Each House is an Island

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In his plan to boost the city’s housing stock, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed to the city’s waterfront as a great opportunity for development.

While residents of many of the city’s communities welcome this as the answer to reviving their unused waterfront, one of the city’s former fishing villages is wary of the idea and is looking to the Department of City Planning to protect its shores.

City Islanders, of which there are 4,520, rarely move and are a rather insular community. (Longtime residents call newcomers mussel suckers, and dub themselves clam diggers.) Homes in this northeast Bronx neighborhood traditionally pass within families, and when a house does go on the market, real estate agents often find a buyer within hours.

While the island’s onetime fishing and shipping industries have been dead or dying for years, a group of residents are making a last ditch effort to save what little history they have left–most of it seen in the turn-of-the-century homes, seafood restaurants, and quirky bait shops. They are pushing for a rezoning plan they hope will prevent developers from building out-of-place apartment complexes on their island.

“We know we can’t prevent housing, but we would like to make it appropriate for City Island,” says Barbara Dolensek of the City Island Civic Association, which is leading the preservation efforts.

Their work began a couple of years ago, when the Department of City Planning solicited residents’ input for a maritime heritage preservation study. The biggest blight in the area, Dolensek and others told the planners, was a new row of pastel blue, prefabricated, vinyl-sided houses.

“They are good from a developer’s standpoint, but bad from an architect’s standpoint,” says Zach Schweter, an architect who lives in a small 1926 home across the street from the row houses.

The solution the residents and City Planning came up with: rezone the area to make sure any new developments match the area’s character. Since the 1980s, this kind of contextual zoning has been used in Chelsea, the East Village and Park Slope, Brooklyn. In City Island’s case, the new laws, if approved, would prohibit attached housing, and promote one- and two-family homes.

“If it’s a neighborhood…in which 80 percent of building stock meets that proposed zoning, then we think it’s appropriate,” says Purnima Kapur, director of the Department of City Planning’s Bronx office.

Kapur expects the rezoning proposal to enter the Urban Land Use Review Process in May, going before the local community board, the City Council, the borough president, the City Planning Commission and the mayor. Its chances seem to be good: The community board, Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr., and Councilmember Madeleine Provenzano all support it.

But for local residents, at this point “when” is more the issue than “if.” A set of 18 attached luxury condominiums on the water is now under construction, and is quickly filling up. “There seems to be a demand for it,” says Howard Loewentheil, developer of this property.

Certainly not everyone is complaining. Says Tim Orton, a new tenant in the row houses a few blocks away, “This was the last unit that was affordable.”