Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Bulldoze Or Preserve?

Issues Of Eminent Importance For Long Island's Aging Hamlets

From The New York Times:

In Baldwin, It's Revival for Some, Survival for Others

By Richard Korman


LOOK behind the timeworn empty storefronts to see the signs of family life on the west side of Grand Avenue near the corner of Merrick Road.

Down an alley between the shops is an open door, and just inside are mailboxes for the Baez and Gonzales families. Across the alley, behind an empty shop with a shredded awning, is a patch of lawn with a red infant swing hanging from a tree branch.

To Nerys Mendes, a 33-year-old mother from the Dominican Republic who has been living in a modest $975-a-month one-bedroom apartment off the alley for eight years, it is not "the best place in the world," but the local schools are good, one of her children works nearby, and she wants to stay.

To the Town of Hempstead and many homeowners in Baldwin, though, the northwest corner of Merrick and Grand is an eyesore and a breeding ground for crime. The town wants the corner to be redeveloped with upscale shops and a new home for the old Nunley's Carousel.

That means using the town's eminent-domain power to condemn the properties, displacing several thriving businesses and the tenants of 47 apartments, and then turning the seized land over to private developers — a practice that has caused controversy in other communities. And to some critics, it raises the question of whether the purpose is to clear Baldwin of unwelcome old buildings, or unwelcome new people.

Either issue has the potential to tie up the project, which is still in the planning stage, in protracted, politically sensitive court battles.

"Hempstead wouldn't want to get into a situation with enormous controversy, because there may be endless litigation," said Thomas W. Merrill, a law professor at Columbia University who follows land-use issues. When property owners in a depressed section of New London, Conn., fought the town's attempt to condemn their neighborhood and turn it over to private developers, the dispute, known as the Kelo case, went all the way to the United States Supreme Court on the issue of whether such a project served a legitimate public purpose.

Though the court ruled in the town's favor, the project drew so much popular criticism that the governor of Connecticut decided not to order evictions. Since then, several states have begun adopting new restrictions on their use of eminent domain.

Condemnation and eminent domain, intended originally for obtaining land for public uses like roads and parks, have been part of the urban renewal toolkit for many years. Older suburbs like Nassau County have begun using it to try to eradicate social problems by, for example, seizing hotels and apartment buildings used for drug dealing or prostitution. In those cases the seizing government has no need for the property, but simply wants to change its ownership and use.

Housing experts and property-rights advocates say New York State's eminent domain law is broad, and regularly used by towns to seize property and resell it to developers. The Hempstead town supervisor, Kate Murray, said that the Baldwin plan relied on "a very traditional basis for condemnation that existed prior to the Kelo case," that is, combating blight.

Baldwin's downtown area, where traffic roars along Merrick Road, has posed a particularly challenging problem for the town and Nassau County. As in many other villages, competition from malls and big-box retailers has drawn away shoppers and shop owners. But unincorporated Baldwin has also suffered from its location between two incorporated villages, Rockville Centre to the west and Freeport to the east.

Rockville Centre is considerably more affluent than Baldwin, and major retail chains looking for a location in the area have tended to choose Rockville Centre first. Freeport, meanwhile, though mainly lower on the income scale and more ethnically diverse than Baldwin, has seen a recent revival of its upscale district near the bayfront.

"Rockville Centre has 60 nice restaurants, and Freeport has its Nautical Mile," said Joseph Scannell, the Democratic county legislator from Baldwin.

The departure of a big bridal shop from the corner of Grand and Merrick about two years ago accelerated a business exodus in the area, Ms. Murray said. "Since then, there is a precipitous decline, and it feeds off itself and becomes less and less attractive," she said. "It's a domino effect."

The town and county tried to halt the fall of the dominoes by spending money to spruce up building facades and sidewalks, but to little avail. None of the owners of buildings on the west side of Grand Avenue showed up for meetings with town officials to hear about incentives to make improvements, Mr. Scannell said.

So the town hired a planning and consulting firm, Saccardi & Schiff, to conduct a "blight study" of the corner last year, and adopted its report on March 7, opening the way for the condemnation plan.

The carousel, the centerpiece of what town and county officials envision for the corner, was operated for decades at a site on Sunrise Highway, and is now in storage. Nunley's Carousel lives in many an idyllic memory of childhood in Baldwin.

The carousel was briefly the subject of a political tug of war last year when the singer Billy Joel suggested setting it up in Oyster Bay. Mr. Scannell threatened to defect to the Republicans and tip the balance in the Legislature when the Nassau County executive, Thomas R. Suozzi, a fellow Democrat, showed interest in the idea; it has since been shelved.

Now, Mr. Scannell said, the carousel can be used as a magnet for a revived downtown Baldwin. "We want to have our nice carousel corner," he said, adding that the project "will really help our identity."

Town officials are conducting appraisals and doing the legal groundwork to condemn an area reaching from the corner of Merrick and Grand almost all the way to Gale Avenue to the west and Prospect Street to the north. The town will then seek proposals from developers to use the land, along with the existing town parking field behind the stores, to install the carousel and build new retail stores. The process will take at least 18 months before construction can begin.

Some Baldwin homeowners say they can't wait.

"I'm thrilled that they would take this all down and create a place for Nunley's," Bill Pepino, 47, a lifelong Baldwinite, said about the corner. "I'll take my kids here, and they'll take their kids here."

