Oyster Bay rejects upscale retail stores at Cerro site

NEWSDAY It was a long and nasty fight, but finally, Oyster Bay Town officials did yesterday what hundreds of residents have wanted them to: They denied a developer’s controversial application to build an upscale retail mall on the old Cerro Wire factory site in Syosset. 

In a second and equally expected move, town officials are now gearing up for what likely will be a long and expensive legal battle with the developer over that decision.

The 6-1 town board vote denied the application from Michigan-based Taubman Co., which was seeking a special-use permit to construct an 860,000 square foot mall on the 39 acre site on Robbins Lane near the Long Island Expressway.  The property is owned by Newsday’s parent company, Tribune Co.

Taubman’s attorney, Morton Weber, said yesterday’s decision was expected and disappointing.  “We certainly think it’s a sad statement for Long Island and Nassau County,” he said, but added, “Taubman is not leaving.”

Taubman officials are poised to pursue legal options for relief, planning within three weeks to file action again the town in State Supreme Court, asking it to review the board’s decision.

Whatever happens, he added, “[Taubman] has millions of dollars committed to the project.  Taubman is committed to the site.  We’re committed to the project.”

Meanwhile, Town Supervisor John Venditto said he is confident the town board’s decision will stand up to any legal challenge.  “While I believe our decision is the right one for the community, I know there are those who will disagree,” he said.  The decision may be challenged in court.  Be assured that the town is prepared to do whatever is necessary to defend it, and I have every expectation that our decision will ultimately prevail.”

Town officials included in the current budget $154,380 for all litigation.  Of that amount, they already have spent $25,000 to hire outside legal counsel to defend the town in the Cerro Wire case.

Yesterday, after the town clerk announced the decision, applause rose from among the 20 or so mall opponents in the hearing room, who had argued that the proposed mall would ruin their quality of life – bringing more traffic, noise and pollution to their neighborhoods.

“Obviously we’re very pleased with the vote,” said Howard Avrutine, an attorney representing the East Birchwood Civic Association.  “We want to thank the town board, everyone except Mr. [Anthony] Macagnone, who voted against it.”

Todd Fabricant, leader of the Cerro Wire Coalition that represents 26 civic associations and 44,000 households, said, “I felt optimistic” about the outcome.  After the meeting, he poured champagne from a $37 bottle he had brought to the meeting into plastic cups for several of the celebrants.

“The community banded together,” he added.  “It is now in the hands of the lawyers.”

Only town board member Anthony Macagnone, a union carpenter and labor official, voted for the mall proposal, which was backed by organized labor.  “I’ve been to Taubman malls and there’s not a mall on Long Island that can compare to them," he said.  “They have a quality product.  I just feel it would be good for the community.  It’s just a smart idea."

Town board member Anthony Delligatti said the size of the project was a determining factor in his decision to vote against it.  “It was five pounds of potatoes in a three-pound sack,” he said.  “Even with their proposed downsizing, it was still too big for the site.”

Town board member Bonnie Eisler, who also gave it a thumbs down, said the project was ill-conceived from a planning standpoint.  “I believe that this project will go against every tenet of good planning,” she said.  “This shows that we can work together in a bipartisan way to buck special interests whether it’s unions or developers.”

But town board member Leonard Symons countered that quality-of-life concerns were as important a factor in his deliberations as economic considerations.  “Our residents have spoken.  They say, ‘Plan for community, not shopping malls.’ I choose not to call them NIMBY’s but rather visionaries,” he said.  “You do not have to stop economic development to save the environment, but you do need development that respects the environment and respects the quality of life.  It is the opinion of this councilman that the project will in the end negatively affect the quality of life of our community…”

The project was never simply about business, said Warren Church, president of the Syosset Groves Civic Association, which represents 850 homes to the east of the Cerro Wire site.  “This is where we live.  This is home.  There is nowhere else to go,” Church said.  “It’s not just about business.  This is our home.  That’s why we defend it so incredibly and will continue to.”

The Building & Construction Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk Counties is condemning the board’s action and its members plan to wage a political-action drive, vowing to “enlist every member of labor to oppose those politicians who betrayed labor through their opposition to the Cerro Wire mall project in Oyster Bay,” according to a statement released last week by council president and secretary-treasurer Jack Kennedy.

The protracted fight over the mall proposal, which was scaled down a second time to 750,000 square feet in April, involved developers, residents, union officials, the Jericho and Syosset school districts, and chambers of commerce.

The town held a marathon public hearing in September that started at town hall and concluded 17 hours later at a packed Syosset High School.  It has led periodically throughout the process to dueling news conferences, petition drives, television and newspaper ads.

“I think it was a well-fought battle that we won,” said Stephanie Weiner, a Jericho resident and president of the Robbins Lane Elementary School Parent Teacher Association. 

However, she added, “I don’t think the war is over.”

Kennedy, whose organization represents 60,000 workers, estimated the mall would have employed between 3,500 and 4,000 of them for at least two years during the construction phase as well as provide ongoing employment opportunities to maintain the facility.

The plan’s rejection also throws into doubt whether luxury retailer Neiman Marcus will come to the area anytime soon.  The Dallas-based chain agreed in 1997 to be one of the mall’s two anchors.  Lord & Taylor, which already has four locations on Long Island, signed on as the other anchor in October.

Neither retailer could be reached for comment.

If Neiman Marcus wants to speed up its debut, it could set up shop in Roosevelt Field, which Stern’s is vacating in August.  But, high-end merchants often prefer neighbors of the same ilk, and with few luxury shopping centers on Long Island, none could accommodate a 150,000 square foot department store, said Richard Rauch, a local retail consultant. 

“Long Island needs one upscale mall in Nassau,” he said.  “The perfect place is Cerro.”

By Pat Burson, Staff writer, Newsday, June 13, 2001
Staff writer Tami Luhby also contributed to this story.

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