By Larry Gordon
Last week we were led to believe that there was a possibility that the Simone Development company, in tandem with the Mount Sinai Medical Center, was prepared to withdraw from its plan to develop the old Number Six School site in Woodmere as a medical center for some 60 doctors and related healthcare services.
That report may have been slightly premature, but we have been assured by those close to the process that ending the drive to acquire the Woodmere property is the goal of the developer; however, achieving that end is somewhat complicated due to several stipulations in the existing contract. Ben Weinstock, the attorney for Simone, said at a meeting of the Lawrence Association on Tuesday evening that the assertion was erroneous. Others involved in the process, however, affirmed its validity.
Certainly, according to attorneys on both sides, what cannot happen is that the two parties just mutually decide to end their contract and each go their own way, although that’s what many residents we have spoken to would like to see.
What seems clear at this juncture is that while it is a legally complicated situation, by voting “no” in next Wednesday’s referendum you are helping out three distinct entities, all of whom need you (while one cannot ask) to vote against awarding the Number Six School property to Simone/Mount Sinai.
Everyone involved had good intentions at the outset and wanted what was best for the community. It just did not work out that way. That happens sometimes. This is one of those times.
By voting “no” in the March 20 referendum in District #15, you spare the Woodmere community from the painful process of making way for a busy medical facility landing right in the center of their neighborhood. In addition, you assist the Simone Group by letting them out of their contract and recouping their $1.25 million deposit, which is only refundable if their bid is rejected by the people. And you also help out our local school board that, due to quirks in the law, got stuck in a situation that they are uncertain how to extricate themselves from.
So, as you can see, your simple no vote next week can accomplish quite a lot for quite a number of people. Despite all those good intentions, these events have unfolded into a communitywide fiasco that the parties are trying to deconstruct and climb out of.
The first sign that something was amiss came last week when, close to our printing deadline, the Simone ad agency asked us to pull all their ads. A few days later we reached out to Simone asking that they elucidate any changes in their plans. We reached out to Simone attorney Mr. Weinstock, and asked the same question about the retooling of the PR strategy. Weinstock said, “We are not campaigning as a response to an analysis of where we are.” I asked if that meant that if they could withdraw from the project they would, and he responded, “I think there is a pretty good chance we are going to win.”
Why all the caginess and the carefully crafted statements open to different interpretations? The more questions we ask, the further away we seem to drift from drawing an informed conclusion.
One of the central problems here is that because the Lawrence District is dominated by trustees from the Orthodox Jewish community, they are viewed by the overseers at the State Education Department in Albany as being similar to the East Ramapo (Monsey) school board, which is also predominantly Orthodox. Over the years that board has been mired in a number of questionable transactions, specifically in the area of sales of underutilized buildings to yeshivas. The comparison is both misplaced and unfortunate.
Al D’Agostino of the firm of Minerva & D’Agostino of Valley Stream, the attorney for the Lawrence district, has been very forthcoming and helpful in elucidating the daily changes in the project as well as our attempt to understand what happens next. D’Agostino explained that because one of the board members believed that there was a legal way to withdraw from the contract, he recommended to the board that they seek a second legal opinion on the matter. That was done, and the new attorney concurred with Mr. D’Agostino’s finding that the people need to go to the polls on March 20 to decide the fate of the project.
One of the curious matters we came across this week when reviewing the Lawrence District—Simone contract, which was furnished to the Five Towns Jewish Times, was that some of the issues presented as fact in early ads by Simone and Mount Sinai have either been misunderstood or not presented clearly. One of those key issues is when the school district would receive the balance of the $12.5 million if Simone wins the contract.
Many felt that we were led to believe that the infusion of cash after the closing would help the school district out of a $6.5 million deficit and thereby make it unnecessary to raise taxes next year. The contract, however, indicates that Simone is not required to pay the more than $11 million balance until they apply and receive variances for the Woodmere property. According to both Mr. D’Agostino and Mr. Weinstock, that process can take a year or longer.
Additionally it was learned that the transaction is being facilitated by the Industrial Development Agency of the Town of Hempstead, which affords the buyer certain tax benefits and relief associated with the purchase of the property. Amongst other things, the contract says–and the attorneys confirmed–that Simone will not be required to pay the tax on the full assessed value until the 10th year of the contract. How much they will be required to pay in property taxes in year one and going forward is still unclear to many involved in the process.
An additional benefit to managing the deal through IDA is that Simone will not have to pay any mortgage tax and will also not have to pay any sales tax on materials purchased in the course of building or renovating the property.
As to the concern regarding how such a large development might change the nature of the community, Mr. Weinstock said that Simone “is not indifferent to what is taking place” in the community. He adds that Simone has commissioned further traffic studies to alleviate whatever concerns may exist about vehicular congestion should the sale go forward.
As to what he sees happening, Weinstock, who is also deputy mayor of Cedarhurst, says that the outcome all depends on voter turnout on March 20. He says that he is confident that they can win the vote.
But Dr. Jack Levenbrown, a former mayor of the Village of Lawrence, said at the Tuesday meeting, “I think this project stinks, and I plan to vote no.” Two other local doctors, Dr. Charlie Mitgang of Lawrence and Dr. Alex Sternberg of Woodmere, said after the Lawrence meeting that they thought Simone was misrepresenting the numbers of staff that would be needed at the facility to work with 60 doctors. Mr. Weinstock told the meeting that there would be about 100 support staff, but Drs. Mitgang and Sternberg agreed that 200 support staff was more realistic.
On the matter of whether Mount Sinai Hospital, which would be leasing the property from Simone, is still committed to the project, Weinstock says that “they are absolutely committed.” Interestingly, there is no mention of Mount Sinai anywhere in the contract that was signed by the school district. This has led leaders of the Community Coalition of the Five Towns to express concern that if they win the referendum Simone might be able to rent the property to anyone. “Without written proof that Mount Sinai Hospital will actually run this facility, Simone could pull a classic bait-and-switch,” Dr. Josh Schein said. “Who knows? Once the Number Six School is sold, Simone could easily hire a far less reputable medical group to run this mega-medical center.”
He added that he felt that the favorable tax benefits being afforded to the Simone group could also possibly lead to an increase in taxes being passed on to homeowners in the district.
For their part, both D’Agostino and Weinstock see that as impossible. “Anyone that wants to develop the property will need a variance, and if the community is opposed to any said project, it is unlikely that the Town of Hempstead will be disposed toward issuing such variances,” said Mr. D’Agostino.
As for members of the board, they have been advised not to speak on the record and to allow the process to take its course. One board member did express concern about what Simone would be paying in taxes to the district over those first few years, saying that the matter “is still unclear.”
It has been a difficult and contentious debate, with the people to make the final decision next Wednesday. If you reside in the Lawrence District–which includes Lawrence, Cedarhurst, half of Woodmere, North Woodmere, and Inwood–the 5TJT suggests that you go out to vote, and vote “no.” That will put an end to an episode that has been a nightmare for the community, for the school board, and in all likelihood for Simone. After all, when in life can you say no and make just about everyone happy? It is rare, but here it is. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at email@example.com.