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In Sunnyside, A Home Is Also An Urban Planning Philosophy

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Which planned community was designed to be the antithesis of its neighbor?dense, crowded Manhattan?across the river? That would be Sunnyside Gardens, considered one of the world's most successful planned communities based on the principles of the then-newly formed Regional Plan Association of America (RPAA) in 1923. An urban reform organization, the RPAA had a mission to "connect a diverse group of friends in a critical examination of the city, in the collaborative development and dissemination of ideas, in political action and in city building projects."

The organization was strongly influenced by Ebenezer Howard's garden cities movement in England, which called for planned, self-sustaining communities surrounded by greenbelts with areas for residences, industry, and architecture. Faced with the national housing crisis of the mid-1920s, the RPAA looked towards Howard's utopian model as a way in which to provide quality housing for low-income workers in a landscaped town-like setting.

The founding members of the RPAA?including architect/planner Clarence Stein, landscape architect Henry Wright, housing developer Alexander Bing and planner/critic Lewis Mumford?would leave an indelible impression on city and regional planning theory and practice by creating a community that would become a benchmark for subsequent planned communities throughout the world.

Under the direction of Alexander Bing, the City Housing Corporation (a byproduct of the RPAA) commissioned fellow members Stein and Wright to design and plan Sunnyside Gardens as well as hired Marjorie Sewell Cautley to create plans and lay out the plant landscaping. Considered an experiment in housing, the goal of Sunnyside Gardens was "to produce good homes at as low a price as possible, to make the [CHC's] investment safe, and to use the work of the building and selling houses as a laboratory to work out better house and block plans and better methods of building." This was not only a design experiment, though?more importantly, it was a social one that aimed to encourage a cooperative and progressive lifestyle reminiscent of the original garden cities movement.

In searching for the ideal site, Bing selected northwestern Queens due to the large amount of available land there. In addition, the area's bucolic nature and separation from the city served as an ideal setting for this kind of development. Constructed between 1924 and 1928, the planned community stretched across 77 acres of land, over which 1,200 moderately priced units were built on a series of 12 courts. That construction made up 28 percent of the site, leaving the remainder for communal open space. Brick row houses, a majority of the units, were arranged on superblocks and built in the Colonial Revival or Art Deco styles, featuring a variety of setbacks and rooflines for visual interest.

These units were built close to the property line in order to allow more space in the rear for common courts for recreation and community use. In addition to these courts, the plan also created small private gardens in the rear of each house as well as a three-and-a-half acre private park. Given the emphasis on a decorative landscape and ample open space, it is no surprise that the designers and planners built garages in a separate area of the complex in order to segregate aesthetically unappealing automobiles from the residences. Although becoming increasingly popular, in this context, automobiles were considered "an intrusion into family life that needed to be kept separate so there could be a safe haven for the family." The complex wasn't limited to just private homes; eight apartment houses were also constructed, including four 30-unit cooperatives, three 70-unit rental buildings, and the Art Deco Phipps Garden Apartments (built from 1931 to 1935). Designers hoped that the amalgamation of housing types would integrate all members of the community into a social, cohesive whole.

Sunnyside's original homeowners included office and factory workers from a wide spectrum of backgrounds?mostly Irish and German immigrants who moved from Manhattan's Lower East Side. Despite the fact that the first homeowners were working-class, Sunnyside was never considered truly low-income housing; in fact, units typically cost approximately $2,000 more than other units in adjacent neighborhoods. Within a few years after its opening, Sunnyside's demographic had changed dramatically. By 1928, many of its denizens included mechanics, office workers, tradesmen, salesmen, and municipal employees, as well as several writers, artists, teachers, architects, engineers, doctors, and other professionals. Although diverse, it couldn't be labeled low-class. If anything, the mixed makeup proves that the community (as it was intended) was a highly desirable residence for many. Lewis Mumford was even a resident, claiming?not surprisingly?that Sunnyside was an "exceptional community laid out by people who were deeply human and gave the place a permanent expression of that humanness."

