The Trouble With Living In An Historic District

Fighting over a fence in Jackson Heights

Yu Chan Li and her husband Marc Gernstein have been fighting with the Landmarks Preservation Commission for years over a remodeled fence in front of their Jackson Heights Historic District home.

The couple, who changed the design of the fence without seeking approval from the panel, now have filed a claim in Manhattan Supreme Court asking the city to toss out the district’s 23-year-old landmark designation and re-evaluate its entire landmark operation.

“I’m saying that the LPC’s whole operation is unconstitutional,” Gernstein said. “It’s an agency that does anything it wants when it wants.”

Marc Gerstein is challenging the city's landmark rules. Photo Roshan Abraham

Marc Gerstein is challenging the city’s landmark rules.
Photo: Roshan Abraham

The main source of his gripe is a photograph he said the commission showed him when he tried to get approval for the fence after the fact. Gernstein said the photograph, which he believes was taken in the 80s, did not reflect the house’s appearance when Li bought it in 1996.

“It turns out that when they designated the area in 1993 they never photographed the properties, they never criticized the details,” he said. “We know what the property looked like in 1996. They know what it looked like in 1980. They chose not to document it in 1993 when they declared the designation.”

When Gernstein argued that the landmark preservation commission’s own documents for Jackson Heights said nothing about fences, he said officials weren’t interested.

“It’s like you can imagine the criminal court prosecuting a homicide, and nobody bothers to look up the penal law,” Gernstein said.

The Jackson Heights Historic District, established in 1993, stretches from 76th Street and 88th Street between Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard in Queens. It was one of the earliest examples of garden-style apartment complexes in the United States, according to Daniel Karatzsas, author of “Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City.”

Karatzsas is on the board of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, which helped document and photograph the historic district before its designation in 1993.

He’s unsympathetic to Gernstein and Li’s complaints, because they did not get pre-approval before changing their fence.

“Outside the district, this is America and people can make their property as ugly as they want,” Karatzsas said. “But within the district there are rules that need to be followed because if you don’t follow them, then you will get a violation and perhaps a fine.”

He added: “This is part of being here, like it or not.”

Gernstein said his main goal isn’t to get the landmark designation thrown out. But he is willing to take the case wherever it goes.

“I’m that one perfect storm where I know what the rules are,” he said.