Efforts to save the lakefront property from demolition split the planning commission

Friday September 30, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

The planning commission was split on Tuesday over whether to help save an eclectic lakefront property from demolition by turning it into a historic zone Concerns about tax breaks and the likelihood of a previous owner participating in segregation as a business owner.

The property in question, known as Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. In 1946 a neo-Gothic annexe was built. The current owner requested the demolition of the buildings to build a new home.

For their part, conservationists overwhelmingly support historical zoning that would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historical zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features, and associations with historical figures. City officials recommend historical zoning, citing both buildings as unique examples of indigenous architecture.

Tarrytown’s neighbors have it too banded together to stop the demolition. Many wrote letters and some spoke at the meeting. ‘How could anyone buy this estate to destroy?’ said Ila Falvey. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”

Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said the preservationists’ claims were shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have undergone extensive renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve demolition and rebuilding — an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.

Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner CH Slator was dubious. “These men are not known for any civic, philanthropic or historical impact,” he said.

Additionally, according to Whellan, Slator was likely involved in segregation as the owner of the tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.

However, a city worker said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never mark any property where a segregationist lived or where a racist person lived,” said Kimberly Collins of the Historic Preservation Office.

Commissioner Awais Azhar was unable to support the historic zoning in part due to the ongoing uncertainty about Slator. “The focus on this factor is not intended to belittle any person or family. It’s not about playing the race card. This is an important claim for us as planning commissioners to consider,” Azhar said.

Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said allegations of racism should not come as a surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in Austin, on the West Side, in the 1950s — and of course they were racist,” she said. However, she argued that for these reasons, demolishing the house did nothing to help people of color who had been harmed by racism and segregation.

The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting the property tax burden to less affluent communities. City officials estimate the property, which is valued at $3.5 million, would receive either a $8,500 annual property tax credit or $16,107, depending on whether a homestead tax exemption is applied.

Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the Commission to focus not on tax breaks but on whether structures are worth preserving. “For me there is nothing in the lists of monument protection criteria, does this person deserve a tax break or not?”

Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code change to remove city property tax breaks for historic properties.

The commission lacked a vote to recommend historical zoning, with six commissioners in favor and three against. Azhar and Commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.

The chances of the city council zoning an owner’s desires are slim. Nine out of eleven members must vote for it, and there have only been a handful of such cases in recent decades.

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