TRAPPED BY THE LAW: Legal Construction Keeps Stroke Victim Homebound
Sophie Janis cannot easily negotiate her front entrance since her stroke. Tribune photo by Ira Cohen
By HARLEY BENSON
For the past 57 years, Flushing resident Sophie Janis has called the quiet, tree-lined street of Cherry Avenue home.
She raised her family there, made lifelong friends there and established a life for herself there.
But now, almost six decades after moving into her quaint, two-family house between Kissena Boulevard and Bowne Street, the 82-year-old is facing a challenge that she was never prepared for – she is trapped in her own home.
Janis, a legally handicapped senior who has been forced to use a wheelchair most of the time since suffering a stroke seven years ago, can’t get out of her home without help because of a massive construction project next door. Her furious daughter blames the city’s zoning regulations.
‘TRAPPED LIKE A RAT’
Janis – whose stroke also rendered her unable to speak – has not been able to leave her house on her own for three weeks, ever since developers building a four-story apartment complex next door erected a construction fence right up to her property line, less than two feet away from her side door.
Because the remaining space was so narrow, Janis couldn’t squeeze her wheelchair out the door and through the passageway to the sidewalk, leaving her trapped inside.
“Developers should not be able to determine when a homeowner can leave her home,” said Janis’ daughter, Stephanie. “My mother can’t take her wheelchair out the front door because there are steps, and now she can’t go out the side door.”
She added, “It’s just so unfair. My mother worked hard her whole life to maintain this house. Now she can’t even live there the way she wants.”
The Buildings Department did force the developer of the project next door – Zheng Zhen Gui – to push back the fencing one foot to comply with the plans he filed with the city.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” said Gui, who complied with the Buildings Department order within 48 hours. “I don’t want to cause a problem. I’ll push it back so the lady can get through.”
But even with the extra 12 inches, Janis can’t maneuver her wheelchair to the sidewalk – bushes in the front of her home are still blocking the path, leaving only inches of room.
“It’s really impossible,” Stephanie Janis said. “She’s trapped like a rat. It’s a struggle for her to get the wheelchair out the side door with such a small amount of room. But with the bushes, it’s absolutely not possible.”
“We’re not going to get rid of our bushes,” she added. “This is my mother’s home. She’s lived her for decades. She’s not going to remove a piece of her home because someone else forced her.”
And the problem is not going to disappear once the construction fencing is gone – Gui’s plans call for the house to be built three feet from her side door, making her dilemma a permanent one.
“It’s dangerous for her to use the cane,” Stephanie said, acknowledging that if her mother struggles, she can sometimes walk. “She really can’t walk well with it. And she cannot get her wheelchair out without someone carrying it. She’s just trapped without help.”
She added, “We’ll have to find a way to deal with it. We really don’t have a choice. My mother’s not going anywhere.”
A QUESTION OF ZONING
Although Stephanie Janis is unhappy with the current situation, she also acknowledges that Gui has all the proper permits to build an eight-unit apartment complex next door to her mother.
“All of it is legal,” she said. “That’s the problem right there.”
“My problem is not with the developer,” she said. “He happens to be a nice man. My problem is with the zoning that allows this to happen in the first place.”
Although Cherry Avenue is lined with two-family homes like Janis’, most of the area is zoned R7-1, which usually allows for 14-story apartment buildings, according to the city’s zoning handbook.
The maximum height of the zone depends on how wide lots are, however, so in Janis’ neighborhood, the zoning generally permits seven- or eight-story apartment buildings.
“On our block alone, houses have gone down and three-apartment complexes have gone up,” Stephanie Janis said. “The neighborhood is changing, and we need to protect it before all of our homes are gone.”
“We have to focus on the real problem, and that’s the zoning, not the developers,” she said.
A plan that would alter the zoning in Janis’ neighborhood to reflect what’s already in place – known as contextual rezoning – has already been submitted to City Planning for review, but the process is still in the initial stages.
Even if the plan is approved and sent into the ULURP process for review by the Community Board, Borough President and City Council, the process would probably take up to a year.
“Meanwhile, because developers are afraid of the new zoning, they are being even more aggressive,” Stephanie Janis said. “They’re trying to get people out of here so they can tear down houses like the one next to my mother and build apartments.”
JUST ONE SAD EXAMPLE
For Queens City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), Janis’ example is just one of many across the city.
“This example shows why it is so important to rezone areas,” said Avella, chairman of the Council’s zoning subcommittee. “Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. It just highlights it.”
Across Queens, civic leaders have been working to contextually rezone their areas to eliminate this problem.
According to independent urban planning consultant Paul Graziano, parts of Bayside, Springfield Gardens, Kew Gardens, Richmond Hill, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens Hills, Holliswood, Bellerose and Jamaica Hill have already contextually rezoned their areas.
A plan for Kissena Park is going to become law on May 11, he said.
The neighborhoods of College Point/Whitestone, Cambria Heights, Middle Village/Glendale and East Flushing already have zoning plans in the ULURP process, while Douglaston/Little Neck, North Flushing, Central Flushing, Queensborough Hill and Laurelton are all planning to launch the process.
“It’s happening all over the borough,” Graziano said. “Neighborhoods are taking matters into their own hands.”
Elliot Socci, the president of the Douglaston Civic Association, said the reasons for rezoning are obvious.
“A lot of homes are being torn down and replaced with monstrosities known as McMansions,” he said. “I’m going to use all the buzz words. They’re intrusive. They’re changing the character of the neighborhood…we want to protect our neighborhood from that.”
Avella said Janis’ situation is an “extreme example,” but said, “It’s truly unfortunate, but this is happening all over the place. Something needs to be done, because homeowners who work hard their whole lives should not be forced to alter their lifestyles for the sake of developers.”