Wide Community Opposition Voiced in Hearing on Three-Dwelling Development

Artists' rendering of one of the proposed houses for 4680 Fieldston Road. Image credit: CityLand

Artists’ rendering of one of the proposed houses for 4680 Fieldston Road. Image credit: CityLand

Applicants sought to subdivide lot with existing home to construct to new buildings, and also build another dwelling on adjoining site. On February 17, 2015, the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered an application to develop three new free-standing homes in the Fieldston Historic District. The site is composed of two lots at 4680 Fieldston Road, with one lot, to be subdivided, currently occupied by a 1918 one-family home. According to the New York Times, the properties are owned by brothers Matthew, Edward, and Marshall Bloomfield. Fieldston was designated as a historic district in 2006.

In addition to its historic district designation, the site is also located in the Riverdale Special Natural Area District, of a handful of Special Natural Area Districts in the City, governed by the Department of City Planning, where natural landscape features are protected from untoward development. City Planning will have to approve the development’s site plan if it does not unduly impact rock outcroppings, trees, and slopes. The proposed development would be on lots adjacent to Indian Pond, a public amenity with walkways and benches, though not controlled by the City, but by the Fieldston Property Owners Association.

Architect Stephen Byrns, Partner at the firm BKSK and former Landmarks Commissioner, presented the proposal. On the lot to be subdivided, the three homes would share a common driveway, utilizing the existing curb cut, and radiate around a cul-de-sac. Byrns noted that there were multiple other shared driveways within the district. The first new building on the subdivided lot would be clad in stucco, with wood trim, and a “slate-like” roof, and stone veneer at the base. The second would also be faced in stucco, with a similar stone base, double-height bay windows, and a jerkinhead roof. The third new building, on the separate lot, would be clad in red brick, in a more formal, Georgian-style architectural vocabulary. The brick-faced house would have its own, separate driveway.

The new houses would range in size from 3,600 to 4,900 square feet, which Byrns said were sizes consistent with the neighborhood, and the lot coverage conformed to “prevailing density.” He also stated that large house on lots of varying sizes characterized the district. The new building closest to the pond would 138 feet away, further than any of the existing houses on adjoining properties.

Byrns said a plan had initially been presented to the community board four years prior, and following that meeting, the plan had been modified so that no new driveways were constructed, fewer trees would be eliminated, and a rock outcropping was less obscured. A total of 25 trees out of an existing 81 on the lots would be eliminated to make way for the development.

Approximately 20 speakers attended the hearing to testify in opposition to the proposal. Jeff Mueller, representing the Fieldston Property Owners Association, stated that 93 percent of polled residents opposed the project, as did the community board, and so stated that it “couldn’t be clearer to us as a community that this development is inappropriate.” One speaker read into the record testimony from Mary Dierickx, a preservation consultant retained by the association, which stated that the project would destroy significant landscape elements, that the relationship between house and lot was key to the picturesque suburb, and the development would alter that relationship significantly, and that the proposal would set a precedent for future developments that would change the aesthetics and feeling of the district.

G. Oliver Koppel, former State Attorney General, State Senator, and City Council Member, gave an impassioned statement calling the applicants’ presentation “totally and utterly misleading.” He testified that Indian Pond was the “gem of Fieldston,” and said when the community embraced designation, it understood that it was giving up some property rights in exchange for protection from inappropriate development. He noted that the house and property were worth millions of dollars as they currently existed. Former Landmarks Chair Sherida Paulsen, speaking on behalf of the Riverdale Nature Preservancy, said the proposed development did not adhere to Fieldston’s “pattern of setbacks and distances between buildings,” and the new houses would be large and highly visible, “engulfing and distracting from the existing historic house.”

Resident David Steinberger argued that people who lived in Fieldston were indebted to previous generations for preserving its character that “we’ve inherited something extraordinary,” and current residents had the same responsibility to the future.” Resident Travis Epps expressed concern that, if allowed to go forward, the project would create a precedent for more subdivisions and higher-density developments in the district. Community member Arlene Feldmeier said the historic houses in the district “respected natural features,” while the proposal would “obliterate” them.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated that the commission had received an additional 63 letters opposed to the project, with one in favor. Srinivasan further stated that Bronx Community Board 8 issued a resolution recommending denial of the project. Srinivasan stated that a joint letter from Congressman Eliot Engel, State Senator Jeffrey Klein, Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz and Council Member Andrew Cohen also urged the commission to reject the project as proposed.

Byrns asserted that because Landmarks had twice approved new dwellings in Fieldston, both of which were on a subdivided lot, since its 2006 designation, the commission would have to “change directions”  to deny the proposal.

Landmarks Counsel Mark Silberman clarified that the Commission generally deferred to City Planning regarding the preservation of natural features, but the area’s topography and natural setting were identified as part of the district’s significance in the designation report, and a project’s impact on the landscape fell within Landmarks’ purview. Landmarks also retained the authority to look at every look at every application individually in context of the district, regardless of Special Natural Area District rules.

Chair Srinivasan noted that the construction of a cul-de-sac had no historical antecedent in the district, and there were threshold issues of density and variety in lot size that needed to be considered. Commissioner Diana Chapin found the proposal “troubling,” saying the pond and associated park were a “real community resource,” whose “rustic context” should be preserved. Commissioner Michael Goldblum asked the applicants to reconsider the two new houses in the subdivision, and also to better situate any new structure within the site’s landscape to mitigate the visual impact from the street and the park. Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron noted that there were no other shared driveways on Fieldston Road, the district’s main thoroughfare. Commissioners Fred Bland and Michael Devonshire concurred that three new buildings were excessive for the location.

Chair Srinivasan declined to call a vote, and asked that further representations on the matter be postponed until commissioners had had an opportunity to visit the site. She told the applicants that there was an “overwhelming feeling” that better site plan would be composed of fewer new buildings, and also opined that the proposed brick house should be better integrated into the property’s topography. She also asked the applicants to provide more information on the development’s relationship to the pond, and about lots that had been subdivided and developed with Landmarks’ approval.

4680 Fieldston Rd., Bronx (09-6026) (Feb. 17, 2015) (Architects: BKSK Architects).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

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