Estates board sets theater demo plan deadline

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The Village of Great Neck Estates Board of Trustees has set a deadline for the owners of the iconic First Playhouse theater to submit demolition plans, saying if the owners did not submit plans soon their permit to take down the structure would be rescinded. 

“This process is now going on way beyond reasonableness. A lot of reasons, a lot of personal problems, a lot of personnel problems have been given as a reason for the delays,” Village of Great Neck Estates Mayor David Fox said last week. “But there really comes a time that you need to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘this is it’. And I’m prepared to say, ‘let the permit expire, let’s be done with it.’”

Trustees in the past have extended the permit to demolish the now defunct theater and replace it with luxury apartments. Reasons for the extensions range from trustees requesting further information and the death of the projects’ original architect. 

Fox and trustees said the owners would have until the board’s April 10 meeting to submit concrete plans on the demolition and development proposal. 

Attorney William Bonesso, who is representing property owners First Playhouse of Great Neck Corp., said the demolition was delayed by revisions to the plan made by the project’s architect.

“You only get one shot at this. The building is very tall and you don’t get to knock it down twice,” Bonesso said in an interview. “The engineer had to go back and modify their drawings. That is taking more time than it’s been expected to take.” 

The theater, which is located at the corner of Middle Neck Road and Maple Drive, dates back to 1925 and has lain dormant since 1980.

The playhouse attracted many leading acts throughout the years, including the Marx Brothers, Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein. 

The owners of the property are proposing to build a luxury apartment complex at the site of the theater. 

The project, Bonesso said, was first approved in 2007. That proposal would have kept the original facade of the theater and renovated the inside but those plans fell through when engineers said it would be much more cost-effective to completely rebuild the property, Bonesso said.

The project has been criticized by many of the local residents, including Great Neck Estates historian Ilse Kagan. 

“It is considered by outsiders and insiders as a very important building in the village, and the history of course is phenomenal,” Kagan said last April. “The playhouse recalls Great Neck’s glorious days.”

Kagan has said the theater’s history makes it worthy of landmark status and that the building should remain as is. 

“Now to say that they’re going to take it down and rebuild it is absurd,” Kagan said. “I don’t think that’s a solution.

The Great Neck Historical Society, in a letter written to the village last year, has said they would like to see the existing facade not be knocked down. 

“It is a reminder of an exciting period in our history when we were both literally and figuratively just ‘30 minutes from Broadway,’” the letter said. “A substitute copy of the building is not the same.”

Part of the property is also within the Village of Great Neck Plaza.

The Villages of Great Neck Estates and Great Neck Plaza have been holding discussions on the property’s future since 2005. 

Fox said at the meeting last week, those discussions have gone on for too long.

“I’m tired of sitting here and I think the whole board and the residents are tired of sitting here and hearing projections to get this done in 30 days or 60 days only to be asked for more time again,” Fox said. “If you are committed to this process and committed to getting this done, then you’ve got to show us you’re working day and night. I don’t want to hear excuses and I think that’s reasonable on our part at this time.”

Efforts to reach Fox for additional comment were unavailing. 

A date for when the building will come down is up to when and if trustees approve the application, Bonesso said. 

“We’d love to get it done some time soon when the weather is warmer,” Bonesso said. 

Alex Lacerda contributed to this report

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