YMCA floats plan for Elmhurst tank site

By Dustin Brown

The six-acre Keyspan site in Elmhurst where two landmark gas tanks stood until their demolition in the late 1990s has been eyed for some time by civic leaders as an ideal spot for a community center.

But a proposal devised by one developer that partnered with the YMCA of Greater New York to bring that vision to reality met strong resistance at a Juniper Park Civic Association meeting last Thursday because it couples the community space with something neighbors adamantly oppose: a shopping center.

Keyspan, the energy company that owns the site, solicited proposals in July from developers interested in purchasing the property, which sits on Grand Avenue by 80th Street near the Maspeth border. The tanks had been built in the early part of the last century to store natural gas and were razed a few years ago after new technology had rendered them obsolete.

The company received 13 responses from developers planning projects which fell into four categories: light manufacturing, residential, commercial mixed-use or a “big box” store, such as a Home Depot.

“At this point, selection is going to be made probably within a period of weeks,” Keyspan spokesman Ed Yutkowitz said Tuesday.

The idea of building a community center on the property has been gaining momentum ever since word started circulating that Keyspan was planning to sell, and the YMCA has shown interest in the site for more than a year. Community Board 5 approved a resolution in March voicing support for the construction of a YMCA on the property, although the site technically is within the boundaries of the neighboring Board 4, which covers Elmhurst.

In order to finance the project, the YMCA of Greater New York approached the development firm Petracca & Sons of Whitestone, which submitted a bid to construct a YMCA with an adjacent shopping center.

“In order to build a Y, we need a developer who’s going to help us financially,” said Peter Rosario, the center director for the Catalpa YMCA in Ridgewood, at the civic meeting.

Rosario elaborated in a phone interview Monday. “Any developer we work with would need to be able to make a significant charitable contribution to the YMCA and to help us build it,” he said. “So it’s important to have a developer who understands the ideals of a philanthropic organization.”

But the plan presented at last Thursday’s meeting showed a 40,000-square-foot YMCA built on the property alongside an outdoor shopping center with about 25 stores and 1,200 parking spaces in a covered lot, which civic members greeted with stern opposition.

“We’d like a Y to take up the entire property,” said Tiffany Elliott, the civic’s vice president. “We definitely don’t want to see a big box and we don’t want to see a mall.”

Members of the civic said they would support the construction of a residential development consisting of two- and three-family homes, but not a commercial center.

“If you build a mall there, people would be coming in to shop at that mall, they wouldn’t walk a half mile or so up to the Grand Avenue district,” said Robert Holden, the Juniper civic president. “With the residential, they would bring business in.”

Because the site is zoned for manufacturing, a residential plan also would have to pass through the community board for review, which Holden said would ensure proper oversight.

But a representative of the developer said the YMCA had to be constructed alongside a shopping center or other commercial use in order for his company to be able to provide financial assistance for it.

“What was on the table that evening was two- and three-family homes,” said Phillip Robinson, the business development director at Petracca, in a phone interview Monday. “That was not feasible to generate a YMCA facility on that property at the level of support for the facility that was required to get it built.”

Eugene Petracca, the president of Petracca & Sons, told the crowd his company wanted to adapt the plan in response to the civic’s concerns.

“We’re here to evolve the project into something that serves the community,” he said.

Although members of the Juniper civic group are adamant about residential construction, a neighboring organization, COMET — Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together — supports the idea of a shopping center.

“The people on 80th Street, especially who live right adjacent to the site, prefer commercial development because Board 4 is so overcrowded now,” said COMET President Roe Daraio. “They feel commercial development would not only provide a service for the community but would provide jobs.”

Yutkowitz, the Keyspan spokesman, said the company is passing along the community’s desires to the developers that have submitted proposals.

“We’re trying to represent the community interest. We’re trying to act as an honest broker,” Yutkowitz said. “We know that the community would like to have space for its own use.”

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

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