Preserving The Structures of Queens History – QNS.com

Preserving The Structures of Queens History

For almost four hours last week, Queens’ long-blighted historical landmarks had their day in court — the historic Long Island City courthouse, that is — as Councilman John Sabini of Jackson Hieghts chaired a Council hearing on landmarks preservation. Patiently the Councilman, who is chairman of the subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses, listened to all sides of the issue. In the end, he credited The Queens Courier’s news reporting on the collapse of St. Monica’s Church in Jamaica for the Council hearing being called. Numerous community activists turned out to restate their devotion to leaving some tangible history behind for the generations to come and Borough President Claire Shulman voiced her support for landmarks alongside them. The developers from the Hammerstein House in Beechhurst presented what was described as a public-private "success story."
And the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) reported on their new enforcement powers which became effective in July 1998. LPC Chairperson Jennifer J. Raab explained the teeth in the new law. The Landmarks Protection Bill, in most instances, means a warning is sent to a building’s owner before serving a Notice of Violation (NOV). The owner has 20 working days to respond. If they do and remove the violation, no NOV is issued. If they don’t, the NOV is served and there is no fine as long as the person admits liability and files an application to fix the problem seven days before the administrative hearing. If they don’t, the Commission serve’s a second NOV without a warning letter or a grace period and the owner will pay a penalty as high as $250 a day, depending on the type of violation, going back to the day the owner admitted liability. Raab went on to request support for legislation that would let the Environmental Control Board (ECB) automatically docket judgments in landmark cases. Without automatic docketing, the City has to file a separate lawsuit in civil court which "significantly increases the cost of enforcement," Raab said. The Commissioner said that although it is too early for accurate statistical studies on the impact of the new law, the LPC is seeing faster and greater action being taken on behalf of the City’s landmarks by their owners. Sabini pointed out that in many cases, those owners are the City itself and urged greater attention to the state of the City’s buildings so that they can be an example for private owners. Before the last witness took the stand, Sabini held up The Queens Courier’s May 14 issue that featured St. Monica’s on the front page. He then praised the newspaper for its story, which he had referred to for facts numerous times during the course of the testimony, and the newspaper’s coverage of what LPC refers to as "demolition by neglect." As part of the testimony, the following updates were provided about local landmarks:  St. Monica’s Church — Raab testified that "after many meetings with representatives of the York College and CUNY, CUNY acknowledged that it could not simply let the building fall down and erected steel bracing to support the front facade. Then, at my suggestion and urging, the school was successful in obtaining $700,000 to study the feasibility of adaptively reusing the church as a day care center. Unfortunately, the building collapsed shortly after the money was approved." She added that CUNY had "asked to take down" the structure siting safety concerns, and the LPC is "close to getting them to understand that it can remain and should remain . . . the Commission is not going to happily let them tear down the facade if at all." Sabini questioned Eileen P. Doherty, acting director for City relations for CUNY about what happened to the building. She said it was "already in a state of disrepair [when they got it], which is not to say that we should not have maintained it. CUNY was awaiting funding . . . demolition is not something the City University has wanted to happen . . . but it would be incumbent on CUNY to build a building around what remains and that will be costly. The concern is that our own engineers might determine that the building is unsound." Sabini suggested to Doherty that the $700,000 currently awaiting use on the 1856 landmark church could be used to maintain the surrounding cemetery. "If you continue to let the site look unimportant, it contributes to the idea that it is something we don’t want to save. It’s a Calvinistic approach . . . it looks like hell anyway, let’s just let it go there." Doherty said that CUNY would continue to work with LPC on St. Monica’s. ` The Hammerstein House ‘ Private developers are moving forward and working closely with the LPC. There will be six condominiums in the House itself, the facade of which will be restored to its historic state. Additional buildings on the grounds will be in keeping with the House’s structure, as will surrounding landscaping. The developers expect occupancy to begin in March of 1999. The Terra Cotta Building — Moved by a letter from a Queens six-year-old asking for someone to do something, the LPC got to work with Citibank, which owns the Long Island City building, and plans to restore the building are progressing well, according to Raab. Citibank had been working with LPC on plans to donate the building to the Board of Education, but the plans proved "more complicated than anyone thought," Raab said. However, she added "I can happily report that it appears that the bank has found a buyer who meets the two main criteria: that the building will be restored and the site not used for a noxious purpose. The RKO Keith’s — The owner has been informed that he cannot develop any of the Northern Blvd., Flushing storefronts until the landmarked lobby restoration is underway. According to Raab, they also required an independent architect review the site and report back to the City, in addition to City agencies inspecting for serious environmental and safety problems, which were found and are now being addressed. "You cannot even imagine the environmental problems" that were found at the Keith’s, Raab said, adding that the clean-up is "near completion" and the LPC will then "discuss how we go forward . . . all ideas are possible on how to best reclaim that lobby. "We are very committed to increasing the number of landmarks in Queens," Raab added, noting that frequently the difference in neglect and preservation is a "commitment to their building" and an "understanding of what it means to be a landmark." Renovation to preserve the nature of a building is "frequently less expensive" than history-destroying renovations and building owners must simply be better educated. Raab encouraged all local civic groups, elected officials, and private citizens to get involved in the preservation of City landmarks. She said that it is essential to the Commission’s efforts that people come forward to report abuses and concerns. "We need to hear where these problems are, she said, and we have to be the advocate . . . we need to have the eyes and ears of the community in all aspects of what we do." She added that the Commission maintains a website which can help private citizens and building owners learn more about landmarks legislation. The address is https://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/lpc/home.html.

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