Demo in Westerleigh Reignites Downzoning Efforts
From the Staten Island Advance
After home is razed, a renewed call for downzoning
City councilman wants application to be reactivated as builder knocks down 1890s house in Westerleigh
Friday, February 09, 2007
By KAREN O’SHEA
ADVANCE STAFF WRITER
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The demolition yesterday of a 19th-century house in Westerleigh prompted Councilman Michael McMahon to call on City Planning to immediately reactivate a downzoning application for the community.
The agency rejected the application last month, saying existing building rules were a good fit for the neighborhood and that there did not appear to be any demolition trends in the area.
Longtime Westerleigh residents said the “Boole” house at 682 Jewett Ave. was built in the late 1890s by a couple who helped found the national temperance movement.
Residents and community leaders said yesterday’s demolition was a sobering reminder of what could happen with other homes on large lots in an area where an eclectic mix of homes marks streets named for states that voted to support prohibition.
“We are really angry with City Planning about this because they’ve taken a very cavalier attitude toward this (zoning) application,” said McMahon (D-North Shore). Had the new zoning been in place, he argued, the developer would be able to build three one-family homes on the lot instead of the four two-family homes that are planned.
“This is a perfect example of where (City Planning) was wrong,” added McMahon.
130 BLOCKS WERE EYED
The rejected zoning application called for downzoning a large area — nearly 130 blocks in Westerleigh — to a new zoning permitting only detached one-family homes to be built on slightly larger lots. Right now, the zoning permits one- and two-family detached homes.
McMahon was expected to hold a press conference in front of the demolished home with Councilman James Oddo (R-Mid-Island/Brooklyn), with whom he shares the district, and Borough President James Molinaro, who supports Westerleigh’s proposed downzoning despite past concern about prohibiting two-family housing.
But the builder who recently bought the house and was on hand early yesterday to watch its bulldozing claimed it was not architecturally striking like other homes in the neighborhood. The city Landmarks Preservation Commission apparently agreed with that assessment when it said that house had been too altered and declined to consider it for protective historic status.
“It’s no Vanderbilt mansion or Versailles palace. This was an older house that had been altered,” said Richard Epstein, who said he planned to build “gorgeous” new homes in its place.
“I’m doing everything legal,” he added.
Mike Morrell, president of the Westerleigh Improvement Society, said another much-loved house, at 707 Jewett Ave., was torn down last year and four two-family homes are going up in its place. The house torn down yesterday was the first built in the Westerleigh settlement known as Prohibition Park.
“We feel the streetscape on Jewett Avenue will be terribly altered by this,” he said of the teardown.
City Planning spokeswoman Rachaele Raynoff said the large corner lot at Jewett and Maine avenues, where the Boole house was demolished yesterday, was an anomaly. Moreover, she contended that downzoning would not have prevented demolition because the builder could still put up several detached homes on the lot, even if they were only one-family units.
“From City Planning’s standpoint, the existing zoning should ensure that any (new) development is in keeping with the character of the neighborhood,” she said.
Some have suggested that City Planning Chairwoman Amanda Burden is troubled by the prospect of two-family housing being phased out across large sections of the borough.
In 2005, when former Councilman Andrew Lanza proposed downzoning a 20-block area of Prince’s Bay with the same single-family zoning, the Building Industry Association hired a lawyer to testify at a City Planning hearing that the move was discriminatory and violated the federal Fair Housing Act.
Lanza took back the application and, with the help of City Planning, modified his request to create a new zoning requiring detached homes on larger lots while also retaining two-family housing.
Molinaro also had concerns about the 2005 Prince’s Bay application over worries it would lead to creation of illegal apartments to supply affordable housing. But in the historic section of Westerleigh, the borough president said City Planning should reconsider the downzoning request, even if it means downsizing the targeted area.
“Maybe we should re-evaluate it; maybe look at a smaller portion of the area.” he said.
Karen O’Shea covers real estate news for the Advance. She may be reached at [email protected] .
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