A former parking lot between the Queens Center mall and the Long Island Expressway has been empty for the past 12 years and now the developers who own it want to build three restaurants there.
The College Point-based Mattone Group presented its plan at an informational Newtown Civic Association meeting in Corona Tuesday night. The company would bring in an Olive Garden, a Longhorn Steakhouse and Joe’s Crab Shack, which will cover approximately 25,000 to 30,000 square feet, surrounded by free parking spaces. If the plan moves forward, they predict that the establishments will open in April or May 2014.
Most of the meeting focused on the civic association members’ parking and traffic congestion-related concerns, but Robert Valdes-Clausell, an officer of the Newtown Civic Association and a member of Community Board 4, brought up the property’s history and the developer’s history of shortchanging the surrounding community.
Valdes-Clausell also noted the meeting’s unusual timing, in the summer, when many community members are away.
“This has all the trappings of something that is not kosher,” he said of the new plan.
The city’s Economic Development Corp. sold the property, which was a city parking lot, to Mattone on Dec. 17, 2001 for $2.2 million. The City Council, including the area’s former Councilman John Sabini (D-Elmhurst), approved the deal, overriding the objections of CB 4 and disregarding the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.
Mattone’s contract with EDC contained several restrictions. The developer was supposed to build a movie theater, which Loews would operate, within four and a half years and buy the dilapidated Elmwood Theater, and give the proceeds to Catholic Medical Services, which then operated St. John’s Hospital according to Valdes-Clausell. If those restrictions were not met, the EDC was entitled to buy back the property for $1.
The Mattone Group did not comply with the restrictions, but the EDC did not repossess the property. Loews declared bankruptcy shortly after, and Mattone never found a replacement as the movie-theater business was in decline. Therefore, Mattone never purchased the Elmwood Theater and Loews sold it to the Rock Church instead. St. John’s Hospital filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
On Feb. 6, 2013 Mattone signed a new contract with the EDC, in which the developer paid $3 million to modify the original deed from 2001, allowing it to build the restaurants on the property.
Mattone claims that they did not need to seek community approval because the proposed restaurants are in accordance with area zoning laws and that informing the community before beginning construction was merely a courtesy.
Valdes-Clausell accused Mattone of putting the cart before the horse, by making a new deal with EDC without informing or asking the community about it first.
Moreover, the $3 million in the recent contract went straight to the EDC, not the community.
“We lost a great location we could’ve used for some communal purpose,” Valdes-Clausell said, noting that the property had been eyed for a new police station for the 110th Precinct, which the City Council has the funds for, but no space.
“It would’ve been the perfect location and the city wouldn’t have to seize any homes,” he said.
The current police station, at 94-41 43rd Ave. is on a one-way street and police often have trouble parking there, he added.
Valdes-Clausell also claims that CB 4 frequently inquired about the status of the property after 2005, but never received a straight answer from Mattone, the EDC, or the borough president.
“Why should Mattone be let off the hook for $3 million?” he asked, referring to the fact that the contract was breached, CB4 never approved it in the first place, and the property was not repossessed by the EDC for $1, or put back on the market for competitive bidding.
Nicholas Dovas, a longtime member of the Newtown Civic Association, fears the restaurant project is already a done deal.
“I hate to see this rammed down the community’s throat,” he said. “These people are politically connected.”
Councilman Daniel Dromm’s Chief of Staff Andrew Ronan voiced similar concerns at the meeting.
“We heard about this through whispers and rumors,” Ronan said. “We’re not sure why the EDC went this route. People are out of town and it feels like they’re trying to get this in under the wire.”
As for the Newtown Civic Association members’ parking concerns, Mattone plans to have free parking spots for restaurant-goers, while the spots for the mall cost money. The primary concern was that people will leave their cars in the restaurant lot and go to the mall for several hours. Preventing this situation would require enforcement via a security company.
“Everyone in Queens is familiar with the threatening, ominous ‘park at your own risk situation,’” one of the Mattone brothers said.
The property is also located near the Woodhaven Boulevard subway station, so some were concerned about people parking cars in that lot and then riding the subway.
Civic Association members described the “nightmarish” traffic in the area, on the Long Island Expressway ramps, Queens Boulevard, 59th Avenue and Junction Boulevard, which they fear will be exacerbated by development on the property, especially during the holiday season.
Meanwhile, CB 4’s district manager Christian Cassagnol said his main priority is job creation, which he said the area needs. Mattone claims that building the restaurants will create 350 to 400 new jobs.
Cassagnol told Mattone that he would like the new restaurants to be part of an internship program at the Queens Center mall, in which students from the community will shadow store managers for a day.