Unmentioned by elected officials, though, is the social and ethnic dimensions to the project. The plan would sweep away the Hispanic immigrants and others who rent the apartments in the block and who patronize the businesses there, including two delicatessens, a hair salon ("Hola Latinas," says a sign in the window), a psychic palm reader and a bright blue nightclub called the Mambo Café. Another shop, Bonao Centro Corporation, offers "envios, llamadas y mas" (messages, calls and more).

Homeowners and business people in the rest of Baldwin are generally careful to say that they respect hard-working immigrants, whether legal or illegal, and bear them no malice. But it is not hard to detect a grating irritation with the immigrants' presence as well, and a belief that increased crime and economic decline follow on their heels.

What happens on the sidewalk and parking lot outside the shops on Grand Avenue strikes some Baldwinites as an unwelcome intrusion of city atmosphere into their suburban town. In summer, they say, some tenants of the block seek refuge from steamy apartments by sitting on beach chairs on the sidewalks outside. On a warm spring afternoon recently, nine young men were sipping beer behind one of the delis.

A week earlier, on a much cooler day, a gaunt man in a wool cap towed a couple of toddlers up the Grand Avenue sidewalk, one of them a girl in a pink jacket holding a floppy-armed doll. As they made their way, a cigarette butt came arcing from an apartment window overhead, almost hitting the girl. The man, full of outrage, shouted a vulgarity-laced threat of a broken jaw up at the window and whoever was inside.

Occasionally, more serious trouble breaks out. On Feb. 25, the Nassau police arrested a man for assault at a Grand Avenue nightclub called Papa Doc's, within the area slated for redevelopment, after a fight involving baseball bats broke out at the club at 4 a.m. The police said the man admitted to being a member of MS-13, a well-known violent gang with origins in Central America.

"I didn't realize I had bought a business in Roosevelt or South Hempstead," Joe Curet, the owner of a deli at 753 Merrick Road, just outside the redevelopment area, said sarcastically, as he described the host of police cars he saw outside Papa Doc's after the fight.

Ms. Mendes said that in the last few months, she had twice heard shots fired at night. She said the presence of the night clubs was to blame for the crime problems.

Mr. Curet, who bought the deli last year, said the disappearance of other businesses from the block had cut into his cash flow by taking away workers who would stop in for lunch or coffee. The frowsy, unkempt facades in the redevelopment area stand in contrast to the smartened-up buildings and sidewalks just across the street on Grand Avenue, where the town shared the cost of facade repairs with the owners of a bowling alley and other buildings, and on Merrick Road, where the town trimmed new sidewalks with red brick and installed Victorian-style street lamps.

The true condition of the threatened buildings is also a mixed picture. The town's blight study found that only 2 of the 38 properties were in poor condition; 27 were rated fair and 9 good. Two of the biggest remaining businesses in the block have well-maintained buildings: Baldwin Kitchen and Bath Designs and the Fullerton Funeral Home, whose driveway is freshly paved.

Howard Gainsburg, who has operated the kitchen and bath business at its present location since 1975, said he favors the redevelopment project and understands why it is needed. But he is worried about finding another site to match his current building, with several thousand square feet of space for an an assembly shop right next to a retail showroom.

"I wanted it cleaned up," he said of the immediate area. "I just didn't feel my building was one of the reasons it had to be cleaned up." When he is relocated, he said, "I would like to be made whole."

The funeral home's owners did not respond to requests for comment.

However attractive new store buildings and the carousel may be, concerns about crime are the main reason local home- and shopowners offer for favoring the project.

James Cunneen, 73, a former Marine, said that he, "a tall guy who has walked the streets of Manhattan since I was 18," nonetheless steers clear of the parking area behind the shops on his way to the Baldwin Public Library, even though that makes his walk a bit longer.

Deputy Inspector Rick Capece, who commands the Nassau police's First Precinct, said problems in the area have been related to assaults and drug activity. Though the violence has been minimal, he said, "it's not like you are taking a piece of real estate where nothing has happened."

For Ms. Mendes, the 33-year-old Dominican immigrant, the threat of being displaced from her home, along with her husband and two teenage daughters, has been looming for some time. "They said something about this three or four years ago, and we've got to see if it's serious this time," she said. "We don't know what to expect now. I'm so upset, because they aren't thinking of the people who live here."

Ms. Murray, the Hempstead supervisor, said the town would help displaced tenants and businesses find new homes, though she did not say whether those homes would be in Baldwin or elsewhere. Ms. Murray expressed optimism that the relocations would be done humanely. For the businesses in the area that cater to the tenants, the revitalization project makes little sense.

Francisco Lopez, the manager of Andy's Mini Market on Grand Avenue, said he does not see any urgent need to empty and raze the storefronts in the block.

As he spoke with a reporter, he was interrupted repeatedly by local people stopping in to buy meals and snacks. The hot buffet table in the deli draws plenty of customers, Mr. Lopez said, especially in the morning when residents head for work.

To Mr. Lopez, the redevelopment plan seems unfair.

"We bought the store, the refrigerators, we fixed the kitchen, and every night before we go, we sweep in front," he said.

Shown the photos of cracked walls and forlorn store signs featured in the Town of Hempstead's blight study, he said, "They've got the worst pictures, but they don't show the good stuff."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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