Two key pieces of the puzzle that is the proposed Mount Sinai South Nassau medical building in Wantagh are seemingly all that remain. And both are before the Town of Hempstead Board of Appeals.
Is there enough parking at the former Verizon building at 2020 Wantagh Ave., that the hospital plans to convert into a medical office building? And will the board permit Mount Sinai to repair the facade?
That’s the case lawyers representing the hospital made to town officials during a three-hour hearing last week that pitted supporters against opponents. And there seemed to be a significant turnout from both sides. Yet, the appeals board made it clear: They are not ready to make any decisions right now, and they don’t have a specific timetable on when they might be ready. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 11.
The four-story brick building has sat abandoned for more than five years. Mount Sinai has spent almost all that time working to construct and open an $35 million medical center it says will employ 30 doctors and 50 support staff members. It would offer a wide variety of specialty medical care from women’s health to oncology to diabetes care. It also would provide ancillary services like lab work and X-rays.
Mount Sinai has sought a variance to off-street parking after town officials concluded the Wantagh Avenue facility would need more than 300 spaces. Mount Sinai, however, argues its engineers demonstrate a need for fewer than 250.
But those who oppose the facility remain skeptical of Mount Sinai’s parking plans, citing frustrations expressed by Oceanside residents about parking problems near the main hospital there while a new parking structure remains under construction. Mount Sinai has expanded off-site parking into Rockville Centre in the meantime, providing shuttle buses to bring employees across Sunrise Highway and Merrick Road. Onsite, they have added a valet service for visitors.
Tom Watson, who owns a commercial building on Wantagh Avenue, said he was worried that parking for his and other businesses would suffer with more people coming in from out of town.
“I live in Wantagh,” he said. “I have some common sense. And this is going to be a problem.”
The $35 million price tag to convert the 60,000-square-foot building includes not only a complete interior reconstruction, but also an overall of the structure’s façade. That’s because of water damage and natural wear and tear over the years, hospital officials said.
The town building department, however, has concluded the façade cannot be repaired. But last week, Mount Sinai attorney William Bonesso made the case the building department wrongly applied the town’s structural codes. Most specifically, where officials cited “no building which has been damaged by fire or other causes to the extent of more than 50 percent of its replacement value … shall be repaired or rebuilt.” except under specific circumstances.
“So, the building department has determined that the damage to our building’s façade system — caused by water infiltration over some 50 years — qualifies as ‘damage by fire or other causes,’” Bonesso told the board. “To this we say the department of buildings’ interpretation and application of Section 306 is wrong on both counts.”
There have been dueling online petitions both for and against the proposed medical facility. A petition opposing Mount Sinai’s plans has 750 or so signatures and decried the hospital’s nonprofit status as potentially costing the town tens of thousands of dollars in taxes. Mount Sinai maintains that despite the nonprofit status, the office building will benefit the community by providing a place closer to home for care.
Verizon, the building’s former tenant, paid more than $350,000 in taxes on the building in 2016. That wouldn’t happen with a non-profit, opponents claimed, ultimately pulling money out of the coffers for the school district, public library, and the police and fire departments.
Stephen Lucchessi, who lives in Wantagh’s Brookside Estates, echoed those concerns, but also worried about how the facility would change the character of the area. Mount Sinai purchased two homes behind the building to make room for additional parking, if needed.
The Oceanside hospital also held informational sessions for Wantagh residents in March and April. Mayors Francis Murray and Robert Kennedy from Rockville Centre and Freeport, respectively, and State Senator John Brooks all wrote to the board in favor of the medical office building.
“It’s time to step up and preserve the nature and character of our friendly neighborhood,” Lucchessi said. “Not only does knocking down homes change the landscape and character of this town but will also remove two more properties from our tax roll, as Mount Sinai is a not-for-profit entity. Mount Sinai has the right idea, but they have the wrong location.”
A petition in favor of the medical facility boasts more than 1,200 signatures. And it has the support of Leonard Cohen.
“To have something like this in our neighborhood would be an extreme positive,” the Wantagh resident said. “Right now, I go to a cardiologist in Rockville Centre, an endocrinologist in Merrick. I go to the hospital for my laboratory services. This would be an absolute asset for the neighborhood.”
But Wantagh Fire District superintendent Brandon Morello spoke on behalf of the local fire department opposing the plans. He described Jones Avenue — which crosses directly behind the old Verizon facility — as a one-lane residential side street. Increasing traffic there could make emergency response more difficult in that neighborhood.
Morello explained that when Verizon occupied the building, the traffic was more predictable, because its employees were shift workers who were not coming and going throughout the day.
“We feel the only solution would be to close access from the (medical center) parking lot to Jones Avenue, and to only allow vehicular traffic to exit the parking lot onto Wantagh Avenue,” Morello said. “We feel that this would probably assure the safety of not only the patients from 2020 Wantagh Ave., but also for the residents of the greater Wantagh community.”
If ultimately approved, the medical center would provide services including cardiology, dermatology, radiology and pain management in some 50 private patient examination and consultation rooms. It would not, however, provide overnight beds.
It’s expected to operate between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, with the possibility of evenings and Saturdays in the future.