By Larry Gordon
It is an ongoing, conÂtentious, bitter debate with overlapping interests that are colliding with one another and causing dissension and division in a community that otherwise endeavors to work together.
Perhaps dissension emerging on an Orthodox Jewish-dominated school board was inevitable, but those involved bemoan and deeply regret what is taking place.
In extensive discussions with Lawrence District school board members, attorneys from the schools and from the proposed buyer, leaders of the community, those leading the opposition to the medical center construction, neighbors of the property, and political leaders, it has become clear that there is much more at play here than what appears on the surface.
Uri Kaufman, a school board member who is one of the chief opponents of the Simone project, has not dampened or diminished his opposition to the sale of the Number Six School to Simone, a private real-estate contractor that plans to build medical offices affiliated with Mt. Sinai Hospital. He feels that many of his concerns about the development reflect the sentiment of a great many local residents.
He did, however, acknowledge to board members that in the article he authored that appeared in this paper two weeks ago, there were some misunderstandings about why the property should be sold to a yeshiva instead of to Simone. In addition, he told some of his colleagues that his depiction of the history of the sale of the Number Three School to HAFTR in 1980 was not exactly as it was described in these pages. Kaufman says that the difference was a relatively unimportant technicality and that he is researching the matter further.
“Listen, the entire approach to this situation was wrong and misguided,” said an individual closely identified with the matter. The person requested anonymity because of the increasing pressure being applied from both sides of the debate. “What should have happened here was that the community that opposes the sale to Simone should have organized earlier and figured out a way to make the JCC or the Shulmaith school the highest bidder, and then we would not be going through this now,” said the source.
Legal advice from the school board attorneys was and continues to be that the board has the obligation to endorse the sale and vote to award the property to the highest bidder–which was Simone, by a $2 million margin.
So the battle rages and will heat up even more as the day of the community referendum, March 20, approaches. Interestingly, in their advertising and publicity materials, both parties are in one way or another addressing the same issue. And that is safety in the community, traffic safety and–there are not too many pretty ways to say this–the matter of protecting the community from loiterers and people who may have something other than good intentions while visiting the otherwise pristine, tree-lined streets of the area.
There is a dispute whether the property–if Simone wins the vote–will house 60 doctors or 100 doctors. Board member Kaufman says that when the developers wanted to promote the idea that there would be employment opportunities on the site for local residents, then it was 100 doctors opening offices there. When vehicular and pedestrian traffic became a concern, the number, Kaufman says, was downgraded to 60.
“This is an attractive residential area where we allow children as young as eight years old to walk by themselves to the bus stop in the morning,” said a resident who resides about a block from the Number Six property. The area immediately adjacent to the property was hit particularly hard by Hurricane Sandy a few months ago, and many are still restoring their homes and living with neighbors or elsewhere. That the battle for the integrity of the neighborhood would be next was not expected or anticipated.
Of course, people have a right to visit healthcare practitioners wherever their offices may be. But there are concerns about how they will arrive at the location–by taxi, car service, or other modes of transportation–and the background and history of the people who will have to wait around for their passengers, sometimes for several hours, while they wait to see physicians. There is no intent to stereotype or cast aspersions on anyone. But this is the concern that is floating just beneath the surface. The fact is, Kaufman said in a recent meeting, other similar medical facilities developed by Simone are either in fully commercial areas or right off major roadways. The Number Six property sits smack in the middle of a residential area.
“This is a legitimate concern,” said an individual intimately involved in the process. “My guess is that the board did not consider this aspect of the plan and they probably should have done that.”
From the Simone Development perspective they are emphasizing that access to the medical center will be strictly from the already heavily trafficked Peninsula Boulevard or the adjacent Branch Boulevard. In a letter to the Five Towns public, advertised in this paper last week, Joseph Simone stated, “The building will not front Ibsen Street or Church Avenue. In fact the opposite is true. We will close all entrances on these residential streets and create a new entrance in the interior of the property facing the parking lot. We will plant abundant landscaping buffers to enhance the streetscape, with a special emphasis on the Church Avenue and Ibsen Street sides. Additionally, we will rebuild and enhance the popular community playground on the site.”
From the perspective of the school board, while there may be a silent consensus that the property should continue as a school or be awarded to the JCC, there is a concern by the Orthodox Jewish—dominated board that they would be viewed as favoring their own over a prudent, economically sound sale to the developer. The board could have been on solid ground in awarding the property to Shulamith or the JCC, who both bid $10.5 million, on the grounds that a commercial enterprise like a medical center would not be compatible with or in the best interests of the surrounding community.
