Eminent domain will cost millions: Baldwin NY Herald, 12/7/06

Town says private developers, not taxpayers, will foot the bill

By Rachel Kalina

As the Town of Hempstead's plans for claiming eminent domain along Grand Avenue move forward, town officials announced last week that acquiring the property will cost an estimated $20 million, part of an initiative that is expected to spur private development and rejuvenate Baldwin's downtown.

At a town meeting at Baldwin Middle School last week, Town Councilman Anthony J. Santino explained that the town hopes taxpayers will not have to foot the bill for the project, saying that potential developers would ultimately bear the cost of building new stores along Grand Avenue and Merrick Road.

About 60 people showed up at the town meeting Nov. 27, where they had a chance to provide input and to hear from town officials, and the downtown project was perhaps the most talked about subject.

The town's revitalization plan was announced earlier this year, and officials are currently in the process of soliciting developers for the project and creating a vision for the area. Santino said he hopes to have an idea of that vision - and what the area will look like - by February.

The $20 million is an early estimate, a town spokesperson said, and does not include appraisals of the property or construction costs.

A large retail chains like the Gap and Old Navy would be an ideal attraction for the town, Santino said, adding that another CVS or grocery store in the area would not have as much of an impact on Baldwin's economy as would other well-known businesses like Barnes & Noble or Bed, Bath & Beyond. "Everyone knows those stores will provide first-class shopping for downtown Baldwin and induce other thriving stores to locate in Baldwin," Santino said, adding that people would come from surrounding towns to shop at such places. In turn, he said, the project would be a boon for smaller businesses in town, since shoppers would be attracted to the area after they shopped in one of the new stores on Grand Avenue.

Although other topics pertinent to Baldwin were covered at the meeting, it was one forum among many in the past year that Santino has used to update residents about the project. "This is the most important project my office is currently working on," said Charles Theofan, commissioner of the town's department of Planning and Economic Development.

Theofan said that many of the stores along Grand Avenue are vacant. The town released a blight study in February determining how would have to be done for the area to thrive. The blighted area stretches from the western side of Grand Avenue, south of Prospect Street, to Gale Avenue off Merrick Road.

Theofan said that fixing the buildings' facades would not be enough to attract shoppers and revitalize Baldwin's commercial base. As of now, according to the town, there are about 10 developers looking at the properties.

Still, town officials said they hope to have the project completed in roughly two years. "We are doing it as quickly as we can, because we know some of the store owners are suffering," Theofan said.

Another point addressed not only by Santino but also by a community member who spoke at the meeting was the status of Nunley's Carousel. Currently, Nassau County Legislator Joe Scannell (D-Baldwin) is working to get the carousel restored and returned to Baldwin. Santino made it clear that the town would appreciate the carousel's being part of the revitalization project, but only if a developer would be willing to include it in its plans - and pay for it.

"If it is economically feasible to do, the town is very much interested in siting the carousel on this property," Santino said. He added that, otherwise, he did not want Baldwin residents to pay any additional taxes for it.

Some residents, Santino said, are concerned that if the area to be revitalized is condemned, segments of the population would be pushed out of town. Santino called this theory a myth, and said, "Nothing could be further from the truth." In fact, he said, the town would help relocate those who wanted to leave the area or the village, and even provide rent assistance.

Residents who spoke at the meeting expressed concern that the town was concentrating on a very specific part of Baldwin and not focusing on other places that could use revitalizing, such as the area on Grand Avenue just north of Sunrise Highway.

Errington Hibbert was particularly concerned with that area, and asked Santino how to help the community force out unwanted businesses, like Gentleman's Quarters, a strip club.

Santino said that the town cannot just get rid of a business, and that the concept of eminent domain, which will allow the town to condemn properties downtown, wouldn't be applicable to a business just because the community dislikes it. "It's a legal business," he said of GQ. "We can't run a business out of town simply because you don't like it."

Baldwin NY Herald: http://www.zwire.com