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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Anti-Semitism or Architectural Preservation?

Interesting piece in todays NY Sun (registration req.). The City Planning Commission is considering creating a historic district out of the tony Riverdale, NY neighborhood of Fieldston. This would create a situation where residents of the neighborhood would have to apply to a Landmark reservation Commission in order to make any changes - no matter how minor - that affect the exteriors of their homes.
Because most of the houses were built in the 1920s, many in the area's growing Orthodox Jewish community who purchase there have undertaken additions of renovations in order to accomodate the needs of their growing families. The landmarking proposal has divided the Riverdale community, often pitting neighbor against neighbor.

...Rabbi Weiss is not willing to ascribe anti-Semitic motivations to those who are backing the proposed historic district. "But the result is the same," he said. "It will hurt the Orthodox community in a disproportionate way, regardless of the motivation. I can't look into the souls of those supporting this, but I know what the result will be".

Others have taken a harder line, suggesting that many of the landmarks and zoning decisions in Riverdale in recent years have consistently seemed to impact negatively on the areas Orthodox Jews.

I can see both sides of this. On the one hand, I can see why it is well within the right of every homeowner, Orthodox or not, to expand their houses as they see fit to meet the needs of their growing families. That being said, who hasn't been in a neighborhood where extensions and additions have been done in the least tasteful fashion, and certainly take away from the flavor and beauty of an area. I think a board that reviews every proposed exterior alteration is a perfectly fair idea - as long as the parameters are within reason. It seems that if Fieldston becomes a historic district, subject to approval by the notoriously difficult NYC Landmark Preservation Commission, it will become much more difficult and costly to make any changes to homes in the area at all. In addition, as the article points out, designating the area an historic district makes it illegal for visitors to park their cars on the street. Rabbi Weiss suggests something similar:
"I don't understand why the Fieldston Property Owners Association cannot self-regulate any proposed renovations to the homes here," Rabbi Weiss said. "It would seem that this is preferable to submitting these requests to the city."

I would have to agree. In the Five Towns area, many of the villages require that any exterior work first be approved by a Board of Building Design, which consists of a group of area residents who each have some architecture or design background and meet to discuss any submitted plans. As long as the plans submitted do not subvert a basic ideal of good taste and zoning restrictions, they are generally aproved, sometimes with suggestions from the board on how to bring the plan more into character with the style of the neighborhood. This seems to me to be a less restrictive plan than the one proposed in Riverdale, especially as the article points out that many feel that the original architect and developer of the Fieldston neighborhood is far from widely recognized as a great talent.

If it is approved, good luck to Fieldston's growing families.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm naive, but why does everything have to become a question of anti-semitism? Why do we have to always be on the lookout for people trying to screw us (Orthodox) Jews? Am I simplifying this?

12:30 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...

Maybe I'm naive, but why does everything have to become a question of anti-semitism? Why do we have to always be on the lookout for people trying to screw us (Orthodox) Jews? Am I simplifying this?
No, I actually somewhat agree. I made that point above. I think that this would present an issue for growing families of both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox persuasions. It does happen to be fact, though, that in Fieldston as well as other heavily Orthodox neighborhoods, frequently many of the greatest offenders of slapping extensions on homes as more space is needed tend to be the larger Orthodox families. The question then is, whether there is discrimination against large families in this proposal, and if so, is that de facto discrimination against Orthodox families if most large families in the area are Orthodox. Not easy to answer.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Courtney Love/Martha Stewart said...

I live in a historic district that's one of the strictist in the country about exterior changes. You can pretty much do anything as long as it's not visible from the street. My Orthodox shul is in the heart of this district. The down side: it's a huge headache to get anything done, even replace our drafty windows. Good side: our neighborhood is gorgeous and will continue to be.

A home can only be messed with so much. The houses in my neighborhood were not meant to be 5-bedroom houses, and my husband and I knew that when we bought ours. I bet one of the things that started this proposal was monstrous additions that ticked off the neighbors.

1:07 PM  
Anonymous REReader said...

In high school, one of my best friends lived in Fieldston, and I spent an inordinate amount of time there, so I am quite familiar with the area. In all fairness--many of the houses there are already quite large (so if a large house is needed, it is already there), and most of the houses are pretty much as large as is appropriate for their lots--they don't have huge yards with lots of space between houses. Adding large additions to many of these homes is going to directly and negatively affect their neighbors and the character of the neighborhood, so it is a matter of concern for the current homeowners, without needing to resort to an anti-semitic explanation. This does not, of course, negate the disproprotionate effect on the Jewish population, as Rabbi Weiss pointed out, but it is a complicated problem, on both sides.

1:25 PM  
Anonymous charliehall said...

I live one block from the edge of Fieldston; I walk through it on many Shabats. It is not a predominantly Orthodox neighborhood. It is also very expensive, even by New York standards -- I just did a realtor.com search and the homes ranged in price from $1.35 million to $3.75 million.

More attractive to young families are the apartments in central and south Riverdale (technically the Kingsbridge post office) and the smaller houses in North Riverdale (where I live) and South Yonkers --and Orthodox Jews are moving into all those areas. (We moved in last May.) Fieldston is a private community, with private streets. While Rabbi Weiss is correct that the Fieldston Property Owners Association should have ample power to control development, I think there are more important things to worry about. Most of Riverdale was recently downzoned and that have a far greater effect than the Fieldston historic declaration.

1:52 PM  
Blogger 66er said...

I think something needs to be done to protect the neighborhood and the tax base. The Orthodox moved into many areas in rockland County, expanded houses or built larger ones and then claimed that they were shuls to get them off the tax rolls. A part of one township split off and joined another that had an ordinace that said, no more religious institutions.

2:52 PM  
Anonymous charliehall said...

The property tax base in the Bronx is pretty irrelevant in the grand fiscal view of New York City. It is the skyscrapers in Manhattan that pay for the schools in the outer boroughs, where most of the city's residents live. Also, Riverdale is very unlikely to turn into another Monsey. It is too expensive, with only seven Orthodox congregations, and too high a prevalence of modern Orthodox (a prevalance that is increasing thanks to the new SAR High School).

BTW I have no idea what happened in Fieldston that would make it historic.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

"tony Fieldston district"

tony = tiny?

10:37 AM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

The Riverdale Review is a weekly newspaper published by Andrew Wolf, who wrote the article in the Sun. Today their front page headline -- two rows, all across the front of the paper, was

"Rabbi: Historic District would hamper growth of Orthodox Jewish community"

Then followed three paragraphs related to the headline, including a quote from the Rabbi and his photograph -- and then 13 additional paragraphs that didn't mention or quote Rabbi Weiss or anything having to do with the Jewish community.

Buried on page five is what I think is a more immediate issue: the local Community Board voted against the plan to allow the SAR High School to build a parking lot and ball field on property it apparently already owns. Nevertheless it is headed for the City Planning Commission.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Ken Fisher said...

The original post states that it is illegal for a visitor to park in an historic district. Not true! There are a few private communities in the city where parking is restricted by the homeowners association, but this has nothing to do with whether it is an historic district.

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