There has been a great deal written in these pages over the past few weeks about the plan to expand the Five Towns. The reference is specifically to the sale a few years ago of the Woodmere Club and 125 acres of the Woodmere golf course to developers Efrem Gerszberg and Robert Weiss.
For a long time, there were rumblings that would come and go as the two developers from New Jersey considered what to do with the property.
Today the Five Towns is a fairly tight fit. You’re either in or out — that is, you either live here or you just don’t. And the fact that home prices are skyrocketing and breaking records makes it rapidly apparent that what is needed more than anything else is more housing.
Regardless of what happens to that property, something is going to happen sooner or later — and it is going to be big and it is going to be beautiful, too.
But not so fast. There is a bit of fractured but still serious opposition to the building that is planned on that vast site, and we really cannot blame the people who live near that property. Living near a major construction site with massive building taking place over a few-year period is not an easy or pleasant thing to experience. But it happens.
We’ve been living here in the Five Towns for almost 27 years, so we have observed many similar situations. Here’s the bottom line: despite forceful objections and protestations, quite a few significant projects — not this big, but of a similar nature — have been completed here over the years, and now people who live near those projects boast about how proud they are to reside at those locations.
Here are a few examples that I recall. When the new Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv, with its great and illustrious history, was being built at the end of New McNeil Avenue on the periphery of the Village of Lawrence, there were forceful protests against the construction.
I attended a series of zoning board meetings where local residents and others in opposition to the building of the vast campus voiced vociferous disagreement and even hostility toward the yeshiva at that location.
At the time, just as now, a great deal of the resistance to the construction was regarding the amount of traffic it would bring to the immediate local vicinity. There are similar complaints being voiced by Woodmere Club critics today.
I recall at one meeting in particular that a nearby resident said that the zoning board was going to be responsible for bicycle-riding children being run over by cars driven by young men racing to yeshiva for a shiur or for Minchah on any given day or evening, depending on the time of year.
There were several suggestions made then that were never seriously considered or passed into law, and now, all these years later, just about all involved at that time realize they were completely unnecessary.
One idea floated was to turn New McNeil Avenue into a one-way street, with traffic flowing away from the yeshiva. That would mean that those driving to the school would have to take Route 878, which runs parallel to New McNeil and already featured a large volume of car traffic.
A variation of that idea was for the board to mandate that access to the yeshiva only be allowed through 878, and that would be considered if the vote to turn New McNeil into a one-way street was determined by the board.
More recently, there was the construction of the 144-apartment complex on Central Avenue known as the Regency. For years, this property was the white elephant of the Village of Lawrence. First it was the Lawrence District Number One School that housed many of the Village’s preschoolers. With the school’s student population dwindling annually, the property was sold by the district to developers for close to $30 million.
Then the builders had a poor presale and ran out of money; they were faced with having the property taken over by their bank and selling it off at a vastly reduced price. After years of that phase, the steel went up and rusted as everyone in the area waited for something to happen.
You probably know the rest of the story.
Today, the Regency is a crown jewel of Lawrence and possibly of all of the Five Towns. There is a waiting list of people who want to buy there. The two-bedroom apartments that could not be sold a decade ago at $600,000 are now going quickly at $1.5 million apiece.
When it became known that a nondescript gray private home on Central Avenue was purchased by a group to turn the structure into a shul on Central Avenue and Wedgewood Lane there was also a “himmel geshrei.” (Loosely translated, that means people were yelling bloody murder or screaming to the high heavens — your choice.)
In brief, the shul, “Heichal Dovid,” was built with some zoning limitations, and now the people who daven there as well as those who live nearby love the place. It is not unusual to hear people who are asked to describe where they live to identify their location by saying that they live between the W Shul (Heichal Dovid on the corner of Wedgewood) and the Regency.
We just might be seeing the matter of the Woodmere golf course unfold in the same direction. Right now, as you have seen in this newspaper, there is another “himmel geshrei” taking place on the subject of the planned construction there.
Like the past situations, don’t be surprised if one day there will be a waiting list to purchase a home or an apartment on the grounds of the former golf course. Someday, this property, known for now as Willow Estates, will be yet another crown jewel of the Five Towns.
Why is there so much resistance to something that there is such a market for and is so badly needed? Not only that, but there are ongoing negotiations to turn the area into quite a hub, featuring a banquet or wedding hall, or state of the art facilities that benefit the community.
Today we are still at the jockeying-for-position stage. At present, the various factions are formulating what they and the people they represent would like to see built on the site. Everyone agrees that there should be minimal disruption for the people who live immediately adjacent to the area. That no one should experience any inconvenience when any construction is taking place near where they reside is just unrealistic.
What is required here is a little foresight. The community is growing, and this might just be the next big thing for all of us to brag about.