2006-09-22 / Columnists

It's My Turn

By Vince Castellano

Vince Castellano, the owner of Picture Perfect Properties, is a building owner, homeowner and realtor.

By Christmas, maybe even before Thanksgiving, the western half of Rockaway will have adopted a new zoning plan and begin the long bureaucratic process to make it law.

Neponsit and Rockaway Beach have already come to a consensus. So has the Chamber of Commerce.

However, Rockaway Park and Belle Harbor, as of this writing, have not.

Belle Harbor has only limited issues of disagreement, but they essentially boil down to the question of how large a house should you be able to build on your own property.

Some prefer the option of larger houses and others want to take that option away. There does not appear to be a clear consensus. My own preference is that in recent years there has been several large homes built in Belle Harbor that are absolutely spectacular.

By their mere presence in the neighborhood they add value to the neighboring homes whose owners did nothing but watch the new house being built. So, I vote for the bigger houses. Bigger houses not only add value to the community but ownership will be more stable since it will take longer for the owner to outgrow the house, so to speak.

The situation in Rockaway Park is much more complicated and frankly, much more important. Belle Harbor is fairly homogenous and is one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city and regardless of what zoning they select it will continue to be a very desirable neighborhood to live in and raise children.

Rockaway Park is heterogeneous in incomes, building type and owner type. It also has a large commercial area right in the middle of the community.

Incomes in Rockaway Park vary from public assistance to quite affluent. Building type varies from lovely, turn of the century Queen Anne's, to multiple dwellings, to old hotels converted to SRO's, to stores with apartments above. And the owner type runs the gamut from one family owner-occupants to absentee slumlords and everything in between.

There are a lot of preconceived notions about zoning, some people have knee-jerk reactions to some ideas, but perhaps I can illustrate a simple, but very important, point from my own personal experience.

I own a mixed use building in Rockaway Beach (mixed use means part commercial and part residential). The building is almost 100 years old and is in a commercial zone. I was discussing some issues with my architect and I asked him what could I build if I demolished the building. He looked at me like I was crazy and said I should never demolish the building because the new building would have to be much smaller than the existing building.

Consequently, any new building could never be as profitable as the existing building. If the building is in bad shape I could renovate it to death, virtually replacing it piece by piece, but demolition followed by a new building was not economically viable.

In other words, the value of my property is a combination of the value of the land and the value of the building. Today, with the current zoning the building is worth much more than the land, so I will never demolish the building. In effect, that 100-year-old building will outlive us all.

What is the lesson here? There are many eyesores in Rockaway Park the residents would like to demolish, but you will never be able to do that if the existing building is more valuable than the new building could be. Another way to say it, is if the existing building is bigger than the new building could be, then you will be stuck with the existing building forever.

Zoning changes the relationship between the value of the existing building and the value of the land. So if you want to get rid of certain buildings you have to change the zoning to make the land more valuable than the existing building.

There is a lot at stake in Rockaway Park and what is decided in the next few months will determine the future of that community and affect the neighboring communities as well. This is very serious stuff and those who participate in the decision had better make sure they do their homework and make the right decision. We don't want to create a new slum, or perpetuate an old one, by being cavalier about our zoning decisions.

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