Solidarity and community were values not just baked into the design of Sunnyside, but also encouraged by its planners. They were proactive in forming court and block associations that fostered a sense of community and, as a result, became centers for social activity and interaction. All members, without any distinction between owners and tenants, could become involved with the Sunnyside Association. Another amenity that encouraged socialization was the creation of Sunnyside Gardens Park in 1926. The largest privately held park in New York City, it featured a playground and a community center that was often used for meetings and classes; it also served as a nursery school. Residents still enjoy the use of the park?in large part due to the voluntary donations from residents to fund the Sunnyside Gardens Civic Association, which manages the park and its activities.

Using fundamental planning principles and creative landscape design, Sunnyside's planners managed to create an integrated community that was also pleasing to the eye. To ensure that this would remain the case for quite some time, the CHC placed 40-year restrictive covenants and easements on the development to preserve its original condition. Such restrictions banned the existence of fences, hedges, clothing lines, and radio lines (all utility lines were hidden, laid underneath the development, when it was built) and also mandated that no changes could be made to the exterior of the buildings without written consent of the CHC trustees. Although strict, these restrictions ensured that the design of Sunnyside would remain as it was intended. Not surprisingly, these restrictions were lauded by the faction of residents that were in favor of preservation.

However, when the 40-year restrictive covenants expired in 1966, residents were legally able to make changes to their property without prior consent. As a result, many residents chose to install backyard fences, close off once-public walkways, and install private garages for parking, which in turn created new curb cuts that provided access. Most jarring, however, were the homes that renovated in styles that stood in stark juxtaposition to the original, charming, brick-facaded Colonial Revival country houses built by the CHC. But most importantly, the great success of Sunnyside?facilitating a sense of community engagement not often found within a major city?was seemingly lost as residents battled over which guiding principle should ultimately prevail: preservation or property rights?

Attuned to this growing problem, the City Planning Commission designated Sunnyside a Special Planned Community Preservation District in 1974, which required applicants to apply for special permits in order to make changes to their properties. Although this was helpful?in that it prevented unsightly alterations in the future?the damage was already done because the revised zoning couldn't do anything about the changes made over the prior eight years. The '74 zoning changes were a good start, but preservation-minded residents realized that greater advocacy and outreach were imperative to sustain Sunnyside's future.

They formed The Sunnyside Foundation, tasked with restoring the area to its former glory. The Foundation spearheaded efforts to rehabilitate and renovate buildings, streets, and common spaces. In addition, it instituted the Conservation Easement Program, in which tax abatements were given to property owners who removed their fences as an incentive to reestablish the openness that was prized in the community's original design. Unfortunately, a very small number of property owners participated in this program?far too low a number to reverse the damage already done. Yet despite the lapse in oversight, preservation efforts have been successful if you consider that Sunnyside was added to the State Register of Historic Places in 1983 and to the National Register in 1984; over 20 years later, it would also be designated a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. But even with these protections in place, battles still exist between preservationists and their rivals.

The progenitors of Sunnyside Gardens sought to create a democratic community based on reactionary planning ideologies at the turn of the 20th century. In a sense, the residents of Sunnyside were not only buying a home, they were also accepting an ideology. Although parts of the community now look different than its planners had intended, the overarching aesthetic of Sunnyside Gardens is still apparent. And in spite of any opposition, the model that led to Sunnyside's creation is still among us?its concepts were applied to the greenbelt towns built by the New Deal-era Resettlement Administration and the New Towns of Reston, Virginia and Columbia, Maryland, built in the 1960s, while they were later lauded by the Congress for New Urbanism in the 1990s. After nearly 100 years, the principles of the RPAA remain valid today?a major feat for a venture that started out as a discussion group among a "diverse group of friends."
?Lisa Santoro

Further Reading:
· Landmarks Preservation Commission: Sunnyside Gardens (PDF!)
· Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance
· Sunnyside Gardens Neighborhood History
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]