Peace after the battle of Throgs Neck

Oct.October 25, 2007 04:33 PM

The revolution was only intermittently televised, and then mostly on Bronxnet, a public access television station. But the struggle that ended in 2004 to prevent the construction of further McMansions and rezone Throgs Neck for lower residential density stirred passionate concerns for residents of that Bronx neighborhood. Three years later, locals also credit the downzoning victory with preserving real estate prices.

And while the rezoning has mostly, but not entirely, stemmed the tide of new building construction, local brokers credited the changes with safeguarding real estate values and preserving the neighborhood’s suburban character. Because only about 10 percent of homes for sale throughout the Bronx are included in the Multiple Listing Service, generating precise statistics on real estate values there is difficult. Yet brokers indicate that while the decline elsewhere in the Bronx in neighborhoods like Morris Park and Hunts Point has been between 5 and 10 percent this year, prices in Throgs Neck, a secluded enclave in the easternmost Bronx, have only dipped between 2 and 5 percent.

“It’s a very stable neighborhood compared to the neighborhoods around it,” said Shebrelle Hunter-Green, a real estate agent for Corcoran and a Throgs Neck resident.

When victory for the anti-McMansion rebels finally came, in September 2004, it was a rout: Roughly 240 blocks, nearly all of Throgs Neck, were downzoned, with new rules curbing high-density and high-rise development in the neighborhood. Downzoning advocates in other city neighborhoods also scored victories in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Since 2004, nearly 3,600 blocks of the city have been rezoned for lower density. During Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration, from 1994-2001, only eight blocks were downzoned.

Downzoning in Throgs Neck barred new attached townhouses — which would have boosted the population on former single-family house lots — in most of the neighborhood. To ease parking problems, the required number of parking spaces was increased to two spaces for single-family homes and three for two-family houses. It prohibited parking in front yards. New houses can only have two floors above the flood plain, a move that limits building height to 35 feet.

All told, the battle of Throgs Neck, as some local planning wonks call it, lasted nearly four years. The strategy was mostly mapped out in the office of James Vacca, City Council Member for District 13. Downzoning advocates used local weekly papers and the cable access channel to sway local sentiments, and they lobbied Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office. Developers of buildings that were too tall, too bulky or whose driveways were too wide were routinely ambushed with complaints to the city’s Department of Buildings.

For some, the building made sense — and paid off. Even taking into account a slight dip this year, since 2001 prices for properties in Throgs Neck appreciated nearly 75 percent. But there was another price to be paid for that kind of growth.

“Homes were being dwarfed, big old trees were being cut down for parking, and monster homes for 20 people were replacing smaller, modest homes for four or five people,” said Joe Hasselt of Hasselt Realty in the Bronx.

Often those McMansions were built despite community protests. Brokers say over 100 new multi-family homes have been added to the neighborhood in the past decade. Yet sometimes the anti-development crowd won. When residents noticed that three houses on Longstreet Avenue in the Locust Point area were going up on a lot zoned for two, complaints to the Buildings Department eventually led to the demolition of the middle house — a first for the district, according to the office of Council Member Vacca.

Many neighborhoods that experienced runaway development have a good public-transportation infrastructure. That’s not exactly the case in Throgs Neck. Still, it’s easy to spot the neighborhood’s appeal. Longtime residents sometimes refer to their area as Throgs-Neck-on-sea, because the peninsular neighborhood abuts the Long Island Sound and Eastchester Bay. Indeed, proximity to the ocean is the main draw. Residents gush about the smell of salt water and say that in the summer, the neighborhood feels more like coastal Florida or California than the Bronx. Beach clubs and marinas line Shore Drive, Clarence Avenue and Country Club Drive.

Holding value

Despite the curbs on denser development, housing stock remains varied. Recently built two- and three-story condos line the waterfront. Depending on the location and the views offered, prices range between $700,000 and $1.3 million, and brokers say that even in the present down market these condos sell faster than houses, usually within about two months. The only large new beachfront developments in the neighborhood are the 15-unit townhouses on Schurz Avenue, which are scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. Developer Empire Builders has priced the two- and three-bedroom units for between $600,000 and $850,000.

Inland blocks of single-family houses, many built in the 1920s as summer vacation homes, aren’t selling as quickly. The two-story houses, smaller than 1,700 square feet, go for between $600,000 and $800,000. While only a year ago these houses were typically on the market for around six weeks, these days it can take up to six months to sell a property. Several dozen recently built multiunit two- and three-story homes are mixed in, and units there trade for less, usually between $325,000 and $400,000.

There are also the Throgs Neck Houses, a collection of 29 buildings between three and seven stories high that were built in 1953 as some of the first low-income housing projects in New York City.

Throgs Neck also has two waterfront co-operative communities, Silver Beach and Edgewater Park. About 650 families live in Edgewater, and 450 are in Silver Beach, which was once part of the estate of the Havemayer family, 19th-century sugar barons. Both communities feature densely packed bungalows connected by garden pathways. Residents of these co-ops own their homes but not the land they sit on. Prices start at $300,000 for a 1,200-square-foot home.

Outer borough appeal

A number of amenities make Throgs Neck an attractive place to live. The neighborhood’s commercial high street is East Tremont Avenue. Stores there are a smattering of family-owned businesses, including a handful of Italian restaurants and delicatessens, and chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, Eckerd Pharmacy and Boston Pizza. Worried about what it says about the socio-economic status of their neighborhood, some Throgs Neck real estate professionals lament the lack of a Starbucks. Multiple buses, including the Bx8, Bx40, Bx42 and BxM9, run through the area and connect with the 4, 5 and 6 subway lines; for $5 roundtrip a private bus company zips commuters to midtown Manhattan. The ride takes about 30 minutes.

The neighborhood is book-ended by two large parks. The 414-acre Ferry Point Park, a former landfill with a 212-acre golf course, is just to the south. To the north, five minutes away by car, is Pelham Bay Park, a 2,764-acre oasis three times the size of Central Park.

So what ultimately inspired residents to get involved in the fight against development?

“A lot of the quaintness of the area was being destroyed,” said Hasselt.

“People were mad,” he added.


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