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A. Thomas Levin Quoted in The Garden City News, "Stewart Ave. Apartments Considered by Zoning Change Committee"

Nov 9, 2017Local Government and Land Use

A revised plan for the 555 Stewart Avenue parcel in the east section of Garden City – immediately adjacent to Roosevelt Field and just east of Raymond court – has drawn attention from residents all over Nassau County as well as Garden City building and planning officials. To review the project – a proposed 150-unit apartment complex in a rectangular, four-story layered design – the Village of Garden City’s Zoning Change Review Committee hosted an open public work session Wednesday night, November 1 at Village Hall.

The work session began with comments by Garden City Superintendent of Building Ausberto Huertas, as he was joined on the dais in the meeting room by Deputy Mayor Jon DeMaro, chair of the Zoning Committee, Village Trustee Louis Minuto, Zoning Board of Appeals Chairman Robert Cunningham, Architectural Design Review Board member Cosmo Veneziale, and Planning Commission Chairman H. Bradford Gustavson. The village’s external consultants from the firm HRM Architects & Engineers also attended on November 1. The ZCRC members sat next to A. Tom Levin, the village’s special counsel for zoning matters from Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C., and attorney Kenneth Gray from Village Attorney Peter Bee’s office, the firm Bee, Ready, Fishbein Hatter & Donovan LLP.

However during the meeting the audience comprised of 50 residents and visitors from all around Nassau County heard primarily from the well-known zoning and land use attorney Kevin Walsh, principal of Walsh, Markus, McDougal & DeBellis, LLP. Each law firm represented at the work session is based in the village. Walsh said the developers plan to build 115 two-bedroom apartments, 20 one-bedrooms and 15 three bedroom units. Out of the total 150 apartments, 15 would be affordable housing scattered throughout the premises. Costs for the two bedroom units are expected to be $4,250 per month ($51,000 a year) as John Wilton of Garden City Properties and the Garden City Chamber of Commerce Merchants’ group told Walsh at the work session this is the current market rate today. The three bedroom units planned for 555 Stewart are expected to range in cost from $5,000 to $5,500 per month, up to $66,000 a year.

The proposal was technically presented as 136 apartment dwellings but on approval by the village, there would be a “bonus factor” of 10% bringing the total to 150 with the 15 affordable housing units included. Walsh says the physical plan for development has remained the same as it was a dozen years ago when 374 townhomes were pro- posed. Ultimately, prior to the existing village approvals from 2006, a plan for a 96,000-square foot office building on the south side of Stewart (550 Stewart Avenue) gave rise to developing the 555 Stewart Avenue parcel into 25 townhomes.

“With the Depression of 2009-2010 there was no market to develop those townhouses at the time for any type of profit to the developer. However they did not change their minds on Garden City – we are proposing a lower impact than the permitted use across the street (the 96,000 sq. foot office building) and now the plan needs to include denser housing development to make the situation work for the developer. To the east of this property is all commercial development, and to the south is mainly commercial development as well as the U.S. Marine Corps barracks there, non-residential areas. We are looking to build something that transitions the area as this kind of makes it move from the truly commercial areas along Stewart Avenue to the east into the Village of Garden City, which is dominated by residences. That would lead one to multiple dwelling housing. For years this was in a C-3 district and commercially zoned to allow office uses and the like. This owner does not want to develop office use there, and they have arrived at numbers of the density this property would absorb which is 150 units,” Walsh explained.

Walsh says the Wyndham East Condominiums, located at 100 Hilton Avenue in the village’s Central section, has “far more than 150 units and many more cars associated with it.” One reason he presented for the apartment complex to consist of a full slate of rentals would be the way in which people, specifically how the “millenials’ generation’ chooses to live these days.”

“There is not a market today for condos and co-ops to be built. That market is not really there. Young people do not necessarily want to be tied down early in their lives by owning real estate. They want the ability with their jobs and careers to be portable, live in a place for a couple of years and then potentially move on. In Mineola and other areas around Garden City there are a lot of developments and a super number of rental buildings being built,” Walsh said.

He told the audience rental apartment buildings become long-term players in the village system of tax and revenue. “If somebody builds condos I know that people might live there for a long period of time but the property’s owner is not. They are going to flip and get rid of their property, he or she isn’t hanging around. It’s people who are building the upscale rental complexes that are going to hang around and be part of the community forever – they will live or die with the success of that development,” Walsh said.

Resident Mark Lotito of Raymond Court later stopped Walsh’s comparisons to the Wyndham by telling Walsh and Zoning Change Review Committee members “the Wyndham is a red herring – all its residents are retired and the units are extremely expensive.”

“Going from a plan of 25 units to 150 units, six-fold, is really quite a jump,” Lotito said, calling the 150 total apartments at 555 Stewart “excessive.” He then asked Walsh and the ZCRC members if the sum was set in stone, and they reiterated the application and Board decision process.

