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House causes waves in Broadway-Flushing

From Queens Chronicle:

According to state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), the gargantuan two-story house going up at 33-05 157 St. in Broadway-Flushing resembles “a barracks or a hotel more than a one-family home.”

A cavernous two-story home being built in Broadway-Flushing, planned to have 10 bathrooms and eight bedrooms, has caused concern in the area, with some frustrated by the city declining to give over amended building plans for it.

A cavernous two-story home being built in Broadway-Flushing, planned to have 10 bathrooms and eight bedrooms, has caused concern in the area, with some frustrated by the city declining to give over amended building plans for it.

Plans for the building show that it will have eight bedrooms and 10 bathrooms when finished, numbers much higher than most houses in the low-density neighborhood, much of which is covered by a covenant restricting homes to single-family usage.

The lawmaker and neighborhood activists were concerned that amended building and floor plans filed with the Department of Buildings, which are not posted on the agency’s website, would have shown significant changes to the original ones. At a press conference last Thursday, they protested the agency’s decision to not release the layout plans, which the DOB says can be accessed at Borough Hall and were not significantly altered.

“I hired an expediter to go to Borough Hall, and they went three times in the span of eight weeks and they said they are not there,” Broadway-Flushing Homeowners Association President Janet McCreesh said at the press conference.

Neighborhood leaders have previously expressed concern about single-room occupancies at one-family homes in the neighborhood. Last year, the Department of Buildings issued a vacate order at 33-07 153 St., a single-family one block west of Broadway-Flushing that a real estate firm advertised as having 15 rentable rooms.

Although nobody at the press conference specifically said that the 157th Street house would be an SRO, the senator cast some suspicion on how it will function.

“Usually, you don’t have more bathrooms than you have bedrooms,” Avella said. “But how is that a one-family house?”

Despite the leaders’ concerns, amendments to 33-05 157 St.’s plan may not be dramatic. The Chronicle was told by a DOB spokesman that the house would remain a single-family one, and that the number of bathrooms and bedrooms has not changed from the previous plan.

“The amended plans show minor changes, namely replacing some of the proposed bathtubs in the bathrooms with standup showers,” the spokesman said.

Avella did not return requests for comment in response after the Chronicle was told those details. However, a spokesman for the senator said that since the press conference, the DOB has sent the amended plans.

The lack of serious changes in the amended plans did not make McCreesh optimistic about the impact of the house on the neighborhood. “By granting building permits within the current zoning laws, the city is allowing the Department of Buildings to sign off on a hotel-like building plan within a single family dwelling,” she said in an email.

Flushing activist Paul Graziano, who spoke at the press conference, told the Chronicle afterwards that the building agency revealing how minor the amendments to the plan were did little to mitigate his concern about the house.

“It’s clearly being built for use not as a one-family home,” he said.

When the Chronicle attempted to reach the building’s owner to speak with him about the allegation that the house would be used for non-single-family usage, he said that he could not speak English.

Spanning much of its spacious corner lot, the unfinished house is much bigger than most of the homes in Broadway-Flushing. Its composition — a simple, rectangular brick structure — is also a stylistic departure from most of the neighborhood, whose charming older homes were built in the Arts and Craft and Tudor or Colonial revival styles. Many of them were erected during the early 20th century.

Broadway-Flushing’s high architectural caliber has earned it recognition from the state and federal governments as a historic place. But only the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has repeatedly declined to do so, can protect the area’s architectural integrity from much-lamented “McMansions” or 10-bathroom buildings like the one on 157th Street.

Avella, however, has been working on creating a new way to compel homes in the area to look like its venerable older ones. He has pushed legislation to establish “architectural districts,” a designation similar to landmarking. Neighborhoods like Broadway-Flushing that are considered historically significant but do not meet the LPC’s threshold for protection could, if submissions to make them architectural districts are approved, be preserved. New homes built in them would have to conform to the character of the neighborhood.

Avella has introduced two bills related to the designation: one to require the city to create the architectural districts category and process and another that would give municipalities the power to make them.

The clock is ticking for Broadway-Flushing.

“At this point in time, it is the only way to save our neighborhood,” McCreesh said. “We are currently undergoing a record number of teardowns and a continuous erosion of the character and very charms that draw homebuyers to Broadway-Flushing.”

First introduced last year, the bill has been co-sponsored in Albany’s lower chamber by Assemblyman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside). But signing it into law at the state level would not necessarily result in Broadway-Flushing getting the designation.

Because the LPC — a city agency — would oversee designating architectural districts, the City of New York would have to pass a home rule message approving Avella’s bill ordering the city to create the neighborhood protection process.

“Getting a home rule out of the City of New York is going to be extremely tough,” the senator said. Avella, who recently ended a brief Democratic primary bid against de Blasio, is far a friend of the mayor.

But if his bill empowering municipalities to make architectural districts is passed, the message would not be required. And though no home rule message would be needed, the bill would not actually mandate that the city actually consider and designate the districts.

At last week’s press conference, Flushing activist Paul Graziano pledged to work toward creating the architectural district designation in the City Council if he wins his Democratic primary challenge to Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside). He said that the first bill he would introduce in the Council would be a duplicate of Avella’s bill mandating the city to create architectural districts.

Graziano, who assisted then-Councilman Avella in the downzoning of a large portion of northeast Queens, also announced what his second bill would do.

“What I would propose, as my second bill, is to make it mandatory that all plans are scanned in online on the Building Information System,” he said, referring to the DOB’s online database. The Flushing activist added that the legislation would include a provision preventing construction on a property unless the complete plans for it are viewable on the website.

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