Potential Sunnyside Gardens district proves divisive

Opposing sides report neighborhood friction, allegations of spying and harassment. On April 17, 2007, in front of an audience exceeding the hearing room’s capacity, Landmarks heard testimony on the potential designation of a Sunnyside Gardens Historic District. Sunnyside Gardens, a planned community built between 1924 and 1928, features a mixture of single-, double-, and multi-family dwellings arranged around large, landscaped open courtyards. Funded by a limited dividend company, the development provided high-quality housing for the working class. 4 CityLand 44 (April 15, 2007).

The area’s buildings and landscaping are currently protected by its status as a Special Planning Community Preservation District under the City’s zoning resolution. Under the text, any demolition, construction or enlargement of a structure within Sunnyside Gardens or any change to the landscaping requires a special permit from the Planning Commission, and triggers the full ULURP review process.

At the hearing, opponents argued that the zoning already adequately protected the buildings from new development and destruction, and designation on top of it would be unduly restrictive. Residents in support countered that homeowners widely ignore the current rules, altering buildings and landscaping without permits. Supporters would welcome Landmarks’ more attentive oversight. Resident Mark Leavitt attacked Department of Buildings’ enforcement as woefully inadequate.

Several speakers claimed that the friction over designation caused some residents to make anonymous complaint calls to Buildings, alleging that residents, who happened to oppose designation, altered their buildings or landscaping without going through the ULURP process. This prompted resident Christine Hunter to explain that “the controversy has been painful to an otherwise low-key community.”

One homeowner expressed a popular sentiment among opponents that Sunnyside Gardens’ open space and “countrified setting” was its most important aspect, not its “bricks and mortar” and, with designation, landscaping and open space would remain outside Landmarks’ purview. One resident claimed that the creation of a historic district “doesn’t foster community culture,” adding that Landmarks relies on “snitching” among residents to find violations. This would compound the problems of the already-torn community. Accusations were also expressed that Landmarks was only seeking “to fill a quota in outer boroughs,” regardless of the designation’s merit.

Some preservationists claimed that the ULURP process was too onerous. Edward Kirkland, of the Historic Districts Council, explained that ULURP was a “seven-month procedure” and “an impossible regulation” for individual homeowners.

The hearing extended well beyond its scheduled end time of five o’clock, with only four commissioners remaining at the end.

LPC: Sunnyside Gardens Historic District (LP-2258) (April 17, 2007).

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