Lotito has lived in his neighborhood for 10 years and attended many Board of Trustees’ meetings. Over the years he’s observed the 555 Stewart Avenue property from different floors of his house. Another question he asked Walsh on November 1 was about berms being in place and adequate screening so he won’t have to face a large four-story building, and tenants would not want to peer into his home and yard.

“I don’t want to be looking at that (complex) and I am sure tenants won’t want to look at the back of garages on our street. It’s something to consider,” he said.

Lotito also said photographs on display at the November 1 work session did not indicate where trash collection and dumpsters for the new development would be located.

The process ahead

According to Superintendent Huertas the approval for the full complex would be ultimately decided by a vote from the Village Board of Trustees after a public hearing is held during one of their regular meetings. Deputy Mayor DeMaro explained the function of the committee to ultimately provide the Board of Trustees with a recommendation on the zoning of the property, and he explained the current application:

“The Zoning Change Review Committee was created by the village as part of its compliance with the federal court judgment (in the MHANY/ ACORN housing discrimination case) to provide a procedure for review of requests for zoning amendments. The applicant has requested that the village consider either creation of a new zoning district or an amendment to the current RT zoning district with respect to the property at 555 Stewart Avenue. In order to facilitate the development of a property for multifamily housing, in accordance with the requirements of the federal judgment and the village’s housing policies and zoning code the proposed development would include 150 units of single-family residences and of which 15 units would be allocated for affordable housing. The village has spent many months with the developer to address the village’s many concerns with the project and the developer has indicated that it is now ready to move forward with its requests for rezoning,” DeMaro said.

The ZCRC does not make its own final decision on the rezoning request or the development plan, but the Board of Trustees will. DeMaro said the ZCRC would take into consideration all questions, comments and matters discussed with Walsh’s presentation and “in due course, make its recommendation to the Board of Trustees.”

“If the Board of Trustees then decides to move forward with any changes relative to this property, counsel will prepare the appropriate legislation and a public hearing will be held by the Board. After that the Board would decide whether or not to enact that legislation,” DeMaro explained. He also instructed residents at the work session that there would not be a back-and-forth dialogue with Walsh or representatives of the 550 Stewart LLC corporation which owns the property, yet questions were taken and piece by piece Walsh tried to address each concern and counterpoint for the proposal.

Walsh describes the 555 Stewart Avenue apartment complex as “a cashheavy contributor to Garden City and its school district for years to come.” But Tom Hogan, president of the Garden City Eastern Property Owners’ Association (EPOA) asked about the number of children that could be com- ing into village’s school district as a result of 150 new homes.

“I have a kindergärtner and we’d like to know the impacts and data from any studies as far as the impact on our schools. Even putting aside this development enrollment has become an issue already in the district so it’s something residents are concerned about,” Hogan said.

As Walsh considered the worry residents might have, a few rows in front of him inside the meeting room, Garden City Schools’ Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Dana DiCapua listened. Part of the developer’s argument against an impact of 150 new apartments, the majority of which would be two-bedrooms, bringing more children into the district and its five village schools is the low net result that a demographics study of the student body of the district would indicate.

“Rentals, and one and two-bedroom projects do not bring in students to the local district. You might get 10 children overall or less there. There’s very little impact on Garden City schools. The schools’ own report from a couple years ago predicted a downward trend in younger grades’ student enrollment he said.

Walsh says he plans to attend the GCUFSD Board of Education work session scheduled for Wednesday, November 8, and in his comments to the school board he will ask them to review data:

“How many children in our school district now live at the Wyndham?” Walsh asked. Walsh also cited the widely used Rutgers University Study

The units of the 150-apartment complex would not be age-restricted, simply either market rate or the 10% affordable housing. Senior citizens would be able to qualify for the same rate as any other potential renter or affordable housing applicant. Walsh also broke down the components of affordable housing unit application qualifiers as 80%, 60% and 40% of median incomes for residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties. A third of the 10% affordable housing need to qualify for the 40%, a third for the 60% of median incomes and another third of the 10% units would need to have 80% of median income for the area,” he explained at the work session.

Walsh, a longtime village resident whose office is located on Seventh Street, says Garden City needs development projects in the village “to get the tax base up.” He explained that the developer has committed to paying Village of Garden City taxes in some way, shape or form 100% and one option could be through a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) or an IDA (industrial development agreement).

“This village and every other Long Island village needs to get their tax base increased. Everyone around us from Town of Hempstead to Mineola, they are all putting enormous tax-driving projects in play. This site is available to develop and a couple others in Garden City are available to develop. We are running out of pieces that can be developed,” Walsh told attendees.

Catherine O’Sullivan of Raymond Court said she is disappointed as with project plans for 25 townhomes a decade ago, Kevin Walsh was representing the same property owner, and he had come to meet with residents of her neighborhood. She recalls that Walsh promised there would be less than 40 townhome units built at the site.

“I was involved in proceedings about 10 years ago when Mr. Walsh met with people in my neighborhood. At the time residents of Raymond Court were instrumental in changing it from a commercial zone to a residential zone (a change made in 2006, to RT/ Residential- Townhouse zoning) because we agreed residential would be much better. You assured us it would be no more than 40 units and they’d be townhouses, yet that never materialized. I am curious if the owner of the property now is the same owner as over the past 10 years the property has not even been maintained well as an empty lot. It is disgusting, a fence went up after five years of neighbors’ complaints and there are rats coming into my property which I did not have before. The property across the street (550 Stewart Avenue) is being used by Nissan of Garden City for its cars and initially they tried to put the cars behind us on Raymond Court, but since it was no longer a commercial property we had been assured there would be no more than one trailer a week – there are at least three to four trailers with new cars pulling up including on Saturdays and Sundays, and I’ve been woken up at 6 a.m. with the truck horns blowing to deliver cars,” she explained.

O’Sullivan says she has no problem with an affordable housing allocation for the 555 Stewart Avenue property but the size of the development is daunting as currently proposed; for a decade she’s lived next to the site expecting just 40 luxury condos to go up there and 10% of that would be four units of affordable housing.

Walsh explained that the ownership remains the same as it was in 2006. “That does not mean you as neighbors aren’t entitled to have this property maintained all the way through. I agree with that and my client agrees with that. We let the Marine Corps use the property whenever they have needed it and the village has had an agreement to use it throughout the year, and for excess snow removals and debris – anything they need that is out of the usual. The property should be maintained in a reasonable manner. I know it is not beautiful but I can only say I will take the concerns to the owner, but there has not been a great chain of communication to date from folks at Raymond Court about that concern,” he said.

Deputy Mayor DeMaro then told O’Sullivan the village “will look more closely” at the 555 Stewart Avenue property’s conditions and maintenance.

MHANY Judgment Fallout

Thern Shivers of Terrace Avenue in northwest Hempstead attended the November 1 ZCRC work session with her 12-year-old son. Her husband died from cancer ten years ago and she moved with her son, then a toddler, from South Carolina to New York. Shivers listened to Walsh and comments from the public and said for her, housing represented an opportunity for a better life and better health. She is disturbed by prejudice she says has created a stark divide in Nassau County, with “invisible walls in place” as African Americans and people of color are trapped as they are having residences traditionally in the corridor of Hempstead, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Freeport.

Shivers, a 52-year-old African American, spoke about the infamous decision on the MHANY application by the members of the Village Board of Trustees over a decade ago, and how Garden City is subject to the remedial Federal Court order from Judge Arthur D. Spatt in 2014.

“Since 2004 multiple court decisions found that the Village of Garden City discriminated against minorities through its zoning. In September 2017 the court has upheld those findings. Federal Eastern District Court Judge Spatt ruled the 2004 zoning decision by the village had an unjustified disparate impact on African Americans and Latinos and was in violation of the federal fair housing act….The resulting lawsuit filed by MHANY management and New York Communities for Change argues that the decision then was intentional, racially motivated and discriminatory and it presented an unjustified and disparate impact…Garden City was ordered to adopt and implement a zoning ordinance that mandates 10% of units in new developments of five units or more be affordable housing. The village was ordered to join the Nassau Urban County Consortium which disburses U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development funds in the county. Garden City must promote integrated housing to meet its duties under the Fair Housing Act to affirmatively further fair housing,” Shivers told the ZCRC and crowd of 50 village residents.

Richard Williams of Stewart Avenue said they’re concerned about the urbanization of the Garden City community as they decided to live in a suburb to provide the related quality of life, not a place akin to New York City’s outer boroughs.

“The proposed change follows the 2006 change to residential-townhouses expecting 25 units, now to a higher density housing complex. I am fundamentally concerned about urbanization of Garden City. The more density we have will change us from a very, very residential community of single-family homes to one that is very different. That’s a deep concern of mine as we’ve seen Mineola gone wild in terms of its urbanization and more and more people coming there to live in apartments. That changes the community and the way we look, feel and do everything – including our schools and every element of what we do here in Garden City,” Williams said.

Shivers said she felt that some concerns related to “urbanization” could be interpreted as hostility to African American and Latinos as residents, and she approached the ZCRC a second time to state the value of diversity and new residents potentially moving to the village. Several people seated behind her in the audience on November 1 pointed out that there were not any concerns with this proposed development that had to do with its affordable housing components or possible racial makeup of tenants. Shivers expressed her desire to seek a better and safer place to live for her and her ‘tween’ son because their current neighborhood has been intimidating with many drug and gang activities. She stated “fair housing is healthcare” and members of the Zoning Change Review Committee listened carefully to her perspective.

Traffic with the Stewart to Clinton Road crawl

Walsh dispelled a rumor that there were plans to widen Stewart Avenue at the east end of Garden City due to the 555 Stewart development. Walsh said a left-turn lane and traffic configuration for the entrance to the apartment complex on the north side of Stewart Avenue, just before the Roosevelt Field mall entrance, was a consideration. Residents and the ZCRC then heard from Rebecca Goldberg from Cameron Engineering of Hauppauge, the same consulting firm that has performed geo-technical analysis for the fields at Garden City Community Park and worked on a number of infrastructure items at the village pool. The applicant’s attorney, Walsh, had an explanation for the expected traffic impacts involved with the proposal.

“As a rule, if you talk to any traffic person they would tell you the benefits of housing of any kind as opposed to commercial or office buildings it is significantly better with lesser impacts for two reasons. One is there is less backand forth at peak times and nobody would mind Stewart Avenue being a little busier on a Sunday morning. Residential developments spread out traffic seven days a week over 10 to 12 hours a day; office buildings are brutal and heavy for peak, commute times,” he said.

“If you live over by Hamilton Gardens or on Second Street by the Wyndham condos, nobody will tell you cars come from there and pile up themselves. Does anybody see cars lined up at the Wyndham in the heart of the village? No, we are kind of shocked. In Mineola they are also shocked that traffic has not changed or the level of service with signals has not been impacted with 100% occupied buildings. We do have traffic issues on Long Island and we cannot attribute them to developments and worry ‘are the developments putting us over the top? In the world of traffic this does plan not change a level of service on Stewart Avenue traffic signals,” Walsh told the audience.

Parking Projections

The new 150-apartment complex would have a total of 343 parking spaces, of which 42 would be at-grade (at the street level and in front of the building). The remaining spaces would be divided to have 168 in the first level underground and 133 in the second level underground. Walsh noted that a total 328 spaces were required by Village of Garden City Code and the project more than satisfies the sum.

EPOA President Tom Hogan said the concern residents have expressed the most is going from an empty lot adjacent to the mall with zero population to a parcel with 150 apartments and over 340 cars.

“We are concerned about negative impacts for Stewart Avenue and Clinton Road, BUT do not want Nassau County involved whatsoever,” Hogan said.

Anthony Ianni, an Osborne Road resident, said the 150 units and the designated parking could mean as many as 400 additional cars on the roads in the village and especially in the East. He told the ZCRC, Superintendent of Building Huertas and Kevin Walsh “driving from near Roosevelt Field to Clinton Road anytime around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. to evening is already a mess. At least 300 to 400 additional cars would be added to the area, and to add that many is a little ridiculous,” he said.

“The traffic study done before was done by the developer and at that point there would be certain bias – in any legal case if an expert witness is required, the applicant or party would find a witness that supports their case and does not go against it. This village should do its own traffic study or the developer can put money into an escrow account to pay for the independent study with the village’s control,” Ianni said.

He added that Nassau County would not be helpful to alleviate any traffic increases from the development.

“The county could be forced to take action and reconfigure the Stewart and Clinton Road intersection. I was here in summer 2015 when the village was talking about the bad traffic in the area and something had to be done, Nassau County could then actually have a change take place. If it does would the developer be responsible for some costs of reconfiguring the traffic in the area? If they are responsible for further creating a traffic nightmare, they should ultimately be responsible for paying some of the costs,” Ianni said.

According to Walsh traffic data has already been submitted to Nassau County because of considerations to install a new traffic light with a built-in left-turn signal for cars heading into the 555 Stewart property, to be placed on Stewart Avenue westbound. This proposal would relocate the existing light on Stewart 25 feet further, near the property.

“We do not seek or support changes to any current intersections along Stewart Avenue (a county road) because our data, to the extent it is verified, does not suggest the village needs any. We don’t control Nassau County but the village has spoken loud and clear to the county the last time something was proposed for Stewart and Clinton Road. With the plan the only change we proposed is a traffic light for the entranceway serving this site and the site closest to it,” Walsh said.

He explained at the work session the Wyndham condominiums have not created a significant traffic impact in its vicinity, and the same thing applies for development in Mineola. Walsh contends that traffic can best be attributed to the time of year we will soon be in, with the Thanksgiving (Black Friday) and holiday traffic squarely connected to the Roosevelt Field mall shopping and activities. Contrary to Walsh’s explanation was a suggestion O’Sullivan made to the ZCRC.

“I think a traffic and impact study should be done throughout November and December, particularly in the last few weeks of the year when I can’t even leave my block because of the heavy traffic,” she said.