For months, Glendale and Middle Village residents have grown concerned that the owner of a former factory at 78-16 Cooper Ave. would convert it into a homeless shelter — especially with construction activity there increasing in recent weeks.
In response, the Glendale Middle Village Coalition filled two coach buses with protesters on April 13 and traveled to Jericho, Long Island, to rally outside of factory owner Michael Wilner’s house and synagogue. Their goal: to pressure Wilner to build a school instead of a shelter.
At Wilner’s residence, however, protesters found that they were marching outside an empty house, with a security guard keeping watch. They then headed to the synagogue and were met there by congregants who were upset about their presence.
“Michael Wilner, shame on you. Let us build the school,” the protesters chanted as they marched around the block of Wilner’s house.
In addition to publicly shaming Wilner about the shelter, the homeless shelter opponents aimed to publicize Councilman Robert Holden’s proposal to build a school for special needs students in the factory space. At the moment, both proposals for the school and the homeless shelter sit in limbo with different city agencies.
Mike Papa, a lead organizer for the rally, began his speech outside of the Wilner residence about the need for expanding District 75’s programs for students with special needs.
“P.S. 9 is so overcrowded, it is forced to operate out of seven different schools and distant locations,” said Papa. “The New York City School Construction Authority (SCA) has visited this site along with the District 75 leaders and our elected officials and our entire community are all convinced that there could not be a more perfect location to build this desperately needed new location.”
Then Papa addressed the protesters’ source of fear — a homeless shelter that Papa claimed would house “200 single males” who were “coming right out of Rikers Island” and would include “sexual offenders.”
The application that Wilner submitted to the Department of Buildings in August to turn the factory into a “transient lodging house” does not specify the gender, relationship status or criminal record of the residents who would be housed there.
A homeless shelter at the Cooper Avenue factory has been long-rumored, and rumblings about the plan re-emerged last summer just months after the city said the previous shelter plan had been withdrawn from consideration.
After listening to Papa’s speech, protesters looped once more around the block. As they did so, Nick Bufinsky, the security detail hired to guard the residence, said that he was sympathetic to them because his girlfriend lives in Glendale.
“I was reading this story this morning and I go, ‘I hope they don’t build a homeless shelter there,’” he said.
The next stop was Temple Or Elohim, where Wilner serves as temple president. The protesters decided not to chant in an effort to minimize disruptions to religious services. However, the temple’s cantor, David Katz, rushed outside to confront them.
“I’m livid and I can’t believe they would come to a place of worship to protest someone who is a member here. It has nothing to do with the temple,” Katz said.
The temple was having a service within 10 minutes of when the protesters arrived, in addition to hosting a bat mitzvah that day.
After their brief march outside the temple, the protesters filed onto the buses and headed back to Middle Village, where Holden met them. He expressed his appreciation for their support of his plan and assuage their fears over the construction in the factory.
“They’re putting up sheetrock. I asked [New York City Human Resources Administration commissioner] Steven Banks why are they doing that,” said Holden. “He goes, whatever they’re doing, they’re wasting their time.”
Papa, who had earlier expressed his dismay that Holden had not joined the protest in Long Island, asked the councilman how close the SCA was to making Wilner an offer to buy the site and turn it into a school.
“Last time I heard — and it’s all up to the mayor — they were 90 percent [toward approving the school proposal], they’re still telling me this. We just need the mayor to sign off on this,” Holden said.
Despite not being able to say anything conclusive about the future of site, Holden commended the protesters on their efforts.
“I think the obstacle here is Michael Wilner. He had multiple offers for this,” Holden said. “This area is being developed and there’s a lot of money invested here, so I think the worst thing you could put here is a homeless shelter. The best thing is a District 75 school, which we’ve been working on.”
Update: After this story was published Monday afternoon on QNS, Holden issued a statement on his Facebook page indicating that he didn’t agree with the protesters’ decision to picket outside Wilner’s synagogue.
“While I did support my constituents in their effort to make their voices heard and call for the construction of a new District 75 school, I do not agree with the decision of the organizers to rally at a synagogue,” he wrote. “It’s enough to send the message directly to Michael Wilner at his home. Disrupting a congregation at a place of worship is wrong. I share the protesters’ desire to bring a school to 78-16 Cooper Avenue and that is what I continue to work for.”