Should properties be protected at all costs, even from their owners? Does landmark status increase the value of a property, or decrease it? Does protecting the past impede the future, or propel it?

On Thursday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission will hold a hearing, the first of four, to clear a backlog of 95 items that have been on the agency’s to-do list for up to four decades. Among them is the Douglaston extension, which in addition to 17 homes includes a Tudor-style apartment building, a church and an elementary school, most of which date from the 1850s to the 1910s. A final determination will be made next year on whether to declare these properties landmarks.

While many in the existing Douglaston Historic District, as well as New Yorkers across the city, might view living in a landmark with pride, there are those who consider it onerous. Where some see history and beauty, they see bureaucracy, expense and limitations on what they can do with their properties.

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After the White family was forced out of their 1865 farmhouse, they bought the home next door.

Credit
Andrew Renneisen for The New York Times

Mr. White bristles because he had every intention of restoring his farmhouse in a historically appropriate manner, just as he did with a nearby home his family bought after their eviction.

“They all tell me, ‘Yeah, Rog, but what about when you’re dead?’ and I tell them, ‘Maybe you’ll die first and won’t have to worry about it,’” Mr. White said.

The existing Douglaston Historic District came about in 1997, after years of lobbying. It encompasses more than 600 homes, from waterfront mansions to modest cottages, mostly in the prewar planned community of Douglaston Manor.

A decade later, two houses along Douglaston Parkway that were not part of the district were sold to buyers who planned to expand or demolish them. Members of the Douglaston and Little Neck Historical Society sprang into action and pressed the landmarks commission to extend the district.

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Jean Huang in the backyard of her home in Douglaston. A 4,000-square-foot expansion on the original house resulted in complaints called into the city almost daily during construction.

Credit
Andrew Renneisen for The New York Times

The two sides disagree over whether the historical society notified the property owners of their intentions.

“We knocked on every single door and spoke to every single person,” said Kevin Wolfe, a local architect, Manor resident and a founder of the historical society. “Most of them seemed to support it, even if they want to remember things differently now.”

Peg Breen, president of the Landmarks Conservancy, a citywide group, points to the success of the Manor, where homes regularly sell in the seven figures.

“It’s not like people are leaving en masse because they are landmarked,” she said.

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A pair of lion statues flanking the driveway of David and Jean Huang’s home in Douglaston were vandalized twice. The city has received numerous complaints about the renovation of their home.

Credit
Andrew Renneisen for The New York Times

Opponents of the Douglaston extension feel as if this is preservation by fiat.

“There used to be people I would talk to every day on the train platform; now they act like I’m a ghost,” said Steve Boutis, a Greek immigrant whose Cherry Street home of 39 years is in the expansion area. “Don’t they have enough ‘sense of place’ already in the Manor?”

The outcry has kept the commission from acting, because the agency resists designating properties as landmarks without owner consent. “We need them to be our stewards,” Sarah Carroll, the commission’s executive director, said.

Perhaps no one has struggled in this landmarks limbo as much as David and Jean Huang, whose 2007 purchase of a home on Douglaston Parkway inspired the preservationists’ campaign.

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Kevin Wolfe, an architect and a co-founder of the Douglaston and Little Neck Historical Society, at home in Douglaston last week.

Credit
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

The day after the Huangs closed on their $845,000 home, they got a call from a member of the historical society, inviting them to a barbecue. Everyone warmly greeted them — and implored them to preserve their modest farmhouse next door to the Whites’ home.

The Huangs agreed to keep the house and incorporate it into a 4,000-square-foot expansion tucked behind, yet still dwarfing, the original structure. They even adopted a number of suggestions made by the historical society, such as an elongated two-story addition rather than a boxy three-story one, and clapboard siding instead of brick.

“I realized they had some good ideas, too,” Ms. Huang said.

Yet once construction was underway, complaints were called in to the city almost daily, leading to numerous work stoppages and two dozen different violations. It took more than four years for the Huangs to complete the house.

Once they were finished and moved in last winter, they encountered more problems. A pair of marble guardian lion statues flanking the driveway were spray-painted twice. After some people encouraged their dogs to relieve themselves on the property, Ms. Huang put out a sign saying, “Please do not pee on the plants.” Someone flipped it over and wrote in black marker that the dogs should direct their attention at the owners instead.

The Huangs even needed tacit approval from the landmarks commission to get their changes approved by the city’s Buildings Department, because their property was on the commission’s radar. “They were very agreeable,” Mr. Huang said.

It could be the last time he ever has to deal with the commission.

Councilman Paul Vallone, a Democrat whose district includes Douglaston, has already said he will block the expansion of the historic district in light of residents’ opposition. The City Council has final say over land-use matters, and members almost always defer to the local representative. As a result, Ms. Carroll, the commission director, anticipates the agency might not expend resources approving something that will only be defeated.

“I could have supported this before, maybe,” Mr. Huang said of the historic district. “But not now.”



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