By Bob Harris
Uncaring homeowners and speculators are overbuilding in Queens and creating an asphalt jungle like the one in Manhattan. Our city and state governments must correct the laws that permit people to build those McMansions that tower over the original homes in a community and cover the ground with cement.
The city must first further reform the Department of Buildings. It must become even more computer friendly so computer-literate people can easily look up plans filed by builders. The punishment phase must be swift with heavy fines and loss of licenses as well as the loss of the right of engineering and building companies to do further building.
I want to see published in the newspapers and listed on the DOB Web site the names, addresses and punishments of those who violate the building and zoning laws. The fines are too small. The fines also must be collected as part of the yearly taxes and not just become a lien on a house, which means nothing for decades.
There must be new rules forbidding demolition and building on weekends. Weekend building is when many illegal demolitions and construction take place. Inspectors must be available on weekends, with a telephone number neighbors can call made readily available.
There needs to be more competent and highly paid building inspectors. The fees and fines levied by the Department of Buildings could more than pay their salaries. The Board of Standards and Appeals, which gives variances to the zoning laws to builders and homeowners, needs more experts to be able to evaluate the variance requests.
The BSA must have experts who can evaluate any proof of financial hardship material applicants submit. The BSA should be prevented from granting zoning variances, which enable speculators to get around the right of the City Planning Commission to change the zoning of a whole neighborhood. A bill proposed by Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) would give the City Council the final say in variances to prevent the above abuses.
Community facilities are now permitted “as of right” in R1 and R2 one-family-home areas. They are given the right to be large because they are supposed to service the community, but in reality some cater to a whole borough and would be better suited for a commercial or industrial area. There should be no large community facilities in R2 areas.
Areas that are R3, R4 and R5 and have one- and two-family homes should be downzoned to reflect the one-family homes currently there. With the help of the Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s Zoning Task Force, a score of neighborhoods have been downzoned so multifamily homes cannot be built alongside of one-family homes.
Meanwhile, the City Planning Commission is moving too slowly in downzoning some areas while builders are buying up houses and building McMansions. During the rally at Queens Borough Hall, one civic leader commented that in the past developers nibbled at the edges of older neighborhoods but now builders are doing wholesale destruction. They are destroying the fine quality of some neighborhoods in Queens.
Some older communities want to be made into historic districts to prevent the destruction of the houses there. The problem is that the city Landmark Preservation Commission doesn’t want to accept new neighborhoods for landmarking. In one part of Bayside the people went public and the newspapers printed so many stories that the area is being considered for this designation.
There are 51 historic districts in Manhattan but only five in Queens. More must be created in Queens. And on July 1 the Preservation Commission will start to charge fees for its services, but no increased staff is provided. Same old problem.
Avella has proposed a bill to provide a delay in demolition if the property is 50 years old. This legislation could give neighbors a chance to provide evidence to preserve the property if the property has historic significance. More council members have to sign on for the bill to pass.
Another bill by Avella would require the Department of Buildings to register all deed restrictions on houses. Some deed restrictions prevent the house from being used for commercial purposes. The problem is that some people don’t know that the deed restriction exists and there is no official record. When the deed restriction is recorded then the Corporation Council of the City of New York could defend the homeowners of the community. The City Council must make passage of this bill a priority.
A state bill that needs to be passed is the one proposed by Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing) and state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose), which would remove the tax incentives that permit builders to build McMansions. Ironically, there is a state law called 421-b that gives people a tax exemption if they build a house.
People buy a house, tear it down and then apply for this tax exemption, which was intended for people under the federal poverty level but is being used to subsidize the McMansions. I hope the bill will be revised for use only in poorer areas and not our middle-class neighborhoods. McLaughlin and Padavan feel the bill will become law this summer.
The DOB has to revise its rules, which don’t count basements, first-floor playrooms or attics as part of the total size of a house. This is another way homeowners can build those McMansions in R2 areas. The city government has to want the DOB to change these foolish rules.
Unless these above changes take place then the quality of life in Queens will continue to deteriorate and we will end up an asphalt jungle, not a green oasis.