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New York Protects Small Homes

Developers, pointing to city's dwelling shortage, pan zoning measures as `anti-housing'. LOW-DENSITY HOUSING

QUICK - what comes to mind when you think of housing in New York? For many people, the answer is towers - endless numbers of them, ranging from luxury skyscrapers to graffiti-scarred tenements. But there's another side to life in the city.

Nearly half of New York's land area is devoted to low-density housing of the sort Archie Bunker lived in on the popular television show ``All in the Family.'' Tree-lined streets with one-, two-, and three-family homes dominate many sections in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, and some of the Bronx. (Manhattan has no low-density neighborhoods.)

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Thomas Wargo, an assistant New York City planner, says the city has a tremendous variety of architecture with a ``New York'' feeling to it. ``You can look at a block of housing and tell, `that's Queens' or `that's Brooklyn,''' Mr. Wargo says.

But things have been changing fast, and many residents have been troubled as houses have been torn down to make way for small apartment blocks over the last decade.

So neighborhood advocates are thrilled about a recently passed zoning change designed to preserve the homes. It came none too soon, they say.

``Because of the existing zoning, many developers have been coming into good, stable neighborhoods and razing the housing,'' says Bernard Haber, chairman of the Queens County Zoning Task Force, an advisory panel. He says people who moved to those sections did so because of a yearning for a bit of grass - an increasingly rare element of urban living. Instead, Mr. Haber says, they ended up in a sea of concrete.

The new zoning measures, while not banning apartments, close a loophole developers had used, and mandate that new construction fit architecturally into the neighborhoods.

Real estate developers oppose the moves.

``We have a severe housing shortage in New York, and very little land left,'' says Deborah Beck, executive vice-president of the Real Estate Board of New York. ``There has to be a way to allow for sensitive design without reducing the number of potential dwelling units,'' she says.

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But Haber says it's hardly anti-housing to object to a trend where in one section of Queens, 60 perfectly livable homes were torn down in under four years. ``In one place, the developer bought up one entire side of the street - razing and then building six times the number of units, from six to 36,'' he says.

Haber complains that the new apartment blocks are ``cheaply constructed'' and not consistent with the architecture of the one- and two-family homes.

Backers of the changes worry not only about the loss of houses, but also that these low-density neighborhoods lack the schools, sewers, parking, and other services such growth requires.

They add that by preserving the houses the city will protect more than just the residential appearance of the neighborhoods. Many of the houses have porches near the sidewalk, a feature that encourages sociability and helps residents police their neighborhoods.

Typical of the breed to be saved is the Archie Bunker-style house, a wood-frame, two-family house with a steeply pitched roof, open front porch, driveway, and shallow front yard. Another common type is a two-story brick attached house with parking in the basement, and an extended porch over the garage.

Although the zoning change does not bar apartment buildings, it will recalculate the way density is figured, and set limitations on building height and location of garages and driveways.

The current changes also mean that for the first time, garages, basements, and attics are counted in the maximum floor space allowed. Previously, developers were able to turn uncounted space into apartments for as many as eight families, where one or two had lived before.

New construction will also be required to fit architecturally into neighborhoods which are recognized as having distinctive characteristics. It's called ``contextual zoning.''

Supporters of the new rules say their success shows that even in a high-rolling city like New York, small homeowners can prevail, if they stick together. ``After many years, they're listening to small homeowners and their problems with regard to the neighborhoods, instead of just dealing with the skyscrapers,'' Haber says.

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