Franco denies owing city thousands

Joe Franco (inset) says he has settled with the city Parks Department over debts he was required to pay dating to his time as proprietor of the Caffé on the Green concession in Bayside. He lost the license to that property in 2008.
By Connor Adams Sheets

State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and Joe Franco, the new owner of the White House Restaurant in Whitestone, have gotten into a war of words over Franco’s plans for the popular eatery.

Avella said Monday that Franco owes the city Parks Department $120,607 in fees because of improper accounting practices the city comptroller’s office found in 2008 while he was proprietor of Caffé on the Green. Franco lost the license to the popular Parks Department concession in Bayside in 2009.

The Parks Department could not be reached for comment.

As a result, Avella said the city should not approve a zoning change Franco has proposed which would allow him to upgrade and expand the White House to include a catering hall and space for more people and parking at the establishment, at 10-24 154th St.

“It is absolutely disgraceful that Mr. Franco is asking the city to bend its zoning rules for him while he has still not repaid the money he owes the city for failing to follow their rules,” Avella said in a statement. “He couldn’t be trusted to run a restaurant and catering hall on city property under close surveillance from city agencies. Why should we trust him enough to upzone an entire block and relinquish control of what he builds there now?”

But Franco said Avella is simply trying to smear his name. He maintains that his debts to the city were fully paid off as of October 2008.

“I owe the Parks Department nothing. That audit was paid in full before I left …. It was all straightened out, I can prove it,” Franco said. “[Avella’s] taking a tantrum, he’s trying to dig up all kinds of lies and everything to discredit me.”

Edward Fleming, a spokesman for Avella, said he “personally spoke with a Parks Department official on Friday” and that he was told that the entire debt is still outstanding.

Franco originally proposed an upzoning to allow certain types of two-story residential and commercial buildings to be built on the entire east end of the block of 154th Street from 10th to 11th avenues, an area that includes two residences and a bank as well as the White House and an adjacent property he owns.

He said Tuesday he is willing to amend the proposal to only rezone his properties under a little-used procedure known as a “spot zone” to better comply with residents’ wishes and better protect the neighborhood’s character.

“I couldn’t care less what they do with the rest of the block — if they completely zone it commercial on the rest of the block or if they spot-zone it, I’m only interested in my own property,” Franco said.

Fleming said spot zones are illegal and that Avella believes Franco should apply for a narrow variance rather than a rezoning but that he would not even support a variance application because of Franco’s history with the city.

The Department of City Planning was scheduled to take up the proposal to rezone the entire block to allow certain types of two-story residential and commercial buildings — which Borough President Helen Marshall approved with conditions March 14 and Community Board 7 greenlighted in February — this week.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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