By Mark Hallum
Members of Community Board 11 narrowly passed a variance on Feb. 5 that will allow owners of Douglaston Plaza to oust a MovieWorld from the shopping center and replace it, along with a recently closed Macy’s, with a Lowe’s home improvement store.
The meeting, during which there was bitter debate between those in favor of Lowe’s and those wishing to keep the theater, summoned memories of the June vote to approve the Northern Boulevard bike lanes for which the members complained there was not enough time to review the details before a vote was to be cast.
Jon Popin, an attorney with Duane Morris representing Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, argued in favor of the Lowe’s location on the stance that since Macy’s closed shop, the shopping center has become a “ghost town” without a major outlet, but that Lowe’s will need a larger footprint to operate.
“What we have now is a faceless shopping center,” Popin said. “What the owners of the shopping center are trying to do is revitalize and reposition the shopping center, but really keep it from closing. If the shopping center closes, it’s likely, because this is a residential district, it won’t be redeveloped as another shopping center… It may be residential housing — maybe affordable housing with de Blasio — who knows.”
Community members spoke out against the insinuation they would be opposed to affordable housing and Popin eventually apologized for the remarked.
“We don’t like being threatened with affordable housing,” Janet McEneaney said.
With Douglaston Plaza lacking highway accessibility and with retail centers drawing customers in Long Island, A.J. Levine, AAC’s Chief Operations Officer, said they had exhausted all other options to fill the space with another business and Lowe’s would be the only suitable one. But Lowe’s would require both spaces to operate and only after heavy renovation.
With five years still on its lease, MovieWorld owner Russell Levinson said their contract included the right of the shopping center to buy them out, which will pave the way for the closure if the variance was approved by the CB11.
During the public discussion period, many residents, including one MovieWorld employee of 14 years who gave an impassioned speech, voiced their support for preserving the theater as the best option for affordable tickets for schools and the elderly on fixed incomes.
Macy’s closed hundreds of stores in 2017 as a result of its inability to keep up with online markets, executives of the company said, and in April this included the location at Douglastion Plaza. But in January, permits had already been filed with the Dept. of Buildings for a Lowe’s to swallow both spaces occupied by Macy’s and MovieWorld, but these were permits were shot down by the agency.
The space in which Macy’s operated was 157,000 sq. feet, but Lowes needs 250,000 to operate, and would need to reenforce parts of the multi-level structure to support their often heavy inventory.
David Koerne, Lowe’s director of engineering and construction, said the location would not be feasible from a structural standpoint if they did not expand the footprint of the current business because the lower level did not have high enough ceilings for much of its inventory.
During the meeting, audience members contested this assessment and asked for repeated reiteration on why they would not be able to better utilize the space without consuming the movie theater. On more than two occasions, CB11 Chairwoman Christine Haider threatened to call the police to remove members of the audience who spoke out of order.
When Koerne made the point that Lowe’s makes it an corporate initiative to “be a good neighbor” by hiring local residents, and especially veterans, one board member retorted that they can be good neighbors by not forcing the movie theater out of business.
The motion to recommend the Board of Standards and Appeals give final approval of the variance passed 18 to 12.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall