After 50 Years, Dutch Kills Gets Housing OK
Dutch Kills Civic Association (DKCA) officials said area residents were thrilled to learn that a local business owner is investing in their dream of a new, revitalized, residential Dutch Kills community by adding living space to an existing building at 30-01 39th Avenue in Long Island City. The development marks the first time in 48 years that the city has allowed residential development “as of right” in Dutch Kills.
Dominic Stiller, owner of DSENY Building Services, purchased the classic brownstone building earlier this year. Stiller said crews are in the midst of massive renovations to the building’s preexisting first floor, which he plans to utilize as the headquarters of DSENY. Stiller said he has added two new floors to the existing structure to create a living space for his family. “It’s a large investment,” Stiller said. “But I have faith in the future of this community.”
The development marks the end of the dark days of residential decline in Dutch Kills, a downward spiral sparked by a controversial zoning change that prohibited new housing in the area. Community activists argued for decades with the City Planning Commission over the 1961 zoning change that also denied homeowners the right to rebuild their homes if 50 per cent or more of their living space was ravaged by fire or other catastrophe.
The city’s decision to rezone a portion of the Long Island City community as a restrictive manufacturing and commercial zone rang a death knell for residential Dutch Kills. As a result of the rezoning, homeowners found it difficult to purchase insurance and secure mortgages for homes that had been written-off by City Hall as “nonconforming structures”, civic association officials said. “At the time of the 1961 zoning change, city planners felt they needed a pocket, a space to incubate commercial and manufacturing opportunities,” DKCA Executive Director George L. Stamatiades said. “The city sacrificed the residential community in Dutch Kills to achieve that goal.”
Stamatiades described the 1961 rezoning as a “flawed experiment” that failed to turn Dutch Kills into the mini industrial park envisioned by the city. Instead, the community was left with a hodge-podge of auto body and repair shops, illegal used car dealers, livery services and other businesses that abused city laws and area residents. Large manufacturing and commercial interests fled the area, taking hundreds of jobs with them. The darkened, empty streets turned into a haven for late-night prostitutes who flaunted the law and showed little respect for area residents.
During his term in office, City Councilmember Walter McCaffrey took on the streetwalkers and with cooperation from local law enforcement, the Queens District Attorney’s office and DKCA members who monitored McCaffrey’s program as court watchers, more than 120 prostitutes were arrested and sentenced to jail time for their illegal activities. McCaffrey also orchestrated the arrest and prosecution of male customers—the “Johns”—who supported the illegal prostitution, thereby returning the streets to area residents.
DKCA President Gerald Walsh attended a 2003 City Hall roundtable meeting where Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked a panel of civic leaders to identify one issue that most impacted their communities. Walsh was the only community leader at the table to ask Bloomberg for the right to build new housing—a challenge the mayor accepted.
Walsh was stunned when he returned home from the meeting to find a phone message from Department of City Planning Director Amanda M. Burden, who said Bloomberg reached out to her after the meeting, asking that the agency begin the process to restore residential development in Dutch Kills. “It was a move that effectively restored residential development in Dutch Kills,” Walsh said. “The process also encouraged developers to see Dutch Kills in a new light—as a neighborhood with endless possibilities.”
Stiller said he hopes to complete interior work on the new living space in time for his family to move into the house by November. “There’s still a massive amount of work to be done before the residential portion of the building is complete,” he said. Crews are working hard to complete major renovations to the first floor of the building so DSENY can relocate there in the near future.
Walsh said the development is an indication of a new direction for Dutch Kills. “It has taken the city more than 48 years to recognize the importance of residential housing starts in the strategically located Dutch Kills community,” he said. “If it were not for the hard work and persistence of so many people in Dutch Kills over the past 48 years, the death knell would surely have sounded for our quiet, tree-lined, residential community.”
While Dutch Kills residents bask in the realization that new housing is finally being developed in the Long Island City community, they are quick to give credit where it is due—even if doing so might require some divine intervention.
“If it were not for community activist Roger Laghezza, Dutch Kills residents might never have recognized the implications of the 1961 rezoning,” Walsh said. “Roger brought the issue to the community’s attention in 1980 and he provided us with a wealth of ‘howto’ information on fighting City Hall. He lived and breathed the zoning issue for more than 30 years. Roger worked tirelessly to restore housing starts in this community.”
Laghezza, a former DKCA vice president, died in 2008, just months before the city announced the restoration of new housing starts in the area. “We would be wrong not to acknowledge Roger for his years of hard work, now that we have come full circle in this fight,” Walsh declared.