Doug Hill residents push historic district at forum

By Ayala Ben-Yehuda

Douglaston Hill residents turned out in force last week for a meeting with city officials to discuss landmark status for their neighborhood but received no guarantees on when the area would be designated or which houses would be preserved.

Still, Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert Tierney promised the near-capacity crowd at Zion Episcopal Church that “we’re doing everything we can to move (the process) expeditiously.”

Boosters of the neighborhood of turn-of-the-century homes near the Douglaston Long Island Rail Road station have been seeking historic district status from the city since 1989.

The March 10 meeting with the Landmarks Preservation Commission staff brought the area one step closer to the goal of a city historic district, which would protect its houses from demolition and renovations out of character with the neighborhood.

“It’s a great honor. It’s a great privilege. It also has great responsibilities attached to it,” Tierney told the audience, which included state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) and City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside).

But rather than asking the commission staff what kinds of restrictions would be placed on building alterations, residents wanted to know how soon the area could be preserved and protested the exclusion of certain houses from consideration.

The chairman said the commission was “taking a very hard, intense, quick look” at the application, but would not say when or if it would be put on the calendar for formal consideration.

For 40 days after the date is entered on the calendar, the city Department of Buildings will not issue demolition permits in a prospective historic district — a stopgap measure the residents hoped would come sooner rather than later.

Residents have been rallying for historic district status outside a 1901 Queen Anne home at 240-35 43rd Ave. they feared would be demolished by a developer ever since it went into contract for a purchase last fall.

A realtor handling the sale said this month that the potential buyer may be backing out of the deal.

“The temptation is for a developer to tear that house down,” said Douglaston Hill resident Joe Hellmann. Some residents half-jokingly suggested lying down in front of the house should a bulldozer arrive.

Residents also were concerned with the outline of the proposed district. At the Landmarks Commission’s request, the Douglaston-Little Neck Historical Society submitted several alternative district lines — the smallest of which would leave out two Depew Avenue houses that date from the 19th century.

The owners of the two houses, William Rose and neighbor Mercedes Rohwer, brought signs to the meeting that read “Count me in.”

Part of Rose’s house, originally occupied by black oystermen, dates from the early 19th century. An addition was made to the building around 1900.

“If you talk about historical, I think we’ve got it,” Rose said.

Tierney said the commission evaluated an area’s history, architecture, coherent streetscape and sense of place in considering a historic district’s outline but kept the criteria general enough so the agency could have “sufficient flexibility” in judgment.

The commission was looking for “a cohesive connected group of houses” for the district, Tierney said. If the district included some new houses, they would be labeled “non-contributing” and not subject to the same building regulations as the others.

The Landmarks chairman said that once an area is listed on the calendar, its lines can be made smaller but not bigger.

A woman asked Tierney what Douglaston Hill’s chances were of getting landmarked.

“We’re here tonight,” Tierney said. “That’s a very good sign.”

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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