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Queens Chronicle

Neighbors lose taste for eatery’s rezoning

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Posted: Thursday, March 3, 2011 12:00 am

Opposition to expansion plans for the White House restaurant in Whitestone is growing, with area residents saying they were deliberately misled that the application was going to be withdrawn. But who did the misleading?

Following approval earlier this month by Community Board 7 on the plan to upzone the area surrounding the restaurant at 10-24 154 St., the proposal went on to the Borough President’s Office. The hearing was last Thursday, but the evening before members of the Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Civic Association were erroneously notified that the developer was pulling the application.

Marlene Cody, a vice president of the civic group, said she was told by a staff member of Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) that he was notified by the developer’s attorney, Steve Sinacori, that the plan was off the table. “We had a lot less people go to the borough president’s hearing because of it,” Cody said. “I feel he [Sinacori] lied.”

The attorney denied the charge.

Halloran’s spokesman, Steven Stites, said Monday that the councilman expected the plan to be pulled and was just as surprised as residents to find out it wasn’t.

But on Tuesday Stites said that there was more to the issue and asked that Halloran elaborate. In a telephone interview, the councilman called it a miscommunication with the civic association. “They misunderstood my message,” he said.

Halloran said he told members at a meeting last week that he wanted the item pulled from the borough calendar this month, but found out later it was too late. “I told them that they don’t need to go in droves to the borough president’s hearing because even if she approves it, I won’t as the sitting councilman for the area,” he said. “I promised them that I would remove the two houses on the block for the upzoning. I gave them my word that the council member carries the day.”

The new restaurant owner is Joe Franco, who formerly operated Caffe on the Green, but lost the city concession due to questionable business practices. The Whitestone restaurant closed in December.

Franco wants to add a half-story to the building for catering and bought additional property in the rear to create underground and ground-level parking for 120 cars. He is asking to change the zoning to R3-1 with a commercial overlay from its current R2A.

Although CB 7 approved the measure 29-6, there was some opposition, including state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who previously served as a city councilman and was instrumental in downzoning the area. He said in a prepared statement that the application would upzone an area he and the community sought to protect.

Paul Graziano, an urban planner who worked with Avella on zoning changes in Queens, also spoke against the proposal, asking why a variance wasn’t sought for the parcel rather than seeking the zoning change.

Halloran said Tuesday that he has a lot more control if it’s a rezoning rather than a variance, which goes to the Board of Standards and Appeals.

There was some dispute over the proposal among members of the civic at the CB 7 hearing. Cody said there was a lack of information given on the zoning issue and wanted it tabled, while Pat Carpentiere, another vice president, said he was guilty of not providing the data even though he attended all the CB 7 meetings on the topic.

On Monday, Cody said her group had worked hard to get the downzoning and believes if this plan is approved it will open the door for further commercialization.

“We favor the restaurant, but the catering hall will be a problem,” she said. “It will be impossible for them to put in underground parking because of the high water table.”

Halloran testified at the CB 7 hearing in favor of the proposal, saying there are four empty stores on 154th Street and he favors development of the restaurant. “We need that business there and I’m willing to be a mediator for the neighborhood,” he added.

The person most directly affected by the rezoning is Brian Garry, who bought the house next door to the restaurant more than three months ago. “I’m not opposed to the restaurant, but it should adhere to the current guidelines,” Garry said. “The character of the neighborhood should remain.”

The father of four young children, he said his wife attended CB 7 meetings “and upzoning was downplayed.” Garry is also concerned about the proposed 14,000-square-foot catering hall. “That doesn’t make sense,” Garry said. “I’m shocked they want to go forward with this.”

He believes there were no attempts by the community board to deceive him or civic members, blaming it on miscommunication. “The plans are too grandiose,” Garry said. “They should have gone for the variance and the parking plan is ridiculous.”

He also denied that he was on board with the proposal as was announced at the CB 7 hearing and blames the civic’s confusion on Carpentiere. “Everyone didn’t have the full story,” he said. “The civic certainly didn’t know.”

Halloran disputes that, saying civic members were fully informed.

CB 7 District Manager Marilyn Bitterman indicated that Sinacori got a letter of approval from Garry and noted that the zoning change would put 60 percent of the block in conformance.

Reached by telephone on Monday, Sinacori vehemently denied saying the project’s application was being pulled. The attorney added that he is drained by the reaction to the proposal, calling it, “a minor expansion and reconfiguration” of the restaurant that has been there since 1956.

He wouldn’t discuss specifics of the plan, but said he lives nearby and wouldn’t want anything that was bad for the neighborhood. “And I’ve never lied to anyone,” Sinacori added.

Halloran pins the blame on Avella, “for stirring the pot” and getting residents riled up at the last minute. Reached in Albany, the senator laughed saying: “Yes, I did stir the pot; that’s my job. The plan is inappropriate for the neighborhood and Franco is a bad actor.”

He does not want future expansion of a commercial zone in the area and said that the neighbors were not told about upzoning. “They would have pushed it through if I hadn’t gotten involved,” Avella said.

The borough president has up to a month to make a decision. The plan will then go on to City Planning. If eventually approved by the city, ground will be broken early next year and the expansion is expected to be completed by fall 2012.

Welcome to the discussion.