The Freeport Zoning Board of Appeals voted 4-1 on May 30 to grant land use and parking variances for Plaza West, a vacant, six-story art deco building on Sunrise Highway in central Freeport, to Atlantic Auto Group. The group has proposed a 40,000-square-foot Lexus dealership at 71 Sunrise Highway, between the street and the Long Island Rail Road.
The village board voted in April to approve the sale of the property for $6.4 million. According to Mayor Robert Kennedy, the property sale is under contract, and includes a $1 million deposit. The auto group is set to close on the property within 90 days. It has agreed to pay all village taxes on the property, with no reductions, Kennedy said.
A number of Freeporters have, however, expressed disappointment that the iconic, triangular structure will be demolished. Dewey Small, a former member of the Freeport Community Development Agency board of directors, said that the property should have been developed into housing or proposed for businesses.
And Linda Wright, who lives within a mile of the property, said she was “disheartened” by the decision to allow Lexus to set up shop in the middle of the village. “I’m so heartbroken, and I feel that no one is listening to us,” Wright said.
She added that the historic property adds charm to the village, and should be preserved and restored to welcome young Manhattan commuters. “My fantasy, my wish and my prayer — I can’t understand why we can’t have housing for the younger generation to move into our village,” Wright said. “We need to encourage the transient younger employees to move here.”
Kennedy said he had been frustrated in his efforts to find better options for the property. Developing it has been a priority of his administration, he said. The village has also made a number of attempts over the years to develop the property into housing, with no success, Kennedy said on Tuesday.
“It’s been vacant for over 30 years,” he said, “and no one wanted to purchase it.”
According to Freeport Historical Society and Freeport Memorial Library historical records, the village partnered in 2004 with Time Equities Inc. to create a new “streetscape” at Plaza West. The plan included the construction of 235 one- and two-bedroom apartments, a glass-enclosed rooftop pool and a health club as well as 23,000 square feet of retail space and underground parking. The original building would have been renovated as well, but the plan failed.
“The economy has changed,” Kennedy explained. “Retails stores are not what they used to be. Internet sales are the hottest thing. You see people closing retail stores throughout the country.”
He added that for years, New York state offered a $3 million grant to anyone who wanted to invest in the building and help rebuild it, but “there were no takers.”
The cost of renovating the building and making it safe, according to Kennedy, would be about $10 million. The structure currently has no heat or operating elevator, and it may have asbestos. It also has structural issues.
“It’s been a burden to the village,” Kennedy said. Builders haven’t wanted to invest, he said, adding that the village “can’t spend $10 million, for what? We’re going to have a building that is repaired, and we’re not going to generate revenue.”
There was talk of converting the building into affordable housing, Kennedy said, but it was too small. The village maintains it year-round, shoveling snow and making repairs to prevent injuries to passersby, and it prevented the roof from falling apart.
Freeport historian Regina Feeney said that the building is now listed in as an “endangered historical place,” and is an important structure because of its design and the role that it played in the village’s commercial development.
The property where the building now stands was once home to First National Bank, more commonly known as the Meadow Brook Bank, which opened in 1911 and was Freeport’s second bank. In 1929, the current structure was built in the style of the famed Flatiron Building in Manhattan. When it was completed, the First National Bank was the tallest structure east of Jamaica, Queens.
“We should have developed this for our children and grandchildren,” Smalls said. “This property is gone now. This is wrong.”
“Thirty years is a long time for a property to sit there and not be developed,” Kennedy said. “If it were up to me, I would have had many different developments. I would have loved to see this building maintained, but they don’t want it. It’s been on the market for years.”
Zoning Board members were not available for comment at press time.