A town hall meeting on the revitalization of Middle Neck Road, originally intended to host new community recommendations and “positive suggestions,” morphed into an all-too-familiar argument between steadfast anti-rezoning citizens and a mayor who believed he was “being insulted more than [he] ever in [his] life insulted anyone.”
The April 8 meeting at Great Neck House, which included an appearance from County Executive Laura Curran, posed the question “What does a successful revitalization plan look like?” to community members.
“I’m still waiting to hear more positive comments on how we can revitalize,” Mayor Pedram Bral said during the meeting. “This is turning into again one of our meetings in the village which is ‘Kill the Mayor.’”
Though the mayor did announce, to many of the anti-rezoning citizens’ delight, that the new plan will not consider five-story buildings on Middle Neck and East Shore roads, and won’t include assisted living at the corner of Hicks and Middle Neck roads, the meeting was hardly cordial.
The topic of village revitalization has been discussed in village hall for more than a year now, and the mayor’s now-abandoned plan for revitalization faced much community pushback, including an online petition at www.change.org with more than 1,400 signatures.
It all comes at a time when storefronts, like the former home of Middle Neck Pharmacy, continue to sit empty on both Middle Neck and East Shore roads.
With the previous plan being pronounced “dead” in the wake of community petitions and village meetings, where citizens held up signs saying “Stop Rezoning” and “Abandon the Plan,” the mayor and trustees looked to last week’s village hall meeting to provide insight for a brand-new proposal.
“It is very clear that the previous legislation was not welcomed by the community,” Bral said. “The reason we have the meeting today is because we know it was bad legislation, and we want to hear from the community what you think is going to be good legislation.”
The previous legislation, drafted in accordance with a business corridor study by VHB, a consulting firm commissioned by the village, was contested by community members for relying on old traffic data and having a flawed Draft Environmental Impact Statement, among other complaints.
During the town hall meeting, some residents, like Alissa Desmarais, suggested that the revitalization take place within existing zoning, instead of an amendment to the zoning code.
“We have had several new businesses open along Middle Neck Road,” Desmarais said. “We have the new bakery. There are things happening here that we’re starting to see. Why can’t we continue to encourage what is happening? And if we want to see something different, there are mechanisms in place like variances and special-use permits that have additional oversight.”
Sam Yellis, a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee and a Social Studies teacher at the Village School, lamented how the committee, though designed to provide new ideas for revitalization and serve as a link between the board of trustees and the community, was not taken seriously by the board.
“While serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee we came up with many ideas, but all of these ideas were sort of poo-pooed or written down as good ideas but not the kind of ideas that generate tens of millions of dollars of profits,” Yellis said. “If I suggest a farmers market, ‘oh farmers market is great!’ but that didn’t make it into the VHB study. That kind of stuff doesn’t make tens of millions and didn’t make it into the cut.”
Yellis argued that the Citizens Advisory Committee, or CAC, was mishandled by the mayor.
“The whole way the cover of the CAC was put in place to provide legitimacy to the plan—the plan really was nefarious,” Yellis said. “Mayor, I have to say, I’m sorry, but there’s a thing called the public trust, and I don’t think you’ve lost the public trust—sir, I think you violated it.”
The mayor, in practice with the night and the general discourse of the previous meetings, responded to Yellis minutes later.
“To say that I violated people’s trust doesn’t hit the right nerve, but I have learned to take the insult,” the mayor said. “I’m being insulted more than I ever in my life insulted anyone, but that’s quite alright; I think this comes with the job.”
Though the exchange may seem peripheral, it embodies the types of meetings that have been going on since the original legislation came into fruition.
In the midst of petty back-and-forths between the mayor and angry citizens, and a rejected plan of community rezoning, the issue of Village of Great Neck revitalization boils down to two sides, who, though wishing the best for their community, desire approaches that are directly opposite.
The issue of Great Neck revitalization is constantly one of the butting of heads between one group of vocally frustrated community members who are against rezoning, the potential increases of traffic, increasing school class sizes and negative environmental impacts, and a mayor and an administration whose goal is to fix the problem of struggling business corridors through rezoning and new development.
Though the two sides both seek to create a village—and a Great Neck—that thrives and prospers, the two opposite approaches to community improvement leave the town in a sort of stagnation.