By Howard Koplowitz
About two dozen residents and members of the Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Association joined state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) outside The White House restaurant Saturday to protest plans to build a larger dining complex on the block by the eatery’s new owner, Joe Franco.
But Steve Sinacori, an attorney for Franco, said the community was well aware that his plans do not change the use of the building and that the catering hall needs to be modernized so it conforms to regulations.
Franco formerly was the proprietor of Caffé on the Green, a gardenside restaurant in Bay Terrace, before the city Parks Department discontinued Franco’s concession for what it called shoddy bookkeeping.
Avella said Franco’s application would change the current R2A zoning on 154th Street to a commercial zone, which the senator said would alter the character of the block.
“The application by Joe Franco to upzone this entire block is unacceptable,” Avella said Saturday outside The White House at 10-24 154th St. “If this is allowed to go ahead, not only does it change the character of this block forever, but it may set the precedent for future development. Whitestone is a great community to live in. We’re not going to allow some restaurant owner … to establish a foothold here.”
But Sinacori said Franco’s company needs to acquire a commercial building adjacent to the restaurant to keep vehicles from parking on the street and meet the parking requirements wanted by Community Board 7, which approved Franco’s application last week.
“The problem with the building is it doesn’t meet all of today’s requirements,” Sinacori said, noting that Franco’s plans include adding an elevator and ramp so the building is handicap-accessible.
Sinacori said The White House currently has only eight parking spaces and Franco’s plans “provide the parking that The White House doesn’t have.”
“The plan here is to modernize [The White House] and keep the existing use,” he said, adding that the project would also create at least 80 local jobs.
Avella, the former chairman of the City Council Zoning Committee, said that when he looked at applications he would ask the applicant if they reached out to neighboring property owners, which he claimed Franco did not do.
“How dare Mr. Franco put through an application without the approval of the property owners on this block,” Avella said. “This is one of the worst applications I have ever seen go through this neighborhood.”
Sinacori said Franco was under no obligation to confer with other property owners, but despite that fact he made some changes at the behest of the building’s neighbors.
“We worked at extensive length to provide an aesthetically pleasing treatment to make it acceptable for the adjoining landowner to the north,” Sinacori said.
The senator and protesters claimed Franco’s company only said it would be renovating The White House, not that an upzoning would be required.
George Rama, president of the Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Association, said the community had been looking forward to the renovation.
“Now this can turn into quite a monstrosity,” Rama said. “The residents agree they do not need a catering hall right here. This is becoming much more than people were led to believe.”
But Sinacori said The White House already has catering facilities in the cellar of the building and that Franco plans to relocate the catering to an expanded second floor of the building.
“This was all known,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that there’s a lot of confusion because it’s all clear.”
Paul Graziano, an urban planner who drew up the plans to rezone Whitestone, said Franco’s application should be withdrawn and come back as a variance so the rest of the block’s zoning is not disturbed.
“It’s a bad application to begin with and should be turned down based on that,” he said. “This is what we call in simpler, plainer language a ‘land grab.’”
Bryan Garry, the homeowner at 10-12 154th St., said he was offered $200,000 more than what he paid for his home by Franco, but turned the offer down.
“My family and I are adamantly against the upzoning of this block,” he said.
Sinacori said Franco is not looking to acquire the two residential homes on the block and that the offer to buy the home was off the table.
Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4573.