In a tightly packed Village Hall, community members showed their dismay at the Feb. 19 Village of Great Neck board meeting for a proposed amendment to the zoning code that encourages development in the business corridors of East Shore and Middle Neck roads.
The proposed amendment would give the village the ability to grant developers limited relief from current zoning restrictions, upon subsequent approval. The public hearing, which occurred this past Tuesday, was rife with out-of-order shouts and boos from village residents, directed toward both the mayor and various speakers. Passionate citizens held up signs saying, “Stop Rezoning” and “School Too Crowded.”
The proposed changes to the zoning code would incentivize the construction of buildings with ground floor commercial uses, privately owned assisted living facilities and affordable housing. The legislation also gives the village board the ability to relieve current zoning restrictions and grant construction of as many as four stories for ground floor commercial buildings, and as many as five stories for assisted living facilities.
Relief from some of the existing restrictions within the two business corridors would be granted on a case-by-case basis, after analysis of whether the proposed projects would bring a “community benefit,” according to VHB, the consulting firm commissioned by the village to conduct a study of the corridors and propose zoning amendments.
The hearing was so well attended that Village Hall was unable to fit everyone in the room, forcing people to stand and watch from the doorways.
The meeting did not conclude until all residents had a chance to share their opinions and comments, causing the 7:30 p.m. meeting to adjourn at 12:35 a.m. the following morning. Village Mayor Pedram Bral said that he would continue to hear residents’ thoughts and concerns about the issue during the following Board of Trustees meeting.
The majority of attendees present stood in opposition to the proposed changes. Vocal opponents cited the overcrowding of schools, a faulty traffic study and the decision to lump together changes for both Middle Neck Road and East Shore Road in one piece of legislation as reasons the zoning amendment should not be passed.
Barbra Berkowitz, president of the Great Neck Public Schools Board of Education, thought the impending changes to the zoning code could potentially put a strain on the school system and felt the VHB plans were “naive” and “vastly incomplete.”
“The notion of ‘absorbing’ a projected, vastly understated, 82 additional children as being of no concern to VHB is both offensive and obtuse,” Berkowitz said. “We heard repeatedly that one of the motivations for all the luxury dwellings was to provide new housing options for the younger generations so they will remain in this community. Do you really think that they will buy these two- and three-bedroom upscale condos and then remain barren?”
Joe Shen, a Great Neck resident and member of the Northshore Asian Civic Association, also opposed the changes. Shen presented to the village board his association’s petition against the zoning change.
The online petition, STOP the Village of Great Neck Zoning Code Change, has garnered more than 1,200 signatures in just three days. In its description, the petition outlines how the proposed zoning change would “significantly and negatively impact the quality of life in the Great Neck community, including, but not limited to, traffic congestion, school overcrowding, increased economic strain on residents and decreased quality of life.”
Residents, like Shen and Eric Beerman, also claimed that basing major plans on the findings of a single consultancy group, instead of using two or three firms, is foolish.
Shen, along with others, expressed flaws with VHB’s traffic study due to the use of data he claims is outdated and insufficient.
“For East Shore Road, [VHB] used the 2013 traffic volume data [and] applied a growth factor for East Shore Road traffic,” Shen said. “As we all know, the East Shore Road traffic situation in the last few years actually got a lot worse so I’m not sure this kind of assumption, or factor-applied study, is actually valid.”
Shen also found issues with the traffic study of Middle Neck Road.
“For Middle Neck Road, the traffic volume in the study was only measured using one date of observation data,” Shen said. “Why were you only using one day? That just does not make any sense if you’re a professional firm actually doing this.”
Kris Torkan, Village of Great Neck developer and builder of the recent Marie Blachère bakery, supported the sentiments of the zone change, but thought that the scope of the project is too big to do all at once.
“This proposal is too aggressive for taking Middle Neck Road and East Shore Road at the same time into consideration,” Torkan said. “I really request that you break this into two.”
Joshua Charry, chief of Vigilant Fire Company, expressed Vigilant’s concerns about the increase in ambulance calls with the additional residencies, especially with the possibility of a new assisted living facility.
“My concern is it will take more time for my members and ambulances to respond to calls, and with increased response times comes the potential for bad outcomes,” Charry said.
The chief cited how Vigilant currently has to respond to a single Great Neck assisted living facility on an average of five times a week, after initially having to respond five times a day when the facility first opened.
“If you add in 100 assisted living units here in the village, we’re going to have the same kind of numbers,” Charry said. “Every time we increase the population, we increase the need for emergency services.”
Despite pushback during much of the hearing, some attendees and speakers supported Mayor Bral and the proposed zoning changes.
“Thank you for trying to address our housing issues, vacant retail corridor, aging population and revitalization of our neighborhood,” said Nazy Aghalarian, a 30-year resident of Great Neck.
“In my community we have a growing crisis of lack of marriages, one of the main reasons being affordable living,” Aghalarian said. “Along with the revitalization of the corridor, the master plan will bring relief to these couples.”
Bral also tried to stress how this plan is an improvement from the existing building code, because it allows more commercial development that does not currently exist.
“The current zoning, if it goes untouched, allows for the same number of residential [buildings] as we have currently,” Bral said. “The additional residentials that we are proposing is assisted living. They do not use the school. They are not going to put any kind of a burden on the school system, but they will put in a significant amount of tax base that pays for the school. If we don’t do anything, we are going to just end up with more residential and more commercial.”
Bral also expressed how he looked to change the current zoning laws in order to shift the incentive to be toward commercial development, which he said would bring in significant tax revenue to the village.
The public hearing on the issue will be extended into the next meeting of the village Board of Trustees, which will take place at Village Hall on Tuesday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m.
Learn what happened after the trustees adjourned to executive session here.