Nov. 8, 2021 By Allie Griffin
Rego Park and Forest Hills residents overwhelmingly came out in opposition to a developer’s plan to replace a popular Queens Boulevard diner and synagogue with a 15-story mixed-use building during a public hearing Wednesday night.
The development company RJ Capital Holdings presented its plans to demolish a number of Queens Boulevard buildings that house the Tower Diner, Ohr Natan Synagogue and other businesses.
RJ Capital aims to construct a 153,400-square-foot building which would include 17,400 square feet of retail space and 144 units — 44 of which would be “affordable” pursuant to the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing requirement. The company, however, needs the city to approve its rezoning application in order to move forward with its plan.
The public hearing, hosted by Queens Community Board 6, is the first step to getting the rezoning application approved. It’s part of the Uniform Land Use Review Process, the process used by the city to assess rezoning applications.
Dozens of residents voiced concern over the plan at the virtual hearing Wednesday. Nearly all residents who spoke or shared written statements during the meeting opposed the plan and urged the community board to vote against it.
The speakers’ main point of contention was the developer’s plans to demolish the Tower Diner and Ohr Natan Synagogue. The Tower Diner features a clock tower iconic to the neighborhood and the synagogue occupies the building that once was the historic Art Deco-styled Trylon Theater, which opened in 1939 and closed in 1999.
“The Tower Diner as an eatery has been important to this area for nearly 30 years. As a building, it is historic and has been important for many more decades,” said Carol Hagarty, who has lived adjacent to the site in question for more than 40 years. “It is a neighborhood landmark in much the same way the Ridgewood Bank is in Forest Hills.”
Another nearby resident, who said she has shared many meals at the local dinner with her son, argued that the neighborhood would be amiss without the diner.
“The Tower [Diner] makes my corner of Forest Hills unique. It provides jobs. It provides an affordable place to eat. It allows me to walk to a place where I can get a good meal, in the confines of my neighborhood,” Joanne Davis said in a written statement. “If the Tower were destroyed, the character of the neighborhood would go with it. Queens Boulevard would look like ‘Any City USA.'”
A petition to save the buildings and small businesses located on the triangular block — bordered by Queens Boulevard, 66th Avenue and 99th Street — has garnered more than 3,400 signatures.
Community Board 6 member Pat Morgan also shared her personal memories of the Tower Diner to illustrate its importance to the neighborhood.
She said her late father was one of the diner’s ‘mayors’ before he passed in 2007.
“If he didn’t appear at the diner when he was supposed to — which was usually twice a day — they called to see where he was, to make sure he was okay,” Morgan said. “When my dad broke his hip in Atlantic City, I made three phone calls — my brother, a relative and the Tower Diner to let them know that my dad would be there for dinner that night or breakfast in the morning.”
She added that her father is not the only one the diner staff checks up on. The staff routinely calls or even knocks on the door of regulars when they don’t come in, Morgan said.
“Tell me what other business in the neighborhood does that,” she said.
However, the community board — and the city — have no way to stop the developer from knocking down the buildings because the site is not landmarked. RJ Capital Holdings plans to begin demolition next month, the company’s principal Michael Abramov said at the hearing.
Efforts to designate the Trylon Theater building a landmark in the past have failed and the community board is only able to provide a yes or no recommendation on the developer’s upzoning plans, not its demolition plans.
Abramov said they have offered space to both the Tower Diner and Ohr Natan in the new building, located at 98-81 Queens Blvd. — including an earmarked 8,000-square-foot space on the ground floor and basement for the synagogue.
However, he said Ohr Natan Synagogue — which serves a congregation of roughly 1,000 local members of the Bukharian community — is currently planning to move to a new location across the street in what is now a 99 cent store.
The Tower Diner is also eyeing a different building to relocate, according to the developer’s attorney Eric Palatnik.
Another issue residents had with the plan is that its affordable units are not truly affordable, they said.
RJ Capital Holdings plans to offer 44 units — 30 percent of the total units — to residents who earn 70, 80 or 90 percent of the area median income.
Lifelong Forest Hills resident and student Zeke Luger said he wouldn’t be able to afford the so-called “affordable” apartments.
“If I were to move out of my parents’ home which I’m hoping to do once I graduate, there’s no way in hell I’d be able to afford a $2,000 rent,” Luger said during the hearing. “That’s not affordable. That’s already the average rent in our neighborhood.”
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Rego Park is $1,900, according to multiple real estate websites.
The proposed building would offer nine affordable one-bedroom units for approximately $1,500 at 70 percent AMI, nine for $1,700 at 80 percent AMI and nine at $1,950 at 90 percent AMI, according to the developer.
Community Board 6 members urged the developer to offer some units at 60 percent AMI, but Abramov said they crunched the numbers and can’t do it without jeopardizing the quality of the apartments they hope to build.
Residents who called into the hearing also voiced concern over the height of the building. They said Rego Park has enough tall developments and worried that the new building would block surrounding buildings’ light.
“Please do not ‘cement the sky’ above us and brick up one of the last few remaining open spaces we have — all to put up one more development for one more developer,” Forest Hills resident William Zengel said in a written statement.
Lastly, several speakers worried how the building and its future residents would strain the neighborhood’s infrastructure like hospitals, schools and public transportation and exacerbate traffic congestion and parking issues.
The building plan does include a parking garage with 45 spaces as well as an area for bike storage, Palatnik said.
Following Wednesday’s public hearing, the community board’s land use committee will draft a report to share with the full board next week. The committee will then vote in favor or against the developer’s plan and the full Queens CB6 will vote on Dec. 8, during their monthly board meeting. Their final vote is only a recommendation.
Once the full board votes, Queens Borough President Richards will review the plan and offer a yes or no recommendation. It must then be approved by the City Planning Commission and the City Council, which has the final say.
The process typically takes seven months after the plans are certified by City Planning. RJ Capital Holding’s plan was certified in mid-October.
The fate of the project will likely be determined by Lynn Schulman, who was elected to represent the district this month and will assume office in January.
On land use matters, the City Council often votes in lockstep with the council member who represents the district where the zoning change is proposed in a practice known as “member deference”.