Zoning – A Hard Struggle Lies Ahead.
L I Star-Journal Editorial
Feb 8, 1940
Measured against what they were asking, the Queens homeowners got comparatively little of their campaign to restrict apartment house construction. What they did get was a blessing for residents along Grand Central parkway, Forest Hills, but it still leaves many square miles of territory in the community open of the invitation of massive human beehives that overtax public facilities and shut out the sunlight from small homes around them.
We must agree with Borough President Isaacs of Manhattan when he declared: “The unrestricted construction of apartment houses blights the whole area.
It is quite clear that our Board of Estimate has neither the inclination nor the ability to take the zoning of Queens – Borough President Lyons of the Bronx to the contrary notwithstanding. Zoning is a specialist job and it must be done by experts after sounding out public sentiment.
In that respect, Newbold Morris, president of the City Council has the right idea. “The charter should be amended,” he said, “so that the Board of Estimate would have nothing to do with zoning. It’s a matter the City Planning Commission ought to handle alone.”
The charter today gives the board power to upset the commission’s work and its net effect is to vitiate the commission and make it members nothing but advisers to men who, in most instances, know less than the commission about the subject at hand.
The latest zoning achievements in Queens are, of course, much better than nothing.
They indicate, however, the homeowner can get real improvements only by the hard way – that is, by a systematically, well organized effort led by men and women of perseverance and intelligence.
Speculator’s Interest vs. Home Owners
The speculator on vacant land is always gleeful when the apartment builder moves into the neighborhood in which his land in located. On the other hand, the home owner in the neighborhood too often is in for an unhappy time.
That is the reason for the determined campaign in Queens to put restrictions on apartment construction.
The speculator in vacant land is only waiting for a run up in increase in the value of his property so he can sell it at a profit. More often than not he does not live in the neighborhood and it does not matter to him what may be the effect of apartment development.
But the home owner stands to lose heavily when the apartment builder goes to work on his street. His problem is more than that of facing a sudden influx of strangers in what he believed would continue to be a quiet street.
His problem has a dollar and cents aspect, too.
By way of illustration:
Old Whitney Avenue in Elmhurst for decades was a quiet, tree-lined street with homes upon which the city’s assessors yearly placed higher than average valuations. Generally speaking, they were spacious house with large plots.
Then the apartment developers discovered the street. They saw its attraction as a place to live and started erecting multi-family buildings on some the vacant lots. The owners of the private houses immediately found that something was happening to their valuations. The city’s assessors, reflecting on a new condition, began look at the land rather than at the homes. Up went the land valuations and down with the house valuations.
Irony of the situation
The home owner learned that they were living now on a potential apartment site. So, whether they liked it or not, they were in effect in competition with the land speculator. If either were to sell, the most likely purchaser would be an apartment builder.
Ironically, however, the home owner was not in as advantageous a position as the land speculator. The apartment builder naturally prefers vacant land. If he must buy land with a house on it, he pays for house, and he must spend money to clear the house off the site.
So the speculator won out. He sold his vacant land to the apartment builder. Thereafter, as the process was repeated and apartment development spread throughout the community, the home owner’s land went up and up in value – on paper. And the value of his house declines.
Eventually of course, the home owner may be able to sell – when the speculators have unloaded all their vacant land. We say the “may” be able to sell, for there is nothing at all to prevent the apartment builder from moving elsewhere when the vacant land available is that particular community is all built up.
Whitney Avenue in Elmhurst is only one illustration. The same thing has happened in practically all the old communities of Queens. The home owner has been penalized for being a home owner instead of a speculator.
Queens Boro President Harvey, the same month:
Borough President George Harvey, leader in the campaign to restrict apartment house construction in Queens so that the borough’s “country-like suburban atmosphere” might be preserved, came out again too much zoning.
He said zoning, in many instances, was comparable with confiscation of property and suggested that the city Planning Commission be abolished because “We used to get along without them.” Said he: “This planning is a fine thing in theory but you just can’t do it. We can’t have someone in Manhattan coming over and saying what to do with our property in Queens. The old way was better, when we had elected official decide these zoning problems. A lot of property in Queens has actually been confiscated by this kind of planning.”
The borough president delivered himself of the observations at a hearing before the Board of Estimate on the Planning Commission proposal to prohibit unrestricted apartment house building in Forest Hills. About 200 homeowners jammed the board chambers during the February 2 meeting to plead for favorable action to the zoning change, which they said, preserved the only hope they had of protecting their property investment.