Place in History

Sunnyside Gardens Neighborhood History

Year: 2000
Project: A two-phase initiative to document and publicize the history of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, one of America’s first planned Garden Suburbs.

In Phase I of the project, Place in History conducted an in-depth examination of this pioneering housing development.

This effort focused on the evolution of the Sunnyside community, and the history of disputes over residents' right to lay claim to formerly public space.

In the course of Phase I, Place in History combed secondary sources, gathered primary records and memorabilia, and interviewed those few longtime Sunnyside residents who remember the community's first few decades of existence.

In Phase II, Place in History presented its findings to the Sunnyside community in an exhibition at the Fall 2000 Skillman Avenue street fair.

Transcripts

Partners and Sponsors

Without the assistance and resources of Dorothy Morehead, director of the Sunnyside Foundation, this project would not have been possible;  we at Place in History are grateful to her for putting everything into place and leading us to all of our sources.

In addition, we would like to thank Bea Badian, Jerry Modica, and Maxine Shacker, who talked with us at length about their memories of Sunnyside.

We also would like to acknowledge all of the people who spoke with us at the Skillman Avenue Street Fair, including:

Elena Acosta
Dan Allen  
Isabel Bocchino  
Anne Cody  
Molla Corson  
Kim Edel  
Barbara Gilbert
Maria Guzman
Walter Iwachiw
Patricia Noel  
Carole Smargon
Patrick Sweeney
Howard Weiner


  Space and Community at Sunnyside - Part 4  

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Part 4. The Sunnyside Foundation Era

Following a series of meetings in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which community members exchanged ideas with a variety of architects, preservationists, and land conservation experts, the Sunnyside Gardens Conservancy was created. The conservancy, also known as The Sunnyside Foundation, became the vehicle through which residents concerned with restoring the community’s original appearance attempted to realize their objectives. Working with a non-profit consulting organization called the Trust for Public Land, The Sunnyside Foundation initiated a series of repairs and renovations to neighborhood buildings, streets and common spaces; additionally, through its Conservation Easement Program, it created incentives to restore the historical easements set up by the CHC. More recently The Sunnyside Foundation has also involved itself in a debate over the rezoning of Sunnyside Gardens.

Among the physical improvement projects sponsored by The Sunnyside Foundation in its first few years were facade restoration drives, tree pruning campaigns, Sunnyside Park cleaning initiatives, and the coordination of the 1988 Skillman Avenue revitalization.  Perhaps more importantly, the Foundation took action to revive the common courts, physically, politically and economically. As a first step, it donated $500 to each court association to help these failing community groups reorganize. Court associations, initially set up to oversee and enforce easements, had become increasingly anachronistic in the years following 1966. By reestablishing these small organizations, The Sunnyside Foundation hoped to remind the community of its history and to involve new generations of Sunnyside Gardeners in the process of planning and preservation. Each court association is made up of a President, a Vice President, and a number of trustees; the president of each court association sits on the board of the Foundation.

The reinvigoration of the court associations did not directly address the fencing of the common courts, however. Realizing this, members of the Foundation initiated an incentive program designed to prod community residents to take down their fences in exchange for Federal tax abatements. The Conservation Easement Program, as the initiative is called, was instituted in 1985, following three years of lobbying by the Foundation’s first director, Franklin Havelick. Under the program, individual homeowners can agree to renew the easements on their slice of common court, and thereby receive Federal tax breaks for one year. Residents continue to own these pieces of land, but agree to limit the use they can make of it. Once designated a conservation easement, these parcels of common court are protected as open space in perpetuity.  The Sunnyside Foundation collects annual fees from those who agree to participate in the program, fees which range from $100 for a one-family house to $150 for a three-family house. 80% of these fees go into court maintenance, and the other 20% to the Foundation for the administration of the program. Not surprisingly, however, a single year of tax breaks followed by annual maintenance fees has not provided substantial incentive for most Sunnyside Gardeners. Twenty-four homeowners currently participate in the program, barely enough to keep it alive.

