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Landmarks Commission Torn on New Fieldston Houses

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A proposal to subdivide a lot and construct three new houses in the Fieldston Historic District went before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday. It was met with unanimous disapproval from the public and significant skepticism from the commissioners, who were concerned about the precedent that could be set by subdividing the lot, the density issues that would come with it, and the design of the houses as it relates to the architectural character of Fieldston. Ultimately, they agreed to pay a visit the site in person before voting on the proposal.

First, a little background: Fieldston is a planned private community in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. It was part of the estate of Joseph Delafield, whose family laid out lots for development in 1909. The community was planned without using the city grid and following suggestions from Frederick Law Olmsted, the legendary landscape architect who co-designed Central Park. Its winding roads and hills now make up a community run privately by the Fieldston Property Owners Association (FPOA). It was designated as a city historic district in 2006 (PDF).

The proposal comes from three brothers, Matthew, Edward, and Marshall Bloomfield, who own the 1.3 acres at 4680 Fieldston Road and want to divide it in order to build new homes. The existing 7,797-square-foot home is accessed by a large driveway and overlooks Delafield Park and the neighborhood's prized Indian Pond. The brothers Bloomfield want to build two new houses to the south, one 4,458 square feet and the other 4,970 square feet. They also want to build a third house on what they claim has historically been an adjacent lot to the north (on the corner of Fieldston Road and Indian Road). That house was proposed to be 3,682 square feet. All three are designed by Stephen Byrns of BKSK Architects. House #1 and House #2 would share the existing driveway, which would have to be widened per the FDNY, and have basement garages to save space.

Construction of the homes would require removal of as many as 39 trees (though 14 new ones would be planted). It would also interfere with rock outcroppings and affect the view from Indian Pond.

LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said there was a "real issue about the size of the lots" and was worried about setting precedent, as there are other lots that could conceivably see similar proposals. She wants the applicants to come back with more and better fleshed out examples of subdivision. She said the driveway seemed a lot like ordinary ones in non-planned neighborhoods, and also questioned the need for three homes.

Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron got choked up talking about the destruction of a wonderful old mansion during her childhood in Riverdale, where she attended the SAR Academy. "[The] premise is flawed," she said of the proposal.

Commissioner Michael Goldblum, who represents the Bronx on the commission, said he appreciated the presentation, and admitted that proposals of this nature are hard because local patterns aren't as clear as a row of brownstones in Brooklyn or a neighborhood like Ridgewood, Queens. Still, he said, the density it would create "doesn't feel right." He preferred instead for the proposal be cut down by one home, saying that the new one closest to the pond "looms" over it like a "Bavarian castle thing." On a purely stylistic basis, he said he found the designs of House #1 and House #3 acceptable.

Commissioner Diana Chapin also wanted two new houses instead of three. She said that what the proposed houses would do to the "rustic context" of the neighborhood was "really troubling." Commissioner Michael Devonshire suggested that the three-house proposal was a "red herring," as if the applicants knew it wouldn't fly, but it would make it easier for them to get approval for two houses. Despite that, he did not object to the idea of two new houses on principal. Commissioner Frederick Bland joined the chorus calling for only two new houses instead of three. Chair Srinivasan seemed to be leaning in that direction as well. She asked the applicants to come back with a better defense of their proposal for subdivision as well as responses to the public comments delivered Tuesday. However, they don't plan to have a second session on this proposal until the commissioners get to visit the site for themselves, a suggestion made by former LPC Chair Sherida Paulsen during public testimony. In fact, architect Byrns also thought they should visit the site. Commissioner Bland suggested they wait until the snow melts, though he knew could delay the process quite a bit.

Bronx Community Board 8 was in nearly unanimous opposition to the proposal. Overall, the hearing took about two hours and featured 21 pieces of public testimony, none of them in support. Among the opponents were former New York Attorney General, State Assemblyman, and City Councilman Oliver Koppell, who has lived just two blocks away for the past 20 years, but has lived in Riverdale for the past 72 years (since he was two) and caught crayfish in Indian Pond as a child. He called the presentation misleading and said it "destroys the historic district we worked so hard to create." Jeff Meuller, president of the FPOA, said 93 percent of Fieldston residents oppose the proposal. One 41-year resident called it "a place to see nature, up close and personal."

A joint letter from U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, State Senator Jeffrey Klein, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, and City Councilman Andrew Cohen acknowledged the applicants' right to build on the property, but said "we do believe that the application as proposed is flawed and will compromise the integrity of the Fieldston Historic District."

—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· All Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]
· All Fieldstone coverage [Curbed]