Theater plan adjourned indefinitely

Theater plan adjourned indefinitely

Village of Great Neck Estates trustees on Monday unanimously voted to adjourn a public hearing on the proposed demolition of the First Playhouse Theater for an indefinite period of time, saying that the proposal would not be heard again until the developer answered board members’ questions about the demolition.

“This has been a very painful process,” Great Neck Estates Mayor David Fox said of the application by the First Playhouse of Great Neck Corp. to demolish the historic theater and replace it with luxury apartments. “I believe that we were very clear that we wanted to bring this to a finality at this meeting.” 

Fox and other trustees said that questions over how long Maple Drive would be closed during the demolition of the theater were raised months ago and have not been addressed by the developer.

“These are not new enquiries,” trustee Sidney Krugman said. 

The theater sits on the corner of Middle Neck Road and Maple Drive, which straddles the Villages of Great Neck Estates and Great Neck Plaza.

Fox also said that the developer has not answered questions brought up by engineering firms VHB and RMS Engineering, which are serving as consultants to the village, and the village’s building department regarding the closure of Maple Drive. 

William Bonesso, an attorney for First Playhouse of Great Neck Corp., said the company planned to address comments made by the building department at Monday’s meeting, but had not received letters from VHB and RMS Engineering with their comments.

Fox said until those questions are answered in writing, the board will not hear the application at a public meeting.

“We can’t keep coming back to have meetings,” he said. 

The proposal to demolish the theater, which dates back to 1925, has been delayed several times by the board. 

Fox has repeatedly expressed anger over delays of the project caused by reasons ranging from trustees requesting further information to the death of the project’s original architect. 

In June, Fox gave the developer two months to complete the demolition application or have it withdrawn. In August, the deadline was extended to Monday’s meeting. 

The adjournment of the public hearing comes four days after the Great Neck Plaza Preservation Committee sent a letter to Fox, asking him to preserve the original brick facade of the historic building. 

“We are dismayed by the plans to demolish this significant structure, which is emblematic of our shared cultural heritage,” committee Chairman Michael Nikrooz said in a Sept. 4 letter. 

“This handsome building adds character to the area and its loss will be devastating to Great Neck’s historic downtown. We appeal to Village of Great Neck Estates to save this celebrated theater,” Nikrooz added. 

The theater attracted many leading acts throughout the years, including the Marx Brothers, Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein.

A plan to replace the theater with luxury apartments was first approved in 2007. That proposal would have kept the original facade of the theater and renovated the inside. Those plans fell through when engineers said it would be much more cost-effective to completely rebuild the property.

The project has been criticized by many of the local residents, including Great Neck Estates historian Ilse Kagan, who in an open letter sent to the board last April said the theater “is considered by outsiders and insiders as a very important building in the village, and the history of course is phenomenal.” 

“Now to say that they’re going to take it down and rebuild it is absurd,” Kagan added. “I don’t think that’s a solution.

The Great Neck Historical Society, has also said they would like to see the existing building’s facade remain in place, saying a “substitute copy of the building is not the same.”

In other developments:

Several residents questioned the need for a proposed multi-unit apartment building on Middle Neck Road and Clover Drive that would primarily serve as apartments for senior citizens, saying the proposed building was not wanted or needed in the village.  

“None of us would ever think that Great Neck Estates would build an apartment like that for us,” Kagan said at the meeting. 

Kagan and other residents spoke in opposition to a proposal by GN Properties LLC that calls for a three-story building with 41 multi-family units at 212-230 Middle Neck Road. A series of empty storefronts currently stands at the site. 

Fox said he’s heard from several residents who said they wish apartments for seniors were available within the village.

“People want to stay in Great Neck Estates,” he said. 

But Kagan said her and other senior citizens have not heard of such a need for the apartments. 

“This idea is strange to me and my friends,” she said. 

Great Neck Estates resident Jason Applebaum said he believed an environmental impact study that stated the proposed project would not adversely impact traffic along Middle Neck Road “is flawed.”

“There’s going to be an additional 60 out of 80 spots driving on Middle Neck Road during rush hour,” he said. 

Great Neck Estates resident Zelda Berger asked if trustees could ensure that the building would not be sold as rentals, saying that the village did not need short-term tenants constantly moving in and out of the area.

“A rental is a very big deficit to the community,” she said. 

Great Neck Estates attorney A. Thomas Levin said the board did not have the authority to regulate “how a property is owned” and could not force the developer to not market the units as rentals.

Attorney Paul Bloom, representing the developer, said in June that the building would have a 24-hour doorman/concierge service watching the building and would have an underground parking garage with 41 parking spots and 41 parking spots above ground.

Responding to a question from Fox, Bloom also said the developer would seek tax breaks from the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency if the project was approved, but would work on a payment in lieu of taxes – known as a PILOT- with the village.

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