The Civic Scene: Klein Farm sale creates uneasiness among civics

By Bob Harris

After months of speculation, the Jan. 29 TimesLedger article “Developer named Huang buys historic Klein Farm” revealed that the Klein Farm had been sold to Audrey Realty Corp. of 36-09 Main St. for $4.3 million. Audrey Realty has the same address in Flushing as Tommy Huang’s development group. John Huang is listed as the vice president of Audrey Reality.

The Klein Farm was the last family-owned working farm in New York City. The 2.2-acre property stopped operating as a farm and farm stand in 2001. Klein claimed it was no longer profitable to grow and sell produce. Actually, much of the produce had been grown on the farmer’s property on Long Island, which also has been sold.

The farm is in the Fresh Meadows Development at 194-23 and 194-15 73rd Ave. The Fresh Meadows Tenants Association represents the areas. Across 73rd Avenue is the West Cunningham Park Civic Association. Residents of the development often park their cars on the streets of the civic. If the Huangs build on the Klein property, then more cars will be parked in this area. The areas are zoned R-4, and those across 73rd Avenue are zoned R-2.

A couple of years ago Tommy Huang wanted to buy the property and build 22 two-family houses there. But when the lawyers visited the Queens City Planning office and it was explained that the area was a special planned community preservation district, the sale did not take place.

Civic leaders have formed the Klein Farm Task Force, which includes member civics the West Cunningham Park Civic, Fresh Meadows Tenants Association, Civic Association of Hillcrest Estates, Fresh Meadows Homeowners and the Hillcrest Estates Civic Association. Also involved are Jim Trent of the Queens Farm in Little Neck and Queens historians Jeff Gottlieb and Jim Driscoll. The Queens Civic Congress is concerned.

In 1975 the Fresh Meadows Development was made a special planned community preservation district due to the action of tenant Lionel Sapinkopf, who was active in the tenant’s association at that time.

The owners of the Fresh Meadows Development — it has been sold twice since then — wanted to tear down the wonderful oak trees in the oval in the center of the area and build apartment houses. As a preservation district, the area’s topography and appearance cannot be altered. The natural order of things has to be left the same.

The whole of Fresh Meadows had once been the Klein Farm. During World War II, Victory Gardens were planted there. The land was sold and the development was built. Land also was given to build PS 26. The Kleins kept 2.2 acres, and now it is possible that the nature of Fresh Meadows will change, depending on what might be constructed on this space.

Civic association leaders from all over Queens are concerned about the quality of life in their communities. Speculators often tear down fine old stately homes and build giant monstrosities or several houses where one stood either legally or illegally.

When this occurs, once-quiet streets with rows of one-family houses become crowded with cars, bags of garbage fill the streets, car noises disrupt the evening quiet, lawns and gardens become stretches of mud and light is blocked by tall buildings.

In some neighborhoods the original one-family homes were erected on property zoned R-3, R-4 or even R-5, which allows for builders to tear down a house and build a larger house or houses on the lot. Suddenly, larger or taller houses — or both — tower over the blocks of original homes.

Some of the areas concerned about this overbuilding are Richmond Hill, Briarwood, Bayside, Douglaston, Hillcrest and Jamaica Estates. Now Fresh Meadows is facing this overcrowding problem on the Klein Farm property.

Some communities want their areas made into historic districts by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Of course, there has to be a reason for doing so. The residents of Douglaston Hill are pressuring for this designation, and their protests can be noted weekly in the press. Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) is working closely with the community.

Some civic associations work with the Department of City Planning to downzone their areas to reflect the types of homes there. For example, residents in an R-4 zone who wish to have their one-family-home area designated R-2 are required to have every house examined and charted. The dynamic Kew Gardens Civic Association and Holliswood Civic Association have had their communities downzoned, but it took time and effort.

But all this work could be for nothing if a homeowner or speculator decides he or she wants a bigger house or more houses on the lot. Some don’t know the zoning laws or just ignore them.

Residents will wake up one morning to find that a fine home has been demolished illegally and without a permit from the Department of Buildings or in violation of the original permit. Evidence of this type of illegal destruction exists in Jamaica Estates, where there is a hole in the ground on Midland Parkway and Chevy Chase, the former site of a fine home.

Builders count on the dysfunctional Department of Buildings, which says it is trying to improve. Permits disappear, plans can’t be found and the punishment is just a slap on the wrist. Engineers often don’t lose their licenses and are not put in jail. Fines might be a few thousand dollars, but this is nothing when builders plan to make several hundred thousand dollars from their activities.

At a recent meeting called by Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), a city official said that 10 builders lost their right to self-certify what they were building. This could mean little if there was no big fine or jail time. This was never publicized except in this column.

A positive event is the special training session the Department of Buildings has offered Queens Civic Congress leaders so they can learn how to search the DOB public databases, which are available on the Web. This means civic leaders will be able to learn all that is available about a property in their community. It could be a positive way to preserve our communities. The “bad guys,” however, know every trick to use so they can do their illegal things. I hope we can stay ahead of them.

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