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Residents Pack Village Hall for Public Hearing

Board to Consider Public Referendum on Bond Issue for St. Paul’s

For 17 years, the village of Garden City and its residents have debated what to do with landmark St. Paul’s Main Building and Ellis Hall. Last week, residents and non-residents offered varied opinions during the second public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). While many of the speakers were steadfast in their support of saving the iconic building, many others asked the board to consider holding a public referendum to vote on whether or not they would support a bond to save or demolish the structure.

Mayor Robert J. Rothschild opened the hearing by saying it was nice to see that so many citizens from as far as Australia were interested in seeing what happens to St. Paul’s School. With the final comment period ending on Oct. 10, the mayor showed the audience a large pile of emails that he received that afternoon and said they will be responded to and be recorded in the FEIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement).

One by one, Long Islanders stepped up to the podium to offer their take on the issue. One of the first speakers was former Garden City Mayor John McGowan, who told the board he has sat in the same seats where the board now sits and believes it is the appropriate time to move towards some kind of resolution with the building. “I am very hopeful that you will put together a resolution and vote for that resolution to actually allow people to actually vote on it...I do feel that after 43 years in this village and 35 of them in public service at no compensation, I do really wish you the best. I do ask you to consider voting for the possibility for having that vote for the people in this village,” he said.

Garden City resident Mark Ryan told the board that there is nothing new to add to the St. Paul’s conversation at this point, but offered his support for the Committee to Save St. Paul’s plan (CSSP) that was presented to the board of trustees in June. “It doesn’t do everything, but it is a great step and if we can afford to take down the building, we can afford this, and yet the plan is met with a notable silence from the board. There are legitimate questions to be asked and questions to be vetted. Surely this plan takes us closer as we’ve ever been to the goal we wanted to reach from the very beginning — save the building for future generations to enjoy,” he said. The mayor noted that they were only hearing comments and not answering any questions on the issue at this time.

Former EPOA President Robert Stark Jr. asked the board to use their good judgment but now was a time to seek the will of the people. “Let me be clear, I am neither advocating for or against. I am here to strongly urge you to allow a public referendum on the bond issue. Since all of the village residents will bear the financial consequences, it’s only right for them to decide,” he said.

A letter that was read on behalf of 22-year Garden City resident Robert Catell was met with a loud applause. “As a longtime member of Garden City Historical Society and initial supporter of the Garden City Bird Sanctuary, I have a stake in my community,” he wrote. “As well as opposing demolition, I challenge the board of trustees to transform St. Paul’s into a vibrant new amenity for the residents of Garden City. It is my understanding that there are other options and financial resources that may be available. This should be fully explored and I offer my assistance,” Catell wrote.

Alison Sparacino, a resident of the village, clarified that while she did support the AvalonBay project in a 2008 village poll, she was not in favor of saving St. Paul’s. “I do not support preservation at any cost and my second choice, therefore, would have been demolition,” she said. She went on to ask the board for an update of the cost for demolition so that residents can make an informed decision and compare the cost of other options being presented in public.

Resident Pat DiMattia expressed her opposition to demolition. She commented that residents need full disclosure on the ‘real’ costs of demolition, which she says have not been released. “I think there is a lack of information and transparency in this regard to the public,” she explained.

Gregory Cavaluzzo, a Garden City resident, was recently inspired to reach out to the Internet community and start “Save St. Paul’s” Facebook page, said he already has 115 members in the group of residents and non-residents. “On behalf of all those individuals who cannot participate in the potential vote, I would like to express their desire to save St. Paul’s.”

After comments were heard, the mayor offered a few comments regarding St. Paul’s, which he said opened in September of 1883. He read from a book that was written about the history of St. Paul’s, and noted that the book states that the building has always required considerable maintenance and modifications. The mayor said, “we have to be concerned with asking the residents of this village to take their hard-earned money to put it into a building that has no use.” The mayor added, “It comes down to dollars. I think that’s what this board is attempting to figure out what to do with it at the least expense to the residents of this village.” The mayor went on to say, “We will be taking steps in the next couple of weeks and I think that is the goal of this board…I don’t think there is one trustee up here who wants to take this building down. We need to figure out something and do something that all the residents agree on. We are never going to have 100 percent agreement.”

Trustee Dennis Donnelly said that the board feels they have to establish a “very definitive number” as to what it would cost for demolition. “There are a lot of numbers floating around, and needless to say, I would say at the moment, probably none of which are accurate. They go from low numbers to very high numbers,” he said.

“In order to compare any proposal anybody makes to use the building, you have to also have a definitive answer as to what it is to knock it down. So once you have that number, then you can either compare it to something or not. But I think a public vote on that number allows you to begin the process and if people get to vote on a specific demolition number ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If the public votes that they do not wish to authorize the bonds, then demolition is no longer an issue,” Donnelly said.

Trustee Nicholas Episcopia said if the building was to be restored, it is important to consider what the operating costs would be going forward. “Of the plans that have ever come out for a public use, no one has ever forecasted what the ongoing operating costs would be. When we talk about public ownership, we talk about the taxpayers footing those bills. No one ever seems to talk about that,” he said. “If the people are going to go forward and vote for something or they want to have something that is going to have a public use, they need to know in a structure that is 130 years old how much it is going to cost them going forward to keep this thing maintained,” Episcopia said.

Deputy Mayor Donald Brudie said he wants to preserve it until the board does come up with a solution. “I think a vote is good. I’d like a vote,” he said, adding that St. Paul’s is a “beautiful architectural gem.”

Following the hearing, Trustee Andrew Cavanaugh proposed a motion for the village staff to obtain the market costs in respect to addressing environmental concerns in the building. The board voted 6-2 in favor to apply the costs for both the demolition and preservation of the St. Paul’s Main Building and Ellis Hall.