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Queens Chronicle

Civic probing deal on former city lot

Newtown group furious over loss of public benefits in Elmhurst project

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Posted: Thursday, September 26, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:56 am, Thu Oct 3, 2013.

Determined not get shortchanged when the Mattone Group builds an Olive Garden, Joe’s Crab Shack and Texas Longhorn Steakhouse in the heart of Elmhurst, the Newtown Civic Association has proceeded to investigate the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s contracts with the developer for the site between the Queens Center Mall and the Long Island Expressway.

“We are basically being cheated as a community and not compensated for the loss of our land,” NCA Treasurer Robert Valdes-Clausell, who has been leading the civic charge, said at the group’s meeting Monday night in Elmhurst.

Valdes-Clausell had filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the EDC and obtained some documents related to a settlement made on Feb. 6 that enables the Mattones to build the restaurants. He presented his initial findings at Monday’s meeting.

The 99,200-square-foot parcel, formerly a city parking lot, was sold to Mattone for $2.2 million in 2001, despite the community’s objections. The firm was to build a movie theater on the site in four and a half years, buy the crumbling Elmwood Theater on the other side of Queens Boulevard and donate the proceeds to the Catholic Medical Center of Brooklyn and Queens to build a senior center. The contract stipulated that if those conditions were not met, the city could buy the property back for $1. But none of that came to pass, and Mattone has been operating the lot for commercial truck parking in the meantime.

When the EDC issued an eviction notice to the firm on July 30, 2010 for failing to develop the property and violating the terms of the agreement, Mattone launched a lawsuit. While a judge ruled in the EDC’s favor, Mattone appealed, and the parties reached a settlement for $3 million, as compensation for revenue the EDC would have received if Mattone had complied with the original deed.

The NCA denounced the settlement for completely neglecting the promises made to the community in 2001. The Catholic Medical Center’s St. John’s hospital closed and the Elmwood Theater was sold to the Rock Church. The settlement modified the deed to allow Mattone to build the three restaurants on about 26,000 square feet, stating that “NYCEDC has determined that it would fulfill a public purpose, further NYCEDC’s organizational goals and would be in the best interest of the City of New York ...”

The minutes of the meeting of the NYCEDC board of directors from Feb. 6 indicates that the directors who approved the project did not know that the original deed included promises to the community. The meeting was held at the EDC’s office in Lower Manhattan was called to order at 8:41 a.m. and adjourned at 9 a.m. Of the board’s 27 directors, 18 were present at the meeting, although 10 were teleconferencing. In 19 minutes, the board approved the minutes of previous meetings, elected new officers; approved the sale of a lot to Flushing Commons LLC, the deed modification for the Mattone settlement and the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal Lease Amendment; adopted a resolution on its mission statement, approved the previous items and adjourned.

Borough President Helen Marshall’s appointee to the board of directors, Melva Miller, stated that “the Queens Borough President’s office thanked NYCEDC for the hard work it had undertaken to bring this project to this stage.”

However, members of the NCA and Community Board 4 were not informed about the restaurant plan until August.

“In the long run we’re getting screwed, everyone in Corona and Elmhurst,” Tom McKenzie, the president of the NCA, said Monday. “We had our say and the we were royally screwed by the politicians.”

Another civic association, the Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, recently voted unanimously to support the NCA in getting compensation for the lost land.

“We clearly need a new police station,” Valdes-Clausell said. “It’s the top priority of Community Board 4. This would’ve been an ideal opportunity because the city would not have to take from individuals through eminent domain.”

The 110th Precinct’s station was built in the 1940s and, Valdes-Clausell said, still uses a 1940s switchboard. Aside from being technologically obsolete, it is located on 43rd avenue, a one-way street, where cars are often double parked, so response times throughout the Precinct, which covers Elmhurst, Corona, and all of Flushing Meadows Corona Park are slow.

As for the restaurants, all of which are national chains owned by an Orlando-based company, some members of the NCA do not think they will succeed.

“We’re living in New York City, not Peoria, Illinois,” Valdes-Clausell said. “We are living with culinary excellence.”

Some however, such as Joe Bellaciccio, say the restaurants are a great idea and that they will “really enhance the neighborhood.”

Valdes-Clausell said his recent attempts to bring the matter to the borough president’s attention were rebuffed by an official in her office.

Dan Andrews, the spokesman for the Borough President’s Office, said, “There is no role for us in terms of having a public hearing. This is something the developer is allowed to build. The EDC said they can go ahead and do this.”

According to Carl Mattone, all necessary permits have been issued and construction has begun.

“Everything was done above board,” Mattone said. “The project is going forward, it’s as of right, and I have my permits.”

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