February 27, 2004
A Farm in New York City? Yes, for Now
By DENNIS HEVESI
The Klein farm in Fresh Meadows, Queens, the last privately owned working farm in New York City, was recently sold for $4.3 million.
The plywood boards blinding the windows and doors of the stately Klein farmhouse are still freshly blond.
They were nailed in place just six weeks ago, barely two months after the old Klein homestead, the last privately owned working farm in New York City - tucked between a garden apartment complex and a schoolyard in Fresh Meadows, Queens - was sold to a developer for more than $4 million.
A 20-blade disk harrow long used to carve furrows across the two-acre remnant of what was, back in the 1890's, a 200-acre farm, now sits rusting under a corrugated shed behind the big house. Gnarled oaks tower over the expansive front yard where, for decades between late April and the day before Thanksgiving, carrots, corn, beets, scallions, peppers, arugula, basil and dill were sold at the farm stand.
"Our children went there every year to buy pumpkins,'' said Dina Koski, the principal of Public School 26, the elementary school behind the farm. "My children will miss it.''
With abandoned Klein family furnishings now being loaded into a trash bin beside the columned, two-story brick farmhouse, and a proposal for the construction of 22 two-family homes on the site rescinded, local residents, civic leaders and politicians are wondering just what will become of the property.
They are holding out hopes that, somehow, the farm - with its decidedly nonrural address of 194-15 73rd Avenue - can be preserved.
The new owner is not talking.
John Huang, vice president of the Audrey Realty Corporation, was recorded by the city Department of Finance as having closed the $4.3 million deal on Nov. 4. Several phone messages left for him in recent weeks went unanswered. A recent midmorning visit to the address listed for Audrey Realty on Main Street in Flushing found a door between two stores locked and without a knob.
John Klein Sr., whose grandfather, Adam Klein, paid $18 an acre (or about $3,600 for the full 200 acres) shortly before the turn of the last century, said of the recent purchase price, "I didn't do too bad.''
Mr. Klein, 61, had worked the farm since his teens. His son, John Jr., 37, Mr. Klein said, "tried to keep it going, but he wasn't making any money.''
"It was like trying to revive a dead horse," he said. "And then they kept offering me more and more for the place: $4.3 million.''
Mr. Klein said that the "they" was Audrey Realty, a company incorporated in June 2001, according to records from the New York Department of State, with a Henry Huang listed as president and John Huang as vice president.
In December of 2001, a developer, Tommy Huang, who in 1999 was convicted for environmental violations at the RKO-Keith's movie theater in Flushing, a landmark, made a similar offer for the farm, with a plan to build 22 two-family homes. Faced with stiff opposition from the local city councilman, David I. Weprin, and a hastily constituted group of civic leaders called the Klein Farm Task Force, Tommy Huang withdrew his offer in March 2002. (It could not be determined if he is related to the Audrey Realty principals.)
Councilman Weprin, who grew up not far away on 188th Street, has "fond memories of going to the farm with my mom to buy vegetables and walking all around the property."
"I'd love to see it preserved, growing fruits and vegetables and having the stand working like it used to,'' he added.
Mr. Weprin said he and members of the task force had spoken with James Trent, president of the city-owned Queens County Farm Museum in neighboring Bellerose, where, on six acres, visitors can get an inkling of the borough's more idyllic, prepavement past.
The museum, Mr. Weprin said, "would be glad to operate the Klein Farm without fee, if we could get somebody to buy the land.''
Mr. Trent called the Klein Farm a "significant last link to the agrarian way of life.'' Besides the Queens County Farm Museum, two other farms remain in the city: the 15-acre Sylvanus Decker Farm owned by the Staten Island Historical Society and four acres for agriculture students at John Bowne High School on Main Street in Flushing. "But they're all institutional,'' Mr. Trent said. "The Klein Farm was the only one that remained privately owned for the purpose of making a living.''
With a museum official's historical perspective, Mr. Trent pointed out that in Revolutionary times Queens had been "the cradle of horticulture in the United States: flowers, shrubs and trees.''
"George Washington came to Queens to buy trees,'' he said.
The borough remained predominantly agricultural until the Queensboro Bridge opened in 1909. "Suburbanized Queens started with the bridge,'' Mr. Trent said. "And then the subways came.'' The elevated Jamaica line was completed in 1917, about the same time that the Flushing line reached Corona (to be extended to Main Street by 1928). At the time the Kleins bought their property in the 1890's, there were more than 2,800 farms in the city; by 1950, there were just 308.
Aline Euler, education director for the Alley Pond Environmental Center in nearby Alley Pond Park, said the farm is a vestige of the vast swath of salt marshes and kettle ponds carved by the Wisconsin Glacier 15,000 to 18,000 years ago. The Matinecock Indians of the Delaware Nation roamed the area's rolling hills, she said. Tulip trees, some three centuries old and 100 feet high, still stand in Alley Pond Park.
"It's just that we lose another small open space,'' Ms. Euler said, "gone forever.''
The Klein property is zoned R4, a category allowing residential development of single-family detached houses, row houses or even a small apartment building. But it is also within the Fresh Meadows Special Planned Community Preservation District.
The preservation district's rules, said John Young, director of the Queens office of the Department of City Planning, require that the city Planning Commission approve all proposals for new development or enlargements within the district. "The Buildings Department may not issue a permit for demolition of a building unless it is deemed unsafe,'' Mr. Young said, "and unless they get a special permit,'' which would require the developer to go through the city's complex Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.
And in the preservation district, he said: "The big trees couldn't come down without a special permit. And there is currently a slope on the front of the site; altering that topography would require approval.''
One nonprofit group whose mission is to preserve open space is interested in the Klein Farm. "If the developer just wants to live on the property as it is, he may be able to do that,'' said Erik Kulleseid, the New York State project manager for the Trust for Public Land. "If he runs into a buzz saw in the approval process, we stand ready to make an offer to take over the property.''
And Mr. Trent of the farm museum has dreams, too. "If Mr. Huang were to decide that he couldn't develop it the way he originally planned," he said, "he could still sell it to the Trust at a discount and take the rest as a tax write-off. And then the farm museum could be given the title and operate it as a nonprofit. Nothing's impossible.''
Behind a shed is a disk harrow that was long used to furrow the land.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
The Forgotten New York website has some charming coverage of Queens Farm:
(It works, but it won't show up as a link, so a copy/paste is required. )
I live very near it, so I'll probably be posting a lot more about it in the future.
Last edited by Punzie; December 17th, 2006 at 05:57 AM.
That's very interesting! Thanks for the links.