Dr. Asher Mansdorf, the school board president, has demonstrated that he is committed to protecting the integrity of the board and conducting business at all times in a legal and proper manner. He refuses to say whether he now favors the Simone project, though he did cast his vote in favor of the sale when the board voted on the matter.
Which brings us to the issue of conducting business in a partisan fashion and whether that is legal or proper. It seems that while the board is following the guidance of legal counsel, there was perhaps sufficient legal wiggle room to choose a lower bid if the board determined that the bidder was indeed best suited for and most compatible with the surrounding community.
Some say that the majority consensus on the board is with members Kaufman and Nahum Marcus, who were against the sale from the start. The majority felt, however, that to protect the integrity and independence of the board they had to select the Simone bid. Some say that they understood that the decision would rile the community–as it has done–and that a campaign to vote down the selection would be organized, and that has been done as well.
While Kaufman and Marcus, the dissenting voters, believed that the board had sufficient right to reject Simone from the start, the other board members did not concur and therefore voted to endorse the sale to Simone.
According to attorney Al D’Agostino of Minerva & D’Agostino here on Long Island, who advises the school board, the board did the right thing and indeed had no other option but to select Simone as the winner of the bid. “But this does not by any means end the process,” Mr. D’Agostino said in a phone interview on Monday with the Five Towns Jewish Times. In fact, as was reported previously here, there was a higher bidder than Simone’s $12.5 million, and that was Lifetime Entertainment, a large indoor sports complex that would have potentially attracted up to 8,000 members. Their $13 million bid was turned down by the board, but not because of a lack of suitability or compatibility with the community. Had they applied properly, D’Agostino said, the board would have had to award the property to that group.
This brings to the fore the question of why there is a requirement that the board convene on the matter and vote at all. If the law says that the property has to go to the highest bidder, what is the voting about anyway? Why do we not just go from announcing the highest bidder to gearing up for a district-wide referendum? Inserting the board into a matter where they may have had no legal rights just added to the dissension and acrimony that has surrounded this debate.
There are others in the area who are unhappy with the way events are unfolding around the Number Six School. Doctors in private practice in the Five Towns are concerned about what the impact such an expansive group of medical offices is going to have upon their practices.
Also concerned are the owners and management companies of office buildings that house physicians along Central Avenue and Rockaway Turnpike. They are concerned that their tenants will be lured to join the new medical center and that their buildings, designed and constructed to accommodate medical practices, will be left mostly empty.
Benjamin Weinstock, legal counsel to Simone Development, deputy mayor of the Village of Cedarhurst, and a resident of Woodmere as well as a member of the Young Israel of Woodmere, says that these concerns are simply part of the changing face of how medical care will ultimately be dispensed throughout the country.
While the Simone campaign to win over the hearts and minds of district residents is not specifically focused on or addressed to medical professionals, there are meetings and communications going on that target those in the medical field. Weinstock makes the argument that higher-level and more comprehensive care will be available if the community authorizes the facility to develop the site. He says that a managed-care facility that represents 60 or so doctors has the ability to represent itself to insurers and wrest higher reimbursements from them for services and to do so in an expeditious way. He adds that the doctors will also have less overhead and have the opportunity to practice medicine without the burden of managing the economics of a practice, which can take up an inordinate amount of time.
He said that at similar facilities, affiliated doctors are doing quite well, with internists earning average incomes of $250,000 annually, pediatricians more than $500,000 per year, and ob-gyns earning more than $750,000 annually.
Of course those numbers give rise to the greatest concern of residents in the community, which is that in order to realize those numbers, according to one of the opposition leaders, Joshua Schein of Woodmere, doctors at the facility will cumulatively be seeing upwards of 3,000 patients a day. “That will be very harmful to every aspect of life in our neighborhoods,” Mr. Schein says. “What I don’t understand more than anything else is how the school board members that we elected to represent our interests have done the exact opposite and are promoting a plan and a project that will do far more damage than good.”
There are three weeks to go until the referendum takes place. Both groups are accelerating their campaigns, and both feel that they have a great deal at stake.
So did the school board have to do what they did, or did they have a choice? This too is a point of debate and contention. Board member Uri Kaufman says that they could have voted it down. The attorney, Mr. D’Agostino, says they had no choice but to vote in favor. More than anything, it is a fascinating process in which the people of the community get the last word. v
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