Convinced that something is amiss in an Elmhurst real estate deal, community board members and civic association leaders are investigating the history of a 2.3-acre property located between the Queens Center mall and the Long Island Expressway, where the Mattone Group plans to build three restaurants: Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and Joe’s Crab Shack. The Newtown Civic Association filed a Freedom of Information Request with the city’s Economic Development Corporation for all documents related to the site, last Wednesday. If the EDC’s records confirm their suspicions, the civic association will bring its findings to the city’s Department of Investigation.
Newtown Civic Association President Tom McKenzie, a longtime member of the Community Board 4 Planning Committee, remembers when the city sold the land, which was then a municipal parking lot, to the Mattone Group for $2.2 million in 2001.
Mattone signed a contract with the EDC, promising to build a movie theater on the lot within four and half years and to buy the dilapidated Elmwood Theater across the street and donate the proceeds to the Catholic Medical Center of Brooklyn and Queens, which operated nearby St. John’s Hospital. If those conditions were not met, the city would be able to buy back the property for $1.
Mattone had originally planned to have Loews operate the theater, but Loews declared bankruptcy and Mattone struggled to find a replacement. The lot has been used for commercial truck parking until recently, when Mattone erected a fence around the property. Mattone never purchased the Elmwood Theater and therefore no proceeds were donated to the Catholic Medical Center. The theater was sold to the Rock Church and St. John’s Hospital went bankrupt in 2009.
In 2010, the EDC issued an eviction notice and Mattone sued the city. The judge ruled in favor of the EDC, but Mattone appealed and reached a settlement with the agency for $3 million and signed a new contract with it on Feb. 6, 2013, modifying the zoning requirements so that Mattone could build the restaurants. The money went straight to the agency and the promises made to the community evaporated.
“Something is rotten here,” McKenzie said, regarding the community’s exclusion from the negotiations and the EDC and Mattone’s failure to notify residents before the deal was complete. “It’s a rotten, rotten thing.”
“Litigation is a very lengthy process,” a city official speaking on behalf of the EDC said. “It has a very uncertain outcome. We were able to reach an agreement that allowed the owner of the land to pay a settlement, proceed with a modified as of right project that is in accordance with existing zoning and complete an economic development project that will create 225 permanent jobs, about 150 more than the original project, and to be completed quickly, rather than going through an additional process and leaving the property vacant.”
However, community members feel that they should not have to choose between Mattone’s restaurants and a vacant lot and would rather use the space for a communal purpose.
“I believe the city should buy the property back for $1 and build a new police station,” MacKenzie said.
The 110th Precinct’s current station was built in the 1940s and is technologically obsolete, he said. Moreover, it is located on 43rd Avenue, a one-way street that is often clogged with double-parked cars.
“We are united as a community to ensure that we are not shortchanged,” said Robert Valdes-Clausell, a member of the Newtown Civic Association and CB4’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure Committee.
Valdes-Clausell said that he does not know why the EDC settled for $3 million in the appeal, when it had already won thecase, and he believes the appeal would likely have been thrown out because the agency was successful in the lower court and could have reclaimed the property.
The ULURP report from Jan. 19, 2000 states that CB 4 disapproved Mattone’s application by a vote of 22-7, but since the vote was not received by the Department of City Planning in time, its objections were overridden by City Planning, the City Council, including former Councilman John Sabini (D-Elmhurst), and Mayor Giuliani and Borough President Claire Shulman.
Shulman approved Mattone’s application, subject to the conditions that Mattone would pay for traffic mitigation, develop the site within two years, provide adequate security for the public parking garage, and develop the Elmwood Theater site as affordable senior housing.
The city official who spoke on behalf of the EDC said that much of the traffic mitigation included in the old ULURP is unnecessary now because the restaurant project is much smaller than the movie theater project, which would have contained a parking garage with 650 spaces.
However, community members expressed concerns about traffic congestion on the adjacent streets and having free parking for the restaurants.
Christian Cassgnol, the District Manager of CB 4, said the Zoning Committee Meeting on Tuesday night will address many of the questions that have come up since Mattone presented the plan to the community on Aug. 7. He said that Mattone, City Planning and the EDC have all been invited to the meeting.
Mattone has yet to RSVP to CB 4 and declined to comment for this article.