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Franco’s new retail plans seal the lips of city agency

Joe Franco filed documents to build retail and office spaces in place of the White House restaurant, but the plans temporarily disappeared from the city's database.
TimesLedger Newspapers

The owner of the White House restaurant recently filed paperwork to build a series of retail stores and offices instead of a catering hall in Whitestone, but the city temporarily pulled the permits off a public database following a TimesLedger Newspapers inquiry.

In March 2012, Joe Franco, former owner of the defunct Caffe on the Green, resubmitted certain portions of his catering hall permit that was disapproved last summer, documents from the city Department of Buildings showed.

One of the new documents described a two-story building that would house an unknown number of offices and retail stores with parking for 32 cars in the rear.

A July 2011 version of the same form showed that Franco sought to build a two-story catering and banquet hall capable of holding more than 700 people.

Franco and his architect Christopher Papas declined to comment on the change in plans.

Last Thursday, this newspaper told a Buildings spokeswoman that several documents in the original permit had been resubmitted in March. The spokeswoman refused to answer repeated calls placed to her office over the next three days as to whether the swap was standard practice, which it may very well be. On Tuesday morning, the entire permit was temporarily pulled from the department’s website without explanation. It was not clear whether the document substitution and sudden disappearance of the permit were related.

The permit appears to be under review again by Buildings, according to its website.

In addition, more specific permits to work on the building’s structure and interior have already been granted, according to city documents.

The process of subdividing work is common in the development world, according to a member of the Queens chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“Structural plans, for instance, can be filed under a separate documents. They don’t have to be approved at the same time,” said Willy Zambrano, architect and treasurer of the chapter.

In many cases, this allows work on foundations or other essential elements of the building to begin while the rest of the plans for a building go through the approval process.

News of Franco’s decision to scrap the catering hall was a welcome development for some civic leaders, who were outraged after he received a zoning change from the city for the project.

“We lost the battle, but we won the war,” said Kim Cody, president of the Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Civic Association, who said he learned of the change in plans after attending a meeting with City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) last month.

Cody had originally expressed fears that the catering hall would be too big for the neighborhood and was joined by neighbors, civics and state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) in denouncing the development.

But the plan enjoyed support from others in the community in addition to Halloran. Devon O’Connor, of the Welcome to Whitestone civic, and Jack Friedman, of the Queens Chamber of Commerce and Whitestone residents submitted letters to support the zoning change.

Community Board 7, along with Borough President Helen Marshall, approved the zoning change prior to the Department of City Planning.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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