A group of neighbors who live near the shuttered Long Beach Medical Center have joined forces to oppose a plan by Mount Sinai South Nassau to build a medical arts pavilion on property that has long been zoned residential.
The former Long Beach Medical Center building, at 440 E. Bay Dr., has remained vacant since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and many residents in the area said that South Nassau reneged on a promise to turn that structure into the medical arts pavilion with an emergency room (see sidebar)
In August, three homeowners who live on East State Street filed suit against South Nassau Communities Hospital — now Mount Sinai South Nassau — and the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, after the board gave South Nassau the OK in July to move forward with a revised plan to build the $40 million facility, using Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, across the street from the former LBMC building, which could remain vacant for years. Many residents said that the vacant building would continue to blight the community.
The land that the LBMC occupied was zoned for hospital use, but the southern portion of the property, the proposed site of the 15,000-square-foot, roughly 30-foot-tall medical center, near Franklin Boulevard and abutting East State Street, is zoned residential.
Residents Nadine Watts, Alison La Ferlita and Leah Tozer filed the suit on behalf of more than 20 residents in the area in Nassau County State Supreme Court, seeking to reverse the zoning board’s decision. “All the information that was put out by the City of Long Beach and South Nassau all referred to the former site of the Long Beach Medical Center, but it was never the site of the former Long Beach Medical Center, so everybody was a little blindsided,” said Watts, whose East State Street home would face the rear of the medical arts pavilion.
Mount Sinai South Nassau said it was moving forward with plans to build an elevated one-story medical center using a portion of the $154 million in FEMA funding that the hospital received when it acquired the LBMC property in a bankruptcy sale in 2014.
Residents said they support the initial plan to renovate the vacant LBMC facility into a medical pavilion, or to build it on the northern side of the property. They criticized South Nassau’s proposal to turn the LBMC building into an assisted-living facility in the future, and said they're not buying the hospital's claim that it would be unable to build the medical pavilion to the 100-year flood plain on the north side of the property (see sidebar).
“We have no problem with them building on the actual site of the former medical center, across Bay Drive,” said resident June Schecter. “This is an attempt to use up the FEMA money . . . to preserve the rest of the property so they can get a maximum return on their investment, which they bought at bankruptcy prices. It’s greed to ruin our neighborhood.”
Hospital officials denied that claim, and said that the pavilion would be near a separate freestanding emergency department built in 2015.
At odds over ‘merger’
The lawsuit, however, claims that the ZBA was “misled” when it agreed that the southeastern portion of the LBMC property be merged with lots north of East Bay Drive. The lawsuit claims that what is known as the “doctrine of merger” does not apply, because that section of the property was not zoned for medical use.
Denis Kelly, an attorney for the residents, said that because the facility would be in an area that was once homes, a new use variance would be required for a medical building, and Mount Sinai South Nassau would have to show “economic hardship” and disclose how the FEMA money was spent.
“They’re saying that a hospital along the water should be merged with the lots south of East Bay Drive,” Kelly said. “. . . Lots on the south side of East Bay Drive were single- and two-family homes.”
South Nassau representatives argued at a special zoning board meeting on July 9 that the project did not require a variance, and that the property should be merged “as of right” because it had also housed medical offices, including a drug treatment facility — since razed — that were long associated with the LBMC. Officials also said that FEMA has been “fully briefed” on the new plan, but has not yet formally approved it.
Though Mount Sinai South Nassau officials said that the project would not have a negative impact on the area, that it would improve the property and that the design of the medical arts pavilion is in character with the neighborhood, a number of residents criticized the project. Many said that it would be too close to homes, exacerbate flooding in an area with no protection, block views and negatively impact home values. They also cited traffic, parking and other quality-of-life concerns. In addition to the lawsuit, they launched a Change.org petition calling for the vacant building to be declared a blighted property, similar to homes abandoned after Sandy.
“What they’re proposing to do will forever change a residential neighborhood into a commercial district, if they build the facility as proposed today,” said Kevin Reilly, vice president of the North East Bay and Canal Civic Association. “They continue to present the plan as the site of the former hospital. This is not the site of the former hospital. The former hospital is still standing.”
Last month, Watts, La Ferlita and Tozer requested a temporary restraining order in State Supreme Court to block Mount Sinai South Nassau from moving forward with the project, which was denied after hospital officials argued that the move was an attempt to delay the re-establishment of medical services on the property.
“If judgment is rendered in favor of the three petitioners, the roughly 40,000 residents of the Long Beach barrier island will be deprived of needed medical services,” Tom Garry, an attorney for Mount Sinai South Nassau, said. “As the record amply demonstrates, the Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision was rational, supported by substantial evidence and properly rendered after an open and robust public hearing.”
Mount Sinai South Nassau’s long-term vision for the property, officials said, is to develop a medical campus. The hospital is currently in preliminary talks with Cassena Care to convert all or part of the vacant LBMC building into an assisted living facility and dialysis center, officials said. Mount Sinai South Nassau has also long denied rumors that the property would be sold to build condominiums.
“Our plans for the site are a medical campus that would benefit the community, and that could include geriatric services that could augment the emergency department, the medical arts pavilion and the family medicine practice that is already on the site,” Joe Calderone, the hospital’s senior vice president of corporate communications and development, explained. “We’ve been at dozens of community meetings . . . and the biggest question we get is, when is it going to open and what services are we going to provide?”
Mount Sinai officials said that the litigation had not stalled the project, and construction is expected to begin next summer. “We’re in the middle of a selection process for the contractor — we have applications before the Building Department for building permits,” said Calderone, adding that the facility would meet all height, traffic, parking and flood runoff requirements. “This is a project that the City of Long Beach and the barrier island residents need and want, and have asked us about repeatedly, and has the support from the community at large and our elected officials.”