2007-01-24 / Features

Second Sunnyside Gardens Landmarks Meeting Held

BY THOMAS COGAN

Community Board 2 Chairman Joseph Conley, who ran the meeting, said there might have to be still another meeting to accommodate those who couldn't get in... Community Board 2 Chairman Joseph Conley, who ran the meeting, said there might have to be still another meeting to accommodate those who couldn't get in... The latest Sunnyside Gardens meeting, held in conjunction with one held in late November, convened last Wednesday at Sunnyside Community Services to explore the possibility and desirability of landmark status for the 80- year-old neighborhood. On the agenda for appearance were officials from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Department of City Planning and the Department of Buildings. Each one who arrived wound up getting an earful of opinions and observations favoring or dismissing the idea of landmarking Sunnyside Gardens. Turnout was heavy, and latecomers attempting to get in reportedly had to be turned away. Community Board 2 Chairman Joseph Conley, who ran the meeting, said there might have to be still another meeting to accommodate those who couldn't get in- adding that at a succeeding meeting, perhaps the Department of Buildings' representative would make an appearance, something that Robert Hudak of the DOB failed to do at this one.

(Another meeting might also have a better arrangement, more in the manner of the one in November, which took place the week after Thanksgiving, also at Sunnyside Community Services. At that time, chairs were set up in files and rows to provide for at least 200 attendees. Last Wednesday, the tables usually there for the monthly meeting of Community Board 2 were set up instead, with chairs all around them. The result was a considerable lessening of seating

The other expected speakers were present, and the first, City Planning Director for Queens John Young, explained to the audience that Sunnyside Gardens is currently designated a Special Planned Community Purpose District: PC for short. It is not a landmark district, nor does it have historic district status, Conley interrupted to emphasize, countering a belief that many in attendance seemed to hold. It is in an R4 zone, which generally allows residential buildings up to 35 feet in height, though the Sunnyside Gardens standard is closer to 24. Conley monitored questions from the audience that quickly ran to concern about enforcement, whether favoring or fearing it. But Conley said that aside from zoning enforcement, such questions weren't for Young to answer. Next to address the meeting were Mark Silberman and Sarah Carroll of Landmarks Preservation. Silberman, the LPC general counsel, reviewed the process of applying for landmark status, which begins with the commission itself. If an application is approved at that level, he said, it goes to the borough president and City Planning and, if approval is sustained, it goes at last to the City Council, which takes such approval on advisement but is not obliged to agree with it. If it does, though, the applicant building or neighborhood attains landmark status. Silberman said the commission regulates work that is done on landmarks and asks what was the condition of the particular landmark when it became one; LPC's basic standard is that it be of sound structure and watertight. Carroll said the LPC regulates 23,000 buildings at present and will hear from or about a third of them during any year. Cases are reviewed at the staff level or the commission level, with staff reviewing about 95 percent of them. When an alteration case comes up, LPC can consult documents submitted to the Department of Buildings and if a serious breach is evident, it is brought to the attention of the person or persons doing the work; if the warning is disdained, fines can be imposed. (At the outer limits, the fine can be as much as $5,000 per day, though Silberman and Carroll said such severe punishment has never been exacted.

Comments from the audience ranged from disruptive to orderly. The disruptive were persuaded not to persist, but harshly worded remarks could come even from the orderly. One 46th Street resident held up a Photoshopped picture of what that street might look like if all its residents remodeled their houses any which way: aluminum siding and infill were rife. According to City Planning, this was permissible, the man asserted. The LPC representatives disagreed. A woman then held up a photograph she said was not retouched, showing houses on 49th Street with seemingly illegitimate fencing and front yard parking spaces.

Silberman said that the fencing and carports on those lots are now accomplished facts and could stand, but shouldn't be allowed to spread.

Here the battle of landmark proponents and opponents was joined. All belligerents were Sunnyside Gardens residents, many of decades' standing. One Sunnyside Gardens resident said the Landmarks Protection Commission's procedures were not democratic, adding that the Gardens' current planned community or PC status was sufficient and promoted consensus. In contrast, a resident for 38 years said he was presented with rules and regulations when he moved in and still adheres to them; he wondered why they are not still enforced (it might have something to do with the expiration of owner covenants in the 1970s) and cast his preference with landmarking. The name of Lewis Mumford was invoked by both sides, one person saying that the chronicler of city and town living had written in 1928 (when he lived in Sunnyside) in favor of people over mere architecture, while a proponent, architect Laura Heim, cited the same text to say that Mumford believed good architecture could dignify those residing within it. Opponents pictured LPC enforcers descending on errant residents, compelling them to get with the program. Silberman and Carroll said the commission has a grand total of three enforcement officials; more seriously, they deplored the informing that has allegedly gone on against alleged buildings and grounds violators. Arguments involving slate roofing, Hudson River bricks, six-over-six windows, forest green and butterscotch yellow paints and other fixtures of the original Sunnyside Gardens continued until Conley declared the meeting ended. Before he did, one opponent of landmark status, Michael Meola, a 47th Street resident, said that the pristine 1920s look is almost nowhere to be found in the neighborhood any longer, and that is quite apparent.

It appears that compromises must be struck, whether Sunnyside Gardens is granted landmark status or not. But another meeting looks undesirable, since it would probably be repetitious. The November meeting ended with the implication that the Landmark Preservation Commission's approval was imminent and could come, in LPC Chairman John Tierney's words, "while there's still snow on the ground". Eight weeks later, after a little snow has finally fallen, it seems less certain.

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