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Sunnyside Shines at LPC
Amid neighborss disputes, commission gives historic-district status to seminal planned community Sunnyside Gardens

After five years of intensive work by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), during which neighbors battled over issues ranging from owner’s rights and affordable housing to architectural details and historical precedent, the LPC voted 10-0 this morning to designate Sunnyside Gardens as a historic district. This makes Sunnyside Gardens the seventh and largest historic district in Queens.

“I feel particularly privileged to present Sunnyside Gardens for landmarks designation,” LPC chairperson Robert Tierney said while introducing the vote at a public meeting. “As we’ve seen, Sunnyside Gardens is one of the most significant planned communities in the city.” He added, “I believe Sunnyside Gardens expresses a special sense of place. When you walk around its streets and gardens, you experience a distinct part of the city.”

Conceptualized as a model of quality affordable housing for working-class families, Sunnyside Gardens was built from 1924 to 1928. Designed by Clarence Stein and Frederick Ackerman with the support of Alexander Bing, a real estate executive in charge of the City Housing Corporation, Sunnyside Gardens was intended as an experiment in architectural, urban, and community planning, one that has been copied nation- and worldwide. Urban critic Lewis Mumford lived there from 1925 to 1936 and often wrote fondly about the neighborhood.

Stein and Ackerman were forced to work within the existing street grid, comprised of long, narrow plots on the south side of the Sunnyside rail yards, but the architects used this to their advantage, pushing their one-, two-, and three-family townhouses to the lot line and sewing the resulting backyards together into community gardens. “The system of shared backyards was a breakthrough, proof that the public and private could coexist to the betterment of both,” LPC commissioner Diana Jackier noted. Two of the nine commissioners at the meeting admitted to having studied Sunnyside Gardens in architecture school, an education that helped strengthen their decisions.

In recent years, fences and additions have sprouted in these backyards next to herb gardens and towering trees that have flourished over the neighborhood’s 80-plus years. Though extant features will be grandfathered, landmarks designation seeks to preserve these gardens as close to their original designs as possible, as well as the Art Deco and colonial revival buildings themselves, which are not protected under the current Special Planned Community Preservation District. This distinction is where the acrimony begins.

“They’re going to tell me what color to paint my door?” Sunnyside Gardens resident Joseph Licalsi asked a reporter after the vote. “They’re going to tell me what windows to install? I bought this house to be a homeowner, not a custodian.” Licalsi said he has owned his house for 20 years but would never have bought it were he faced with the current constraints.

Ira Greenberg, a local attorney working for the Preserve Sunnyside Gardens Coalition, said the LPC is “missing the boat.” “They’re talking about sense of place. There’s no place for that in the law. The yards are protected in the zoning. They’ve been protected since 1974. What they’re doing is trying to protect the details of our houses. The American Institute of Architects guide to New York said the design is unimportant.” The actual passage states, “The architecture is unimportant, but the urban arrangement a source of urbane delight.”

Though the LPC’s 50-seat meeting room in the Municipal Building was filled with angry neighbors waving signs that read, “Don’t Landmark Sunnyside Gardens,” the commission said a majority of the community supported the initiative because it would protect a neighborhood being eroded by curb cuts and fences. “I’m very much in favor,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which helped spearhead landmarks designation.

For many, the change was necessary. “Right now it’s been very complicated,” Laura Heim, a resident and local architect said of the houses she has worked on in Sunnyside Gardens under the community preservation guidelines. “The new plans will be clearer. It should be easier to work on.” But opponents insist what was once an affordable neighborhood will continue to become inaccessible. “Slate roofs and Hudson brick? Those were used in the past because they were cheap,” Greenburg said. “But it’s certainly not cheap now.” LPC spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon responded, “It’s not a foregone conclusion that anything will be more expensive.”

Matt Chaban