Residents voice concerns about dirty Elmhurst lot

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A proposal to rezone an Elmhurst property for commercial development met strong resistance at a Community Board 5 meeting last week, where neighbors complained the owner has refused to address their complaints about the site.

At the same meeting, state Assemblyman Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills) gave a dire warning that non-profit organizations will be forced to tighten their belts when state aid is cut due to the fiscal fallout from Sept. 11.

A public hearing was held at the board’s Nov. 14 meeting to discuss an application submitted by Silver Crest Farms Inc. to rezone a Caldwell Avenue property bisected by 81st Street for commercial development.

The zoning change would allow the owner to build a two-story office building, with landscaping and 36 required parking spaces, on a site between 81st and 82nd streets now occupied by an MRI imaging center and fenced parking lot.

The property on the other side of 81st Street, which is included in the rezoning proposal, would remain occupied by Silver Barn Farms, a fruits and vegetable supermarket, according to lawyer Vincent Petraro, who represented the property owner at the meeting.

The land is currently zoned for residential development, although the supermarket and MRI building are considered “legal nonconforming use.”

Nearby residents who testified at the hearing opposed the proposal, contending the landlord has been an inconsiderate neighbor who has ignored their requests to improve conditions on the site.

The landowner did not respond to a request for comment.

Steve Vukovic, an 82nd Street homeowner, said air-conditioning units attached to a mobile trailer operated by the MRI center are loud and disruptive, while the lot itself is consistently dirty.

Residents said the landowner had promised to remove one mobile trailer from the site but instead added a second one. They also opposed the use of the adjacent 81st Street parking lot to store buses and trucks, which residents have long demanded be taken off the property.

“We’ve been getting from the applicant resistance,” said board member Robert Holden, who also serves as the president of the Juniper Park Civic Association. “He takes away one truck and brings 10 more buses.”

Neighbors expressed doubts over the landowner’s plans for the site, fearing it would be sold and converted to another use once the rezoning goes through.

“I don’t believe them and I don’t trust them,” neighbor Tiffany Elliott said after the hearing. The property has “looked terrible for the last five years. We feel that they’re fixing it up to sell it.”

Holden said the zoning change would potentially be a financial boon for the property owner.

“If we say, ‘Go commercial,’ this then becomes a gold mine,” he said.

Petraro tried to quell residents’ doubts by assuring them that the new building would represent a major improvement for the property.

“I truly believe once this is rezoned this will be a much better area for the community,” he said.

The board recommended the property owner address some of the community’s concerns before the proposal comes up for a vote at its December meeting.

“We’re hoping in the next month he will at least get rid of the buses and trucks in that parking lot,” said Walter Sanchez, the chairman of CB 5’s land use committee.

Cohen spoke later at the meeting to inform constituents of the way the economic repercussions of the Sept. 11 attack will affect state funding.

Before Sept. 11, the Legislature had been arguing with the governor over how to spend a budget surplus exceeding $2 billion, Cohen said.

But following the terrorist attack, the state is facing a projected deficit of $2 billion, a shortfall that will be felt hard at the community level through severe funding cuts for nonprofit organizations, Cohen warned.

About $1 billion that had previously been available for non-profits will be reduced to about $300 million, Cohen said.

“They have to deliver a critical service” to receive funding, Cohen said.

Even non-profit organizations that deliver critical services but can survive without state funding will be cut off from state coffers, the assemblyman said.

Cohen said the cutbacks will most strongly affect people who depend on social services.

“The impact is felt by the people least able to take any kind of impact,” he said.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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