Historic Preservation has also been a central issue for The Sunnyside Foundation. Formed just as the Historic Preservation movement in the United States was beginning to gain momentum, the Foundation was from its inception an organization interested in getting Sunnyside Gardens registered on Local, State and Federal lists of historic places. As its promotional pamphlet describes:

"In many areas across the country, historic preservation activity has instilled pride in a community, thereby encouraging housing repairs, rehabilitation and often, enhanced property values. This process begins with an extensive survey, culminating in listing on the National Historic Register of Places, part of a national program to identify, evaluate and protect historic buildings."

Following the completion of the Facade Improvement Program in 1983, the Foundation managed to get Sunnyside Gardens and Phipps Houses placed on the New York State Register, and on August 7, 1984, they were added to the National Register.  Local landmark status has never come to a vote, however, owing to the objections of those who believe that its restrictions would limit homeowners to an even greater degree than current zoning provisions do.

In spite of the strict zoning requirements adopted in 1974 and the concerted efforts of the Sunnyside Foundation to codify its preservationist agenda, many residents of the neighborhood have continued to demand more control over their property, a few even going so far as to take matters into their own hands. The most colorful example of this phenomenon concerns a man named Val Visilis, who decided in the late-1980s to cut the curb in front of his house for a driveway. Mr. Visilis had obtained permission to do so from the Buildings Department, which apparently failed to consult the local zoning ordinance before handing out a permit. When the cement truck arrived at Mr. Visilis’ house, two members of the Sunnyside Foundation saw what was about to happen, ran over to the sidewalk, and sat down to stop construction. The cement truck left, but returned to complete the job on a Saturday, when the Foundation’s office was closed. In the three years that followed, the Foundation initiated a number of court proceedings against Mr. Visilis, who was eventually arrested at the airport (he was going on vacation to Greece) for failing to repave the curb in front of his house. Mr. Visilis finally fixed the curb in 1992, and died soon thereafter.

Such disputes underscore the adversarial relationship which continues to exist between the Sunnyside Foundation and its antagonists, the Sunnyside Civic Association. Since the early 1990s, the disagreements between these two organizations have been translated into the context of dueling proposals for the modification of the neighborhood’s Special District zoning. These proposals both focus on the construction or reconstruction of decks and enclosed porches in original rear yards (not common court space), as well as the addition of dormers to buildings. The Sunnyside Civic Association has suggested that these additions be allowed as-of-right, requiring only a building permit, whereas the Sunnyside Foundation has called for Special Zoning Permits for any work except reconstructing a porch or constructing a deck. Queens Community Board 2 has endorsed the Sunnyside Foundation’s suggestions and intends to endorse the revision of the Special District zoning once the Foundation has assembled a rezoning plan.

While the 1974 zoning ordinance has discouraged most Sunnyside Gardens residents from seeking to modify their homes, one example of a successful variance proposal does exist. Margaret Weiri, who owns a home on Lincoln Court, applied in 1991 for a special permit to build a one-story, 157.5 square foot addition to the back of her house. In its assessment of Ms. Weiri’s application, the City Planning Commission, after noting that the proper SEQRA, CEQR, ULURP, and public hearing requirements had been met, wrote that:

"The enlargement will relate to the existing buildings in scale and design and will not seriously alter the scenic amenity or environmental quality of this section of Sunnyside Gardens. Since the enlargement will not create additional dwelling units, no additional parking or traffic will be required or generated. The enlargement will not reduce the amount of open space or landscaping on the subject property because it will be constructed on the cellar roof."

Interestingly, the CPC’s analysis of Ms. Weiri’s proposal was not limited to the addition itself, but addressed the broader issue of Special District zoning in Sunnyside Gardens generally. Admitting that the Planned Community Preservation text is vague and inappropriate to Sunnyside Gardens, the CPC accepted Queens Borough President Claire Shulman’s suggestion that a subcommittee of the Queens Zoning Task Force be formed to assess the zoning proposals made by the two Sunnyside Gardens community organizations. The CPC’s willingness to take another look at the 1974 zoning provision, as well as to approve Ms. Weiri’s addition, signaled the start of yet another chapter in the complex planning history of the community.

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