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City hears residents’ concerns over White House rezoning

Supporters of a Whitestone restaurant owner’s redevelopment plan squared off against a long succession of community members who want the city to block it at a hearing last week that at times turned nasty.

The city Planning Commission last week considered a proposal by Joe Franco, the White House Restaurant’s owner to rezone the block containing his property so he can upgrade and expand the eatery.

In the couple of months since he announced his plan, the proposal has become a major point of controversy in the waterside neighborhood.

The zoning change would allow certain types of two-story residential and commercial buildings to be built on the entire east end of the block of 154th Street from 10th to 11th avenues.

Whitestone resident Geri Entler, an employee of Franco’s, said the block is already largely commercial and that expanding the restaurant at 10-24 154th St. — currently a one-story building with a partial second floor — to have catering facilities on a larger footprint with a new, expansive, second-floor party space would bring benefits to the area.

“It will create many part-time jobs and full-time jobs, more than 100,” she told the commission. “We just need a revitalization and an uplift in the neighborhood. It’s full of drug addicts and needs a change.”

But opponents say Franco’s plan is too far-reaching. Under his proposal, the property would not be the only one affected. The whole block would be upzoned to accommodate certain types of larger, two-story residential buildings and to allow commercial activity.

Borough President Helen Marshall approved the project before it advanced to the Planning Commission, and she recommended that only the residential upzoning move forward on the rest of the block, leaving the restaurant as the only new commercial property.

But residents of the block, including Brian Garry, who lives in the adjacent home to the north, and other concerned community members say the application should be withdrawn and Franco should apply for a narrow variance instead, so the rest of the block will retain its current zoning.

Marlene Cody, a vice president with the Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Civic Association, presented a petition with the signatures of 162 project opponents to the commission.

“We need to be responsible here. A variance could build a very nice catering hall and all would be in agreement,” she said. “This would be a very large-scale facility with serious impacts on the community.”

The White House was sold to Franco by longtime principal owner Matty Geoghegan last month. In 2009, Franco, the former proprietor of Caffé on the Green in Bayside, lost the license for the city Parks Department concession, which now is operated as Valentino’s on the Green.

A lawyer for Franco has said the project is expected to break ground this fall or in early 2012, and that construction could be completed as early as fall 2012.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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