Forest Hills and Rego Park residents reject developer’s plan to demolish Tower Diner and Ohr Natan Synagogue

Tower Diner (left) and the Trylon Theater that houses the Ohr Natan Synagogue (right) on Queens Boulevard. (Photos courtesy of Michael Perlman)

Forest Hills and Rego Park residents are speaking out against the demolition of two historical buildings on Queens Boulevard to make way for a mixed-use development, which they say does not fit the character of their community. 

During the Community Board 6 Land Use Committee virtual public hearing held on Nov. 3, board members and residents were presented with a redevelopment plan to erect a 15-story building on the triangular block of the Trylon Theater that houses the Ohr Natan Synagogue at 98-81 Queens Blvd. and Tower Diner at 98-85 Queens Blvd. 

The public hearing is the first step to getting the rezoning application approved. It’s part of the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) that is used by the city to assess rezoning applications.

The development plan

The applicant, RJ Capital Holdings under Trylon LLC (via Rudy and Michael Abramov), is seeking to construct a 153,000-square-foot development, which includes 144 total units with 44 of those units as affordable housing at an average of 80% Area Median Income (AMI) under the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program. The plan proposes 136,000 square feet for residential space and 17,400 square feet for commercial space, with 45 parking spaces, including bicycle parking on site. 

Eric Palatnik, who’s representing the developer, is requesting to rezone the area currently under an R7-1 zone, to an R8X zone, which would permit a higher building height that produces 15- to 17-story apartment buildings. 

The height requirement for R7-1 districts encourages lower apartment buildings on smaller zoning lots and, on larger lots, taller buildings with less lot coverage. As an alternative, developers may choose the optional Quality Housing regulations to build lower buildings with greater lot coverage. 

“I’ve watched Queens Boulevard and have grown up with it, and I’ve seen the potential that it has to create housing that’s transit rich and transit-based smart development,” Palatnik said. 

According to Palatnik, the building they’re proposing fits well with the community’s character that has several high-rise buildings.

The developers intend to begin demolition next month, and it would take about 30 to 45 days to complete, Palatnik said. 

In previous meetings with the CB 6 Land Use Committee, concerns were raised about keeping the configuration of the Tower Diner, which is housed in the colonial bank building with a distinguished clock tower. 

Though the site isn’t a registered historical landmark, Palatnik said they’re planning to call the new development the Trylon Building, in addition to replicating the Tower Diner in the design and a clock mimicking the historical structure. 

The history of the Trylon Theater and Tower Diner

According to Michael Perlman, a fifth-generation Forest Hills resident, historian and chair of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council, the 1939 World’s Fair-inspired Art Deco-styled Trylon Theater was designed by notable architect Joseph Unger. The cherished colonial style Tower Diner is in a historic bank building with its distinctive clock tower architecture.

The Trylon Theater was named after the 1939 World’s Fair’s symbolic spire-like monument, the Trylon, which stood alongside the globular Perisphere monument. Analogous to the fair’s theme, “The World of Tomorrow,” where exhibits featured technological innovations, the theater was known as “The Theater of Tomorrow.” 

The Trylon was shuttered after its 60th anniversary celebration in 1999, and was presumably one of the last single-screen theaters citywide. Since 2006, the theater has operated as the Ohr Natan Synagogue, which is comprised of over 1,000 congregants who are mostly Bukharian Jews. 

The popular Tower Diner is owned by Spiro and John Gatanas and their parents. The family emigrated from Greece, fulfilling the “American Dream,” and adapted the colonial-style bank building in 1993 while preserving its authentic features. 

The diner is considered a must-stop by patrons who enjoy its extensive menu of American and cultural foods. It was the home of the longtime tenant Emigrant Savings Bank and formerly City Savings Bank. Beside the clock tower are columns, a cornice, a pitched roof and colonial interior features. 

Community’s opposition for the new development

The Ohr Natan/Trylon Theater, Tower Diner and surrounding local businesses bear significance on an architectural, cultural, religious and small business basis, Perlman said. 

