St John’s dorm has neighbors seeing red

Saint John’s University, which bills itself in sports programs as “home of the Red Storm,” has elected officials, civic associations and Jamaica Estates residents seeing red.
After long-standing representations to the community that the private college would not “build” off-campus student residences, the university has entered into a 10-year lease for a dormitory building on Henley Road which will house some 485 students in 66 rooms.
“Once again, St. John’s has kept its development plans secret” fumed Kevin Forrestal, President of the Hillcrest Estates Civic Association and active member of Community Board 8. “I regularly attend their ‘discussion group’ and they kept us in the dark. This construction is clearly inappropriate and their position is inexcusable to any rational person,” he said.
Forrestal concluded that “When it comes to their expansion, the ‘good neighbor’ policy at St. John’s goes by the wayside.”
Dominic Scianna, Director of Media Relations for St. John’s confirmed that, “On August 7, St. John’s University entered into a lease agreement for a building that is being built by a developer at 172-14 Henley Road, Jamaica Estates.”
He explained the school’s position. “St. John’s is not the owner or developer of this project. The university did have ongoing conversations with the owner of the property, but did not commit or sign a lease for this building prior to August 7. Early public dialogue on this issue would have been premature and speculative on the university’s part.”
“We already have leased off-campus housing and this is no different,” Scianna said.
State Senator Frank Padavan, who vociferously opposes the construction, dismissed Scianna’s statement. “It’s a distinction without a difference,” Padavan said.
“Instead of a 40-foot-high building of apartments for families, the people on this residential block will be living in the shadow of a 62-foot-high college residence with 485 college kids, doing what college kids do.”
As for the issue of a lack of candor by the university, Padavan told The Queens Courier, “I have a letter from St. John’s in my office, where the college says it would have been ‘fiscally imprudent’ to reveal their plan. I guess they meant to save money by getting it done before the public found out.”
Public records at web sites including the New York City Department of Buildings indicate that the developer, the Kamali Organization, lists Jackie and Barry Kamali as partners, and persons with those same names are listed as partners pursuant to the current and previous ownership of the property, respectively.
Those records also indicate that an application for a 40-foot-tall building which would have complied with the normal zoning regulations was withdrawn early this year, and applications calling for a much larger building were made as early as this April.
According to another vocal opponent of the dormitory, City Councilmember James F. Gennaro, “The only way that the developer could get plans for a ‘community facility’ approved would be if they had a commitment from an organization like the university. So St. John’s must have had this in the works for a long time.”
Gennaro explained, “I had encouraged down-zoning that area, but there was a petition signed by community members to retain the R-5 zone. That would have limited a structure to about 40 feet, but now a much larger building is going in.”
Martha Taylor, a leader of the civic association in Jamaica Estates confirmed that local residents signed a petition to keep the zoning. “People who lived there for a long time and saw other buildings going up in the area wanted to secure the maximum profit for their properties when the time came,” she said. “You can’t really blame them for that, but now the people living in that area are going to have to deal with a huge influx of college students, with their lifestyle, and with their cars.”
When asked about suggestions that since he had accepted campaign contributions from the Kamali Organization, his opposition might have been tempered, Gennaro responded forcefully.
“That’s nonsense,” Gennaro insisted. “We all have to raise campaign funds, and our actions are what define our records. If anyone has one shred of evidence that I’ve favored Kamali, let them produce it.”
Gennaro continued, “I do things on their merits. Everything Kamali has asked for, I have not done, because I didn’t feel their requests were in the best interests of the community.”
“I did what I could, but the residents wanted the zoning, which makes this construction within the law; they’re building ‘as-of-right’ and it’s too bad for the neighbors,” Gennaro said. “The fact that St. John’s hid their actions from the community - even from their own representatives to the community, doesn’t alter the law. I don’t like it one bit, but that’s the way it is.”
The statement issued by St. John’s University concludes with the following - “The university will continue, as always, to encourage open dialogue with its neighbors, including those at this new site.”

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