Not all tear downs are historic homes so we need to address two questions. Are there too many tear downs? Second, what’s our view on historic preservation? Regarding tear downs, the issue has to be property specific. Scarsdale has many non-historic, mid-20th century undistinguished ranches, capes, and splits on significant lots of around 1/2 acre. These houses sit on very valuable plots of land so they are very attractive to builders who can construct much larger luxury homes and sell them for premium prices. For the sellers, the developers represent a wonderful opportunity to cash out of their much appreciated investment, and grants them financial security and the ability to move to more suitable accommodations.
Now, if the plot size is sufficiently large to support a larger luxury home, replacing a tired, non-memorable small house with a brand-new, luxury building double the size is actually a win-win for everyone. The seller is happy, the developer is happy, the buyer is happy, and the assessed valuation on the property soars, increasing the revitalized property’s taxes, which thereby lowers the tax burden on everyone else in town.
The problems arise when huge new houses are squeezed onto small lots which then loom over their neighbors and change the character of the neighborhood. That’s really caused by loopholes in the FAR — Floor Area Ratio — provisions of the Village Code. The Village of Scarsdale regulates the size of single family and two-family homes in Residential A districts through Local Law #1 of 2002 by restricting the FAR. FAR is defined as the gross floor area of the building(s) on a lot divided by the gross lot area. Importantly, the FAR excludes portions of basements, attics, and garages. Over the past 15 years, developers and architects have figured out how to use these exclusions to build excessively large homes on smaller lots. The Village government needs to re-examine the current FAR requirements and to modify them so that the McMansions are not built on the smaller lots, but are restricted to lots which can handle them.
The sorry state of historic destruction in Scarsdale is really a disgrace. While the Village has a Historic Preservation law, it has been ineffective and toothless. Scarsdale has a limited number of historic or architecturally significant homes. Yet these homes are fast disappearing, and so too, is the character of our neighborhoods and our history.
When Robert Berg first moved to Scarsdale fifteen years ago, he remembers the Village Board reviewing our existing Historic Preservation law with an eye to strengthening it and making it more difficult to demolish Scarsdale’s heritage. While there have been a couple of tweaks to the law, it remains largely unchanged. After a three-year study, in 2013, the Mayor and Village Trustees came very close to passing a much strengthened preservation law, but then backed away. Since then, radio silence. In the face of this inaction, each year we lose more and more of our small supply of significant, historic homes.
For example, take a look at how the Village botched the preservation of the estate house of Louis Marx. Mr. Marx, known as “the Toy King of America,” was an exceptionally successful toymaker who lived on a 20.5 acre estate in Quaker Ridge for a half-century. For 40 years, beginning in 1940, come Halloween, Mr. Marx invited Scarsdale’s kids to his estate house. Each kid was given candy, a choice of a toy, and a $1 bill which Mr. Marx personally handed to each kid. Each year, between 800 and 1000 kids relished in this extraordinary man’s generosity. Mr. Marx was a close personal friend of President Dwight Eisenhower, and President Eisenhower and a host of notables visited Mr. Marx at his estate, with President Eisenhower even painting Mr. Marx’s portrait. This house plainly deserved protection.
In 1982, after Mr. Marx died, his estate was sold to Anthony Scarcella, a local builder, who subdivided the property and built 29 houses, leaving the estate house which he promised to maintain and preserve. But he sold the estate house to a friend who did nothing with it other than let it fall apart. When the friend died, Scarcella re-purchased the once grand but deteriorated house. In 2007,Scarcella sought to subdivide the parcel with the estate house, but was denied permission by the Committee on Historical Preservation which determined that the estate house had historical significance. The developer allowed the estate house to continue to rot, and after several years of litigation with the Village, in December 2011, Scarcella sought a hardship exemption that would allow him to demolish the structure because he claimed the house was in such poor repair that it could no longer be rehabilitated. By early 2012, the Village Board of Trustees agreed that the house was beyond repair, and granted the demolition permit. Here’s a clear instance where the Village government watched while a developer allowed an historical treasure to deteriorate and then rewarded the developer by granting the demolition permit and allowing the developer to construct three new houses on the site. Sadly, this is the norm. Many communities have enacted historic preservation codes that actually have some teeth. Scarsdale fiddles while the bulldozers raze our remaining historical legacy.