Port Washington’s 120-year-old restaurant, Louie’s Prime Steak and Seafood, is seeking to expand to bolster its business, but many neighboring residents oppose the plan due to what they contend will be negative effects on the surrounding area.
Louie’s, which sits on the waterfront, was opened in 1905 by Louis Zwerlein. The Zwerlein family sold the restaurant in 2002
In 2022 Louie’s was bought by partners Jerry Sbarro, the owner of Rothmann’s Steakhouse in East Norwich and six Matteo’s Italian restaurants, and Jorge Madruga, who are the new owners of the restaurant that will remain as Louie’s.
With the restaurant now managed by the Rothman’s Restaurant Group, the owners are looking to expand and have applied for a site plan that requires variances to be granted by the town.
The application was reviewed during the Town of North Hempstead’s Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Wednesday afternoon, the second appearance before the board.
The board postponed a decision on the application in order to further review comments submitted by the public.
The classic steak and seafood restaurant applied for four variances, which would also legalize the restaurant’s filled-in deck. The variances are for the building to exceed the permitted height, construct the facade closer to the street, provide fewer parking spaces and construct a second-floor deck/gathering place.
“We’re talking about a restaurant that’s been here for a hundred years, we’re talking about a tired building, we’re talking about something that could be transformative and maybe inform future developments there that really are within the code,” said Kathleen Deegan Dickson, the attorney representing Louie’s.
She said that while prior owners had implemented illegal expansions to the building without permits, the restaurant’s application is seeking to legalize those additions after the fact. She said the current owner bought the property with these elements already in place.
Deegan Dickson said the variance for the facade is not seeking to move the building closer to the property line, but increasing the height in the front of the building.
She said the building is constructed in a unique location as it is built over the water. Because of this, the building grade is established at the beach below and the street in front, making establishing the maximum height different due to the varying grades.
The height of the building’s existing elevation is at 23 feet above the average grade, and 18 feet from the sidewalk to the top of the building.
The proposed building would have a height of 26.3 feet above the sidewalk grade.
Deegan Dickson said the parking variance overall is to accommodate 20 fewer parking spaces than required. She said the traffic engineer confirmed the surrounding area could handle the lack of parking.
She said that they have worked with the community on this project as there has been opposition.
“I know that this area of Port Washington and Port Washington in general has a very active citizenry and rightfully so,” Deegan Dickson said. “They are very protective of the beauty that is Port Washington.”
About 18 people spoke during the public comment period, with an even split between people advocating for and against the site plan proposal and its variances.
Residents’ concerns included adverse effects on the character of the neighborhood, impact on the surrounding natural environment and exacerbated traffic due to an insufficient amount of parking.
Shahnaz Autz, founder of the Mitchell Farms Neighborhood Association, said the residents are not against renovations but they are against the “aggressive expansion.”
She asked the board to deny the application as it is “a significant departure from the spirit of the code.”
“Ultimately these changes will cause a decline in the charm and beauty of the whole waterfront and the Port Washington community… and significantly will diminish the quality of life for all residents of the surrounding community,” Autz said.
Many of the neighboring residents said that their residential streets are inundated with Louie’s patrons parking their cars, so an expansion would aggravate an already existing problem.
Lavi Finkelstein, and other residents, also raised safety concerns with increased patronage at Louie’s, citing prior alleged incidents of patrons driving drunk after leaving the restaurant.
“An outdoor terrace might be good for business, but at what cost to our environment and peace?” Finkelstein asked. “…We must ask ourselves: Are we making changes for the community or merely for commercial interests?”
Some residents also expressed concerns about the restaurant not abiding by maximum seating requirements and getting away with violating regulations. Deegan Dickson assured the board that the owners have no interest in perpetuating violations.
“The last thing you want is somebody coming in, counting seats and shutting you down,” Deegan Dickson said. “That’s the death knell of a restaurant business.”
Stuart Rosen, a Port Washington resident since 1969, said that this building renovation will be beneficial to Louie’s operation. He said the proposal is “gorgeous” and he does not understand why the community would oppose the renovation.
“But I could tell you based on these pictures that I would much rather look at this than what is there now,” Rosen said.
Cindy Lee, owner of Fathoms Hotel and Marina in Port Washington, said she is also in support of her neighboring business’ application. She said the renovations would help to bolster the business along Main Street and revitalize the area.
Neighboring residents said the variances Louie’s is seeking are not to alleviate hardships the restaurant is experiencing but to bolster its business. They said because of this, the variances should not be granted, among other reasons.
“If they bypassed regulations in the past, what guarantees do we have in the future, especially with an even larger operation?” Port Washington resident Anna Isaac asked.
Deegan Dickson said she is unsure of whether or not a compromise can be achieved, despite residents’ requests for one.
She said they are looking to close the restaurant on Oct. 1 to begin construction. It would then reopen May 2024, with the goal of doing so by Memorial Day weekend.