First Step Made In Hot Landmark Case
Opponents to the landmarking rally at the Sunnyside St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
By JENNIFER POLLAND
When Charles Knipe moved into his home in Sunnyside Gardens two-and-a-half years ago, he felt that he had finally found a sense of community. He fell in love with the gardens, the courtyards, the charm, and the “neighborly” character of the planned urban community. Recently, that friendliness has melted into anger as debates over the potential landmark status of Sunnyside Gardens have boiled to an all-time high.
On March 6, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to schedule a public hearing about the proposed Sunnyside Gardens Historic District. Marking the calendar is the first step in designating a landmark, and the pending date—which has not been set yet—is making many Sunnyside Gardens residents nervous.
Developed between 1924 and 1928, Sunnyside Gardens is one of the few planned residential urban communities in New York City. With open courtyards and abundant foliage, Sunnyside Gardens was planned as a type of “garden city” that was meant to offer respite from the noisy urban streets.
Sunnyside Gardens is already a Special Planned Community Preservation District, but the LPC is pushing to designate it as a Historic District, an act which would protect each building, courtyard, and garden within the complex.
“Sunnyside Gardens is an extraordinary place that deserves to be protected for generation of New Yorkers to come,” said LPC Chairman Robert Tierney in a recent statement.
Most historians and urban planners seem to agree with Tierney. Jeffrey Kroessler is a librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the founder of the Queensborough Preservation League. He is also a resident of Sunnyside Gardens, and a champion of the plan to designate his community as a historic district.
“Landmarking will protect the individuals, like myself, who moved to Sunnyside Gardens for a particular experience,” Kroessler said. “Over the past few years, there have been individuals who have done illegal work on their houses and have ‘uglified’ their property. If we left Sunnyside Gardens to those tender mercies of the market, we would lose what makes the community so special.”
The issue of landmarking has become so explosive that some people fear that it may cause an irreparable rift in the community. Neighbors rat out each other out to the LPC and the NYC Department of Buildings for alterations made to their own homes.
Knipe is opposed to landmark designation because he feels that, among other issues, it is splitting the community which he had once felt was so “neighborly.” He is also concerned that landmark status would change the demographic of the neighborhood; increased property values might exclude the working class—the group it was originally designed for.
Homeowner Ira Greenberg is a staunch opponent of landmark designation. Greenberg, who is also an attorney, feels that more efficient zoning laws would be a better alternative to landmark designation.
“Landmarking would be inappropriate for us because it focuses so much on buildings and architecture, but what makes Sunnyside Gardens so great is the walkways and outdoor spaces, not the architecture,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg also said that landmarking would place a large financial burden on homeowners. His home currently has a slate shingle roof, which he knows will soon need replacement. Greenberg estimates that it would cost about $45,000 to use the same slate shingle material, while an alternative roofing material could be much cheaper.
Delegates on both sides of the landmarking debate are consistently butting heads. In response to the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance, a community organization seeking landmark designation, several residents created the Preserve Sunnyside Gardens Coalition, a coalition that protests landmark designation. It seems that everyone in the community has an opinion and is unafraid to voice it.
Landmarking is a highly polarizing issue, and like the residents of Sunnyside Gardens, the politicians who represent the neighborhood are also divided. Assemblywomen Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) and Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth) are proponents of landmark designation, while Sen. George Onorato (D-Long Island City) and Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale) are against designation.
Ultimately, the City Council is responsible for voting on landmark designation, placing Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) in a difficult predicament. Not only does Gioia represent Sunnyside, he currently resides in Sunnyside Gardens with his wife and daughter. Gioia has not yet taken a definitive position on the issue.
“Councilman Gioia is trying to build a consensus and gather as much information as possible before taking a public stance,” said Gioia spokeswoman Meghan Sherman. “It is a very divisive issue, but everybody seems to be interested in the same thing, which is preserving the character of the neighborhood.”
The matter of designating Sunnyside Gardens as a historic district feeds into a much larger issue: landmarking in Queens. The largest and most diverse borough in New York City is severely lagging behind the other boroughs in the number of historic landmarks. While Manhattan protects approximately 11,000 landmarks and Brooklyn protects approximately 9,000 landmarks, Queens touts a mere 1,693 landmarks.
Of the 1,693 landmarks in Queens, the LPC protects 52 building exteriors, four interiors, six historic districts, and the Queensboro Bridge, according to LPC spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon. The remainder of that seemingly large number accounts for the buildings that are encompassed within the historic districts.
“A historic district is a collection of buildings that create a coherent and distinct sense of place,” de Bourbon explained. “It is important because there is no other place like it.”
If Sunnyside Gardens is designated as a historic district, it would be the largest historic district in Queens, leading the six historic districts in Queens, including Fort Totten, Ridgewood, Jackson Heights, Douglaston, Douglaston Hill and Hunters Point. The designation would also boost the number of landmarks in Queens to about 2,303 (Sunnyside Gardens encompasses about 610 buildings).
“I don’t know why Queens keeps getting the short end of the stick when it comes to landmarks, but there is definitely a need for more historic districts,” said James Driscoll, the vice president for history at the Queens Historical Society. “I think it’s a great idea to landmark Sunnyside Gardens because it was a highly regarded planned community.”
People rallying for the designation of Sunnyside Gardens are hailing the LPC’s decision to calendar a public hearing as a step in the right direction for Queens. The designation of another historic district would mean progress, Kroessler said.
“If Sunnyside Gardens is landmarked, it would put to rest the statement that Queens has no historic architecture,” Kroessler said. “You could puff out your chest a little in Queens when this is landmarked.”
But for residents like Knipe, landmarking would mean more restrictions. Although Knipe said that he would not move, he said that he would be very upset because it would mean that making future changes to his home would be a more cumbersome and expensive process.