An Ardsley Park bungalow and Gentrification 2.0

I'M ONE of those guys who will take it upon himself to shush talkers at the movie theater, or during stand-up comedy at the Wormhole. At times it has gone beyond a look and/or a shush, when the talker or talkers persisted.

I remember one such shushing. It was about this time of year in 2006: The Departed. Two guys were just having a conversation about the movie, during the movie.

I might have skipped the shush phase and gone straight to “What the _____ do you think you’re doing?” It was warranted.

Their response was that this was the way they best enjoyed a movie—by discussing it with one another. I told them that if this was the case, please wait for the DVD to come out and screen it at home.

That’s not the end of the story, but you’ll have to find me for the rest of it.

To enjoy the movie their way, they were ruining it for everyone else. Ah, the conundrum as old as philosophy—how to balance personal freedoms with the good of the herd?

I’d argue that all situations are different, and there are no absolutes, except at the movie theater and comedy shows: STFU.

But what of other situations?

On the East 300 block of 49th Street within Chatham Crescent, two dozen single-family homes face one another - twelve on the north side, twelve on the south. Eighteen of these homes were built between 1920 and 1927. Four more were constructed in the 1930s.

Finally, two were built in the ‘40s. If the property cards can be trusted, there has not been a newly built home on the block in question since 1947. That’s 70 years, folks.

Walking up and down this block is like being in a time capsule. It is quaint.

All the structures form a very aesthetically pleasing ensemble. They are of the same or complementary style, and occupy their lots in much the same manner.

No one architectural feature stands out from the whole (aside perhaps from one jarring white picket fence). This is a collection of peers—not completely uniform, but close enough.

Controversy has arisen recently because someone wishes to demolish the oldest of these structures (1920) and build a brand new, much bigger house.

I say “someone,” because it is unclear if it is the wish of the present owner (absentee, living in California it is said), a potential owner (the agent who presented the request for variances to the Zoning Board of Appeals), or some combination. It seems a transaction between the two may have depended on whether or not a new home could be constructed.

In a recent column, Connect editor Jim Morekis mentioned the controversy surrounding this proposed tear-down and re-build, in regards to discussion of it and conduct on the “Ardsley Park Open Chat” page on Facebook. That is not my concern, and I decided not to read through it all. But yes, people behave horribly online.

Instead I went to take a look at the structure in question (and wondered if my suspicious activity was reported on said chat page).

The agent for the property claims that the existing structure is beyond repair. Now I’m not a restoration expert, but it certainly looks salvageable.

There are many dwellings in my own neighborhood of Thomas Square that appear much worse, yet are currently inhabited. It just looks like your typical fixer-upper, but I have not been inside.

I’d go as far as to say that from the outside, it’s attractive even in its current state of disrepair. It’s the quintessential Craftsman Bungalow.

Nick Palumbo, President of the Ardsley Park / Chatham Crescent Neighborhood Association, heard the argument for tearing the historic bungalow down and made a good-faith offer: The neighborhood association would pay for a restoration expert to thoroughly examine the structure and make an estimate on what it would cost to bring it back to life.

If the cost were truly prohibitive, he and the association would reconsider their opposition. Daniel Carey and the Historic Savannah Foundation (HSF) also offered help in obtaining tax credits and abatements for a restoration.

These generous offers were rebuffed. Was the agent trying to hide the fact that the structure could be restored? I met with Palumbo to discuss the issue, and he declined to speculate.

But if one looks with a cynical eye, as of course I have, the profit motive is easy to find, and easy to understand. Two recent sales within this same cohort of 24 structures have reached and surpassed the $200 per square foot mark.

Applying that to a structure of 2,115 square feet (the proposed new structure) results in a valuation of $433,500. But remember, that’s equating new construction to old, so the real value for a new home could be even higher. The motivation against restoration might not be much of a mystery.

This tear-down/re-build dilemma, an illustration of a “perverse incentive” in economic terms, where the individual benefit is harmful to the whole, might unfortunately be a hallmark of what I will call Gentrification 2.0.

Speaking broadly and ignoring societal impacts, one can say that Gentrification 1.0 is generally good for the urban fabric. It is characterized by those who value traditional architecture moving back into inner cities and first-ring suburbs, and putting money into restoring structures or building compatible infill.

I would characterize Gentrification 2.0 as a follow-along effect—people without the same tastes and affinities as those participating in Gentrification 1.0, but nevertheless recognizing a profitable trend when they see one.

These investors are not so motivated to restore in a “transitional” neighborhood, but tear-down and re-build bigger in a stable, established neighborhood? You betcha.

It would most certainly set a dangerous precedent to allow this sort of behavior on a block like 300 East 49th, and the parties that opposed it were right to do so.

As Nick Palumbo said when I met with him, “We have this wonderful public domain that is held together by nothing more than a gentlemen’s agreement.”

And obviously some do not feel bound by that agreement.

Though it has been included on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985, The Ardsley Park/Chatham Crescent Historic District has no accompanying local historic designation granting special protections.

This is why Palumbo and his neighborhood association must be so vigilant in protecting the status quo.

In this case, due to the spirited opposition by the neighborhood and their allies, the request for variances was withdrawn. However, this is at best a temporary win. Since the petition was not brought to a vote, it can be re-submitted.

Also, tear-downs and re-builds are possible without ZBA approvals, here and elsewhere. That is why it is so urgent for our zoning to be updated, or for local historic protections to be extended to more areas, or for there to be greater review required for tear-downs—any of these things.

But in the breach we are lucky to have Nick Palumbo, Daniel Carey, and others like them, protecting historic structures, and the public domain that they contribute to, where local regulations have yet to catch up.