Town enters into agreement for Great Neck building demolition, formally rejects Hillside Islamic Center expansion

Town enters into agreement for Great Neck building demolition, formally rejects Hillside Islamic Center expansion
North Hempstead Town Hall in Manhasset. (Photo by Karina Kovac)

Almost 20 years after a Great Neck building formerly occupied by an Indian restaurant and catering hall burned down, the Town of North Hempstead established an agreement with the owner for demolition at a public hearing Tuesday morning.

A month and a half since the board denied a site plan approval for the Hillside Islamic Center, it rendered a decision explaining its disapproval at that same public hearing.

The former home of the Bombay Palace at 380 Northern Blvd. was damaged by a fire about 18 years ago, which the town said has been unaddressed due to various issues including owner disputes.

“This is really, really disgraceful that this has been going on so many years and nothing has been done,” Kathleen Levine, president of the University Gardens Property Owners Association, said.

For years the owners have expressed an intent to demolish the building, even filing a demolition permit in July of 2021. But no demolition occurred and the town said it has failed to comply with its requirements.

Multiple residents expressed concerns about the safety of the building, which many council members echoed, including hazards present at the site, rodents and sometimes individuals camping out at the building for periods of time.

On March 1, the attorney representing the owners Robert Schaufeld said the owners entered into an agreement with a demolition contractor to begin the demolition on or after April 20. He said this was done before he was aware of the town’s public hearing.

Schaufeld said he was not made aware of Tuesday’s public hearing and the town’s multiple notifications to the owners to be heard until the day prior.

But the town had requested demolition to start no later than April 5, with the required application to be filed by March 26 – two weeks earlier than the owner’s contract with the demolition contractor.

The attorney asked to have the demolition timeline be pushed out two weeks to meet the ability of the contractor, saying it would not be simple to find a new contractor to fit the town’s timeline.

While the board ultimately granted this extension, multiple council members and the building commissioner expressed their grievances and hesitancies to grant it due to the long history of neglect and issues to get any action taken on the property by the owners.

Schaufeld assured the board that they intend to carry out the demolition this time, as a majority of the owners are looking to move forward with it now.

Under the approved agreement, which was unanimously passed by the board, the owners must file the demolition application by April 15 and begin demolition by April 22. The building commissioner also requested that all filings be done in person and delivered directly to his office.

If the owners fail to comply with the timeline and do not begin demolition by April 22, then the town’s highway department will do the demolition instead.

“This is so refreshing to hear that action is going to be taken,” Levine said.

The board also confirmed its disapproval of the Hillside Islamic Center’s expansion plan, which the board denied along party lines at a Jan. 30 meeting.

The Hillside Islamic Center in New Hyde Park had proposed a plan to enlarge the existing 5,428 square-foot, two-floor mosque by building a three-story, 6,600 square-foot addition.

The proposal also included expanding the center’s parking lot onto the three surrounding parcels of land, which the mosque purchased, to provide 63 parking spaces. The expansion was intended to relieve congregation and ease traffic impacts on the neighborhood.

The board denied the site plan approval, with Democrat Councilmembers Robert Troiano and Christine Liu voting against the disapproval and Mariann Dalimonte abstaining.

An Article 78 lawsuit challenging the board’s disapproval was filed by the Islamic Center on Feb. 23, alleging that the board “exceeded its power” in denying the application and is unable to “ prohibit a lawful use of property that meets the criteria of Town Code.”

The town stated in its decision rendered Tuesday morning that six criteria are evaluated for the site plan consideration, including negative impacts on the health, safety or general welfare of the public and impacts on traffic.

The town Republicans cited a “concern for safety” in its rejection of the plan because the center’s Friday services create traffic congestion in the neighborhood.

The decision also states that “compelling testimony” from neighbors about the impacts on their quality of life informed their decision.

The lawsuit filed by the Islamic Center alleges that the board’s decision was not supported by expert opinion but rather by community opposition, calling its determination “arbitrary, capricious and irrational.”

Also cited in the decision were inconsistencies and contradictions in the Islamic Center’s testimonies during the hearing process, including the building occupancy, increased traffic and the amount of time congregants spend at the mosque.

The lawsuit claims that the town’s decision harms the Islamic Center’s congregation in its ability to use the place of worship.

While the Islamic Center is entitled to accommodations due to being a religious organization, the board said in its decision that it does not guarantee approval.

“Nonetheless, the law does not mandate that the board approve an application made by a religious institution, as the general presumption that religious institutions are beneficial, and are entitled to accommodation, can be rebutted with evidence of a significant impact on traffic congestion, property values, municipal services and other similar negative impacts,” the board wrote in its decision delivered Tuesday morning.

“For all these reasons, and as shown in the testimony and evidence, the Board finds that the size, scale, scope, and design of the Site Plan is incompatible with the community and neighborhood, and the general welfare of the public,” the board wrote in its decision.

All three Democrat board members voted against the decision Tuesday morning.

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