More than a century ago, Riverdalians battled city bureaucrats who wanted to flatten the neighborhood’s hills, chop down its trees, and impose the street grid to grease the skids of real estate development, much as they had done to most of Manhattan.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the great landowners whose mansions hugged the Riverdale Ridge above the Hudson River dipped into their fortunes to forestall them. At Wave Hill, George Perkins deliberately built structures in unmapped city streets. When Edward Delafield developed his land to the east, a development he named “Fieldston,” in opposition to the grid, he laid out curved streets that followed the contours of the land.
Fifty years later, residents took up the cause, banding together to preserve Riverdale’s open space and green vistas.
Now, once again, the city bureaucracy is threatening the character of the Bronx’s loveliest neighborhood.
A few weeks ago at a meeting at Fieldston School, staff members of the city planning department told a sparse audience of their plans to dismantle one of the prime protections that has helped keep Riverdale a special place, a suburb in the city.
The planners want to overhaul the rules governing the Riverdale Greenbelt, more formally known as the Special Natural Area District.
The city planners are selling this change in much the same way Republicans in Washington sell their proposals for deregulation of business.
Your life will become easier, they are telling homeowners. You’ll have far fewer onerous rules to comply with if you want to build on your property.
The new rules remove the city planning department from the approval process for projects on lots of less than an acre. If passed, they also will remove the opportunity for Community Board 8 to weigh in on those proposals.
Instead of scrutiny by planners and residents, plans for subdivisions or additions to homes in the Greenbelt will be vetted by a staffer at the buildings department, in all likelihood, someone who has never been to our neighborhood.
His task will be to check the boxes on a checklist.
That staffer will approve each individual proposal without knowledge of or regard to how it relates to the larger community.
Over the past 40 years, the oversight of CB8 — buttressed by the advocacy groups Friends of the Greenbelt, and its successor, the Riverdale Nature Preservancy — has succeeded in overturning or modifying inappropriate plans. Moreover, there is no way of telling how many more such plans never saw the light of day because builders and architects calculated that they could not gain the necessary approvals.
It is true that after 40 years, the rules governing Riverdale’s natural area district need some refreshing, particularly in light of new environmental science. But that’s not what is driving the current proposals. What’s behind them is a residential building boom on Staten Island.
Most of the proposed new rules concern that borough, whose Greenbelt has 53,000 building lots. Riverdale’s has a thousand. It’s irrational to lump the burden of overseeing Staten Island with the relative ease of vetting applications from Riverdale.
More important, the issues facing Staten Island are very different from Riverdale’s. Page after page of the new rules deal with the relation of housing sites to Staten Island’s extensive parks, its shoreline and freshwater wetlands — none of which apply here.
The sensible course would be to separate the Bronx regulations from Staten Island’s, and review each from the point of view of their unique needs.
Nearly 40 percent of Riverdale’s land is in the natural area district. A few trees cut down here, a hillside flattened there, who will notice?
Until the day we wake up and find our neighborhood transformed.
In 1931, Edward Delafield defined the task of community preservation. At the annual meeting of the Fieldston Property Owners Association, he recalled what had motivated him and his brothers.
“The men, who as boys had played among the towering crags and giant trees, could not bear to have them destroyed,” he declared.
The task of preserving the defining character of Riverdale is now our collective responsibility. And, as in the past, we will have to do it in the face of heedless bureaucrats.
The author, a publisher emeritus of The Riverdale Press, was the newspaper’s editor between 1978 and 2005, and co-publisher until 2008.