“It is a shame that its future is even being debated upon, all for a largely unwelcomed high-rise,” Perlman said. “This application would demolish historic and distinctive sites and place an economic burden on tenants, not to mention additional congestion and a domino effect of demolitions nearby of other preservation-worthy sites.” 

Those sites include Parkside Memorial Chapels and Forest Hills Jewish Center, which are award-winning historic, sacred and beautiful sites designed by foremost architects and artists, Perlman said in his written testimony. 

“Not everything needs to change, and everything does not change in other communities. There are landmarks that are official or awaiting designation. Sites can be adaptively and creatively reused rather than demolished. Preservation is also greener based on retained materials and a building’s embodied energy,” Perlman said. 

A majority of the community members are calling on CB 6 to reject the developer’s application in an online petition to save the Trylon Theater, Tower Diner and nearby small businesses from demolition.

To date, the petition has received 3,727 signatures. 

Many residents submitted their written testimony that were read aloud during the public hearing, while others spoke on the panel voicing their concerns regarding quality-of-life issues. 

Phyllis Zimmerman said there’s no need for another high-rise building in the neighborhood.

“So many people are disgusted with the overdevelopment, and what does this building do for people in the neighborhood? I would say nothing,” Zimmerman said. “Forest Hills is going to become a crowded, dirty neighborhood and the very things that make it desirable in the first place will be destroyed by overdevelopment and crowding.” 

Other residents pointed out the lack of affordable housing developments in the area, and said the developer’s units aren’t “truly affordable.”

RJ Capital Holdings plans to offer 44 units — 30% of the total units — to residents who earn 70%, 80% or 90% of the AMI.

The proposal offers nine affordable one-bedroom units for approximately $1,500 at 70% AMI, nine for $1,790 at 80% AMI and nine at $1,950 at 90% AMI, according to Palatnik. 

A CB6 member requested for some units at 60% AMI, but Abramov said they crunched the numbers and can’t do it without jeopardizing the quality of the apartments they hope to build. 

Forest Hills resident and student Zeke Luger said he wouldn’t be able to afford the so-called “affordable” apartments.

“If I were to move out of my parents’ home, which I’m hoping to do once I graduate, there’s no way in hell I’d be able to afford a $2,000 rent,” Luger said during the hearing. “That’s not affordable. That’s already the average rent in our neighborhood.”

Another resident said it’s disappointing that her friends are unable to afford an apartment in the neighborhood. 

“We have to make a conscientious effort to have more affordable housing and become less exclusionary and elitist and allow for more opportunities for people of lower-income to afford more housing,” the resident said.  

Meanwhile, Pat Morgan spoke of her late father’s frequent visits to the diner. 

“My father was one of the ‘mayors’ of the diner. If he didn’t appear when he was supposed to, which was usually twice a day, they would call to make sure he’s OK,” Morgan said. “This diner serves an incredible community of people and the regulars are treated like gold.” 

In regards to the Ohr Natan Synagogue, Abramov said they have allocated space for its members. Currently, the synagogue has relocated to the 99-cent discount store across the street from the site, and Abramov is continuing to have an open dialogue with the rabbi. 

As for the Tower Diner, Palatnik says it has been invited to return to the new and improved location. 

“The Tower Diner is not being forced out … For everyone who loves Tower Diner, we are going to save everything about it, if they would like to come back,” Palatnik said. 

In respect to the city’s environmental quality review analysis, an assessment was conducted on traffic, noise, schools and infrastructure. According to Palatnik, the building does not trigger any thresholds that would cause any negative impacts with those studied categories.

What’s next?

According to the board, they have no power to prevent the demolition of the Trylon Theater and Tower Diner. If the rezoning is rejected, the developers can still build as-of-right, but cannot build in access to the current R7-1 zoning.

Following the public hearing, the CB6 Land Use Committee will prepare a report and potentially more public comments during the next general board meeting, which will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 10, at 7 p.m. The Land Use Committee will take an online vote the following week, followed by a full board vote on Wednesday, Dec. 8. 

Once the board votes, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards will review the plan and offer a yes or no recommendation. It will then head to the City Planning Commission for approval, and the City Council for a final vote.