Friday, January 19, 2018

At Risk: Local Landmarks & Small Businesses in Forest Hills, Rego Park, Kew Gardens

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FACING DEMOLITION: The historic & award-winning Art Moderne/International style Forest Hills Jewish Center, Photo by Michael Perlman
Forest Hills, Rego Park, and Kew Gardens residents and business owners continue to feel disgruntled and perplexed over the rapid increase in planned demolitions and development, which could signify the loss of landmark-worthy sites and some longtime small businesses. In many cases, banal condos and office towers are slated to rise, while infrastructure has not been upgraded, and overcrowded schools, limited parking, and the loss of green space and historic character are becoming widespread concerns. On social media and at meetings, many rumors and facts have been circulating, and now it is time to have a look at a few most pressing scenarios.

As early as next fall, Forest Hills Jewish Center (FHJC), which had its cornerstone laid in 1947 at 106-06 Queens Boulevard, will likely be slated for demolition. Forest Hills resident Christine O’Connor, who has a close friend on the board, said, “They say that FHJC is not closing, but the truth is that it will be demolished and rebuilt within a glass condo box and stores by developer F&T Group. A parishioner of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs said that the church is also low on funds, making that in jeopardy too. Seeing bulldozers at these beautiful historic places of worship is a sin.” 

Forest Hills Jewish Center's Holy Ark & Candelabras by Arthur Szyk, the greatest 20th century Judaic work of art, Photo by Michael Perlman 
FHJC’s fa├žade features stones from Jerusalem and a desecrated temple from the Holocaust, stained glass windows depicting the Burning Bush, and crab-orchard rock reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Western (Wailing) Wall. Among the other significant features are the Holy Ark designed by Arthur Szyk, which resembles an ornate Torah breastplate and is considered to be one of the greatest works of 20th century Judaic art.

Member Mark Weinblatt explained what FHJC Building Committee Chair told him. “Carl Koerner described to us members what the exact plans are, and to my understanding it will be executed in the fall. They will completely demolish FHJC and relocate to trailers on Austin Street near Gerard Towers for at least 2 years. The new building will be two floors, and the rest will be commercial.” His daughter, Gabrielle Weinblatt, also a member, said, “It saddens me to see that there are plans to demolish many of these places that make our neighborhood the wonderful community that it is.”

Queensborough publication documents Forest Hills Jewish Center's Award, Courtesy of the Queens Chamber of Commerce & their architectural committee 
Referencing FHJC’s Honorable Mention for its excellence in design from the Queens Chamber of Commerce, Forest Hills resident Iris Gretano said, “It is historical and award-winning. This is a monument to commemorate all the struggles that the Jewish people went through and how they persevered. Its demolition would be a monumental loss to history and to our people.” 

Mom & pop shops at risk, 107-02 to 107-16 Queens Blvd, Photo by Michael Perlman
A block away, an 8-story glass office building by RJ Capital Holdings is slated to rise opposite MacDonald Park on site of several longtime mom and pop shops at 107-02 through 107-16 Queens Boulevard. A demolition permit was filed in November 2016. On one window, a sign reads, “After 27 years and with much sadness, Liz Cleaners will be officially closed on January 21.” 

In many scenarios, businesses are owned by hard-working immigrants embracing the “American Dream.” Jeff Cha said, “My family acquired this dry cleaners in the early 1990s, and now will not relocate but retire. I have a lease until 2021, but a demolition clause negated that.” He also pinpointed the loss of character beyond his business. “Forest Hills has been the staple of what a family-owned neighborhood should be like, with store owners and customers having relationships, but with the rapid development of buildings, chain stores, and the absence of family-owned businesses where the rent isn't sustainable, it is losing that appeal.”

Yuriy Fay, owner of Yuriy’s Shoe Repair for 21 years said, “I feel bad because I spent half of my life here, but it is not easy to start again somewhere else.” Echoing those sentiments is Joie Tin, manager of Party World, which has been in operation for 16 years, said, “We don’t plan on reopening, but if we were able to sign another lease, we would have.”

Caffe Biu Bella which began a block south on Austin Street in the 1990s as Piu Bello, already shuttered. Owner Adriana Morote said, “We started working at Piu Bello in our early twenties. Later we encountered all kinds of challenges, but battled it as a family. Customers have become our adoptive family. We love Forest Hills and we’re not leaving.” Her sister, owner Karina Morote added, “Customers loved to sit by the open doors in front of MacDonald Park, which felt like being on an island.”

Landscaped areas alongside buildings and street trees on curbs have often been compromised by new developments. Among the concerned residents is Steve Melnick, who requested the curb trees on that block in 2008. He said, “It is imperative, and city law, that they are protected during any construction at that site.”

Key Food to close on April 1st, Photo by Michael Perlman
Nearby, Key Food at 105-02 Queens Boulevard is also being redeveloped, after the owner joined forces with Slate Property Group a filed a demolition permit in June, in exchange for an 11-story rental with retail that is anticipated for 2020. The loss of the supermarket will leave a void. Iris Gretano explained, “There are already many high-rises in the surrounding area. Key Food is a large, convenient market. There are many young parents with children and elderly people that need that store, but it will soon be difficult if they have to walk far. More housing means more overcrowding, and also in schools, which is not conducive to learning.” 

Shalimar Diner in Rego Park, Courtesy of Forgotten NY
In Rego Park, the future of Shalimar Diner at 63-68 Austin Street is in question. Opened in the early 1970s, this family-owned business, which appeared in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is rumored to be redeveloped. A local patron, Joseph Leone said, “Chris Karayiannis never owned the land, but leases the diner. Two employees said that the lease expires in November 2018. The longtime property owner sold the property to a real estate developer for the construction of a 25-story apartment building. If it closes, there won’t be a replacement for it in the community.” He associated its potential fate to a change in demographics and dietary preferences. “Ninety percent of customers were originally American Jews.” 

On the south side of Queens Boulevard between 65th Road and 66th Avenue, five retail buildings containing small businesses including the popular Sato restaurant and Masbia Soup Kitchen were demolished over the past year, and plans include the development of two residential high-rises and one office building.

Shops over Kew Gardens LIRR bridge, Photo by Michael Perlman
Residents are also concerned about the possible demolition of a Tudor-style row of mom and pop shops on Lefferts Boulevard in Kew Gardens, which the MTA has agreed to conduct an engineering feasibility study last fall, due to the community’s advocacy. Eric Schreiber said, “The proposed condos over the ‘LIRR bridge’ is a huge concern for me and literally over 5,000 other petition signers. Demolition would displace all of the small businesses on the bridge that the mostly older residents have come to rely on for food and services, and a condo would greatly increase the need for additional parking in an already overburdened area.”

“Real estate interests run NYC by contributing to our electeds' campaigns, so they will inevitably be on their side when it comes to tearing down places we love and need,” said Forest Hills resident Evan Ginzburg. He asked, “How about somebody fighting for more arts in Forest Hills that creates character, instead of more wildly overpriced offices and apartments?”

Forest Hills resident Carlos Pesantes, who estimates paying a few thousand dollars monthly in taxes, asked “I am not Mr. Monopoly, so why do these rich developers get a tax break?” “We need tax money to go to our communities for better roads, sewage lines, traffic lights with counters, speed bumps, sanitation, plowing, and better community centers, community gardens, parks, and numerous other infrastructure that make all of our lives better.”

He continued, “My grandmother would say, “Lo que no da, quita y lo que no quita, da,” which translates as ‘That which does not give, takes away, and that which does not take away, adds.’ I see it as you add to a community when you move to it and contribute. Greed takes away and love gives.”

A similar version appears in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: