On hand for the vote that didn’t happen—it’s set for the next meeting on March 6—was Bruce W. Heckman, Taubman’s vice president for development, who flew in from Michigan.
“I’ve been involved in rezoning over 40 million-square feet of retail in the United States,” he tells the Press. “I’ve seen every kind of SEQRA there is, and I’ve never seen a more flagrant abuse of SEQRA than in the Town of Oyster Bay.”
He says Taubman may go back to court or file the supplemental environmental statement the town has been demanding. He says the SEQRA files would already stack up higher than him, and he’s 6-foot-1.
Opponents of the mall point to Taubman’s recent hiring of Resi Cooper, formerly Hillary Clinton’s regional director when she was senator; Dan Perkins, formerly vice president of the Long Island Association; and Pat Lynch, who used to be Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s top aide and close confidante. Taubman’s team counters that Simon has hired Patrick Halpin, former Suffolk County executive, as well as funded the creation of “phantom” civic groups in the Syