The New York Times
Our Towns / By Peter Applebome, Syosset, N.Y.

May 13, 2007

A Mall Plan, a Call to Arms, a Plot of Land Still Empty

Almost seven years ago, not long after 2,000 hostile residents packed a hearing that lasted until 4 in the morning, a spokesman for a ritzy new mall proposed for a former industrial site off the Long Island Expressway found himself extolling the virtues of a project that surely was hovering just over the horizon.

We are talking about a mall the likes of which Long Island has never seen,” said Gary Lewi, representing the Taubman Centers, the national development company that back in 1995 had announced its plan to build the Mall at Oyster Bay on the site of the old Cerro Wire and Cable Company factory.

As both the empty site and the billboard in front of it that directs people to the Web site attest, Long Island still has not seen it.

Instead, what has happened is something akin to Long Island’s version of the Hundred Years’ War with an appropriately contemporary battleground of high-end luxury retailers and fought with the state-of-the-art weaponry of suburban land-use politics. Lawyers litigate. Civic groups agitate. Governments deliberate. More than $100 million has been spent by Taubman alone. And nothing happens.

I’ve never seen one go on this long,” said Herbert M. Balin, who represents civic groups fighting the mall and has been doing real estate law on Long Island since 1952. “And we’re still way, way away from this being over — another four to five years minimum.

His time frame may be mere saber rattling but there is still no end in sight.

Development disputes are less fun than what Eva Longoria is wearing on “Desperate Housewives” or who Tony is whacking on “The Sopranos.” But the real suburban grand opera of Long Island is the Battle of the Mall at Oyster Bay, which began when Taubman announced a plan for yet another fancy mall to capture its share of the high-dollar North Shore market. Its current proposal calls for an 860,000-square-foot project with Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Barneys as anchor tenants.

There were, however, a few problems. One was that the market was dominated by Simon Property Group, another real estate giant, which had no interest in welcoming Taubman to the neighborhood.

Second was that Long Island has a state-of-the-art culture of activist civic associations, which have catapulted obscure homeowners to major political figures. So what began with a few neighborhood associations near the site eventually morphed — with some help from Simon — into the Cerro Wire Coalition, which bills itself as comprising 27 civic, business, educational and community groups representing more than 40,000 Town of Oyster Bay homeowners and 6,000 small business owners countywide.

The Town of Oyster Bay’s Environmental Quality Review Board reviewed the proposal in 2000 and recommended to the town board that it be approved. This set off a firestorm of opposition from homeowners who said it would bring too much traffic, inundating nearby neighborhoods. That led to the raucous all-night public hearing and then another review, in which the same proposal was rejected by the quality review board and then the town board.

The residents vote; Taubman doesn’t,” said Lee E. Koppelman, who was, until last year, the longtime executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board.

Taubman sued in 2001, saying there was no valid reason to turn down the proposal. It won, with the court ruling that the town’s action had been arbitrary and capricious. Taubman has won most of the legal rounds since, but it still doesn’t have approval to build.

Both sides are awaiting a ruling on a motion by Taubman filed Oct. 30 asking a Suffolk County Supreme Court judge to give Taubman the authority to go ahead with the project. Appeals and subsequent legal actions are likely.

The civic coalition, showing either enterprise or chutzpah, has come up with its own development plans for the property it doesn’t own and has solicited developers who might be interested. Todd Fabricant, chairman of the coalition, figures the process has kept a huge company from steamrolling homeowners who don’t want the project. “The process worked, the application was denied and the developer has not accepted the decision,” he said.

You can question whether Long Island really needs another mall. Many, not just aggrieved neighbors, would say no.

But Clifford Sondock, an economist with a libertarian bent whose Land Use Institute in Jericho extols the virtues of the free market and the idea that property owners, within some obvious legal limits, should generally be able to use their property as they see fit, portrays the process as the ultimate Long Island development nightmare.

It is a case in which the project is a high-end mall, not a toxic dump, he said. The land is right off the Long Island Expressway. There is no need to acquire more property. And more than a decade on, the company is still in court trying to get a permit to go forward.

I tell people in Atlanta and Chicago and Dallas that a community on Long Island is fighting to keep out an upscale mall with Neiman Marcus, and they don’t believe me,” he said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the most difficult for development, Long Island is a 9 or a 10. It’s like building in Cuba.

- by Peter Applebome, THE NEW YORK TIMES

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Cerro Wire Coalition
P.O. Box 102
Jericho, NY 11753