What Local Historic District DOES NOT do: · Does not regulate paint colors · Does not require repairs or renovations to be made · Does not increase taxes beyond normal increases for the City or County · Does not prevent additions · Does not prevent non-contributing homes from being demolished · Does not require use of historic materials or historic building methods · Does not require that you open you home to the public · Does not restrict routine maintenance of properties
What Local Historic District DOES do: · Recognizes that Oakhurst has a distinctive historic character important to the overall character of the City of Decatur · Encourages creative and compatible development with historic areas · Requires that a Certificate of Appropriateness be obtained for exterior changes to contributing properties, demolition of buildings, and new construction. · Applies only to major renovations to the exterior of your home. Interior renovations are not restricted.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rockaway Beach in Peril

Known as the poor man's Riviera, Rockaway Beach—a thin 7.5-mile snake of sand that hugs the coastline of Queens and Brooklyn in New York City—was once the summer home of the Vanderbilts, the Longfellows and the Astors. In the 1920s, many of these grand estates were divided and sold to developers, who built small communities in the popular architectural style of the time, and the bungalow colonies of Far Rockaway, N.Y., were born.
Now those beachfront bungalows and their public waterfronts are endangered: Only 100 of the 300 original houses remain. Dwarfed by massive new buildings—80 percent of all Queens nursing homes reside in Far Rockaway, and sprawling housing projects continue to grow, despite public easements—and unprotected by landmark status, the fate of these last bungalows is still up in the air. Though both national and New York City legislation mandates preservation and compatible development, the laws don't work unless someone enforces them.
Richard George in his bungalow, with high-rises in his back yard (Tim Davis)
That is precisely why Richard George, president of the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association of Far Rockaway, Inc. (BBPA) is suing New York City's planning department and department of buildings, claiming they have violated their own initiatives. Founded 20 years ago, the association has tried a number of tactics to promote preservation. "Once I had to come and stand right in front of a bulldozer," George says. That was in 2001, and until last year, the city was still approving demolition permits. So George's group is taking the fight off the construction site and into the courtroom to protect the integrity of this humble neighborhood.
Rockaway Beach's six-mile boardwalk (the country's second longest, after Atlantic City, N.J.,) was once adorned with bathhouses and brothels, amusement parks and luxury hotels, which bloomed to life in the summer and were left sleeping for the winter. But during post-World War II expansion, Rockaway experienced the same decline that faced nearby places like the Bronx or Jersey City: Suburban settlements bypassed areas directly outside the metropolitan center, leaving boroughs subject to blight.
Their location, 20 miles from Manhattan, makes the bungalows particularly difficult to protect. Anthony C. Wood, longtime New York preservation activist, supports Richard George and his heroic efforts to save the houses. "These bungalows are really diamonds in the rough," he says. "Part of getting people on board is to get them to see the buildings, to fall in love with them. But the fact that they are so physically remote makes it hard. If they were in Manhattan, there'd be an army to protect them."
Dwarfed in Rockaway Beach (Tim Davis)
Many of the bungalows in this neighborhood—stretching from Beach 24th St. to Beach 27th St. between Seagirt Boulevand and the boardwalk in the Wavecrest area of Far Rockaway—were designed as soldier's housing in nearby Gravesend, then hauled by barge around the bay after World War I. The colony, built 80 years ago on the site of what was once the Dickerson estate, served as a humble summer retreat until its comeback in the mid-1980s.
The Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association was established in 1984, when year-round residents started to trickle into Rockaway Beach. But at the same time that the houses were at last owned instead of rented, and properly tended, development sprouted all around them. The 1918 deed from the four-acre Dickerson estate clearly affirms that an easement—guaranteeing public access to the waterfront—be preserved, but it wasn't until bungalows were demolished and easements violated that the association sprung into action.
In 1988, property owner Zion Halilli sold off his one-acre waterfront parcel to developers, who razed more than 50 bungalows on three city blocks. "They did it in the winter, when most of us weren't around," George says. "By the time we got back in the spring, they were gone." Yet the lot remained empty until 1998.
That's when the New York State Housing Trust Fund Corporation received an application from the Queens-based Margert Community Corporation to erect a multi-story apartment building there called Wavecrest II, despite the colony's easement. Magert originally promised garden apartments but later decided the building would contain 122 units of low-income housing.
"If public easements are ignored, it paves the way for the place to be chopped up, for further erosion," Wood says. "The sense of place is kind of what hangs in the balance."
Built on the site of 50 demolished bungalows, Wavecrest II looms above a modest bungalow. (Tim Davis)
Although the association challenged the application on the grounds that it would illegally usurp public access to the waterfront and violate federal and city laws, it was too late. Many Queens political heavy hitters, including former Borough President Claire Shulman and Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, supported the Wavecrest II application.
No one seemed concerned with the impact a six-story building would have on the modest neighborhood of one-and-a-half story, single-family homes—or with the legal clause that requires appropriate development. Neither did officials consider the easement, the right to ease, accommodation, and privilege to use land owned by another person. Both Margert and the city's planning department refused to comment for this story.
According to the Coastal Zone Management Act, which Congress passed in 1972, one section, Title 16, Chapter 33, Sec. 1452, states should give "full consideration to ecological, cultural, historic, and esthetic values as well as the needs for compatible economic development" and maintain "public access to the coasts for recreation purposes" while assisting "in the redevelopment of deteriorating urban waterfronts and ports, and sensitive preservation and restoration of historic, cultural, and esthetic coastal features."
Rockaway Beach juxtaposition (Tim Davis)
The New York City Waterfront Revitalization Program (WRP), adopted in 1982 and revised in 1999, is the city's own version of the Coastal Zone Management Act, intended to locally enforce the national act. In its own charter, the program states, "The guiding principal of the WRP is to maximize the benefits derived from economic development, environmental preservation, and public use of the waterfront, while minimizing the conflicts among these objectives. Through individual project review, the WRP aims to promote activities appropriate to various waterfront locations."
But if compatible development balanced with aesthetic values is the goal of the law, the reality is quite different. Today Wavecrest II hovers over the bungalows, violating their easements and spreading its pink brick wings across Beach 14th Street. Yet if the BBPA has its way, that will all change.
"They built private property on a public easement," George says. "The Coastal Zone Management Act says development has to be compatible with the character of the neighborhood, and they did not properly conduct a detailed environmental impact study. So the project is null and void." The association wants the city to restore the easements, perhaps even removing developments like Wavecrest, and protect the bungalows from future demolition. It hopes to require the city to review past applications and reverse inappropriate and illegal development.
"There are precedents for this sort of action," Wood says. He's referring to the "too-tall" tower at 108 East 96th Street that, due to a zoning error by the department of buildings, was forced to demolish its top 12 floors.
It could be months, even years, before the lawsuit is decided. But in the meantime, development on public easements and demolition of bungalows has temporarily come to a halt. Key city players are now behind his association, George says. "We even had the Astors come out here and give us support," he says. "Just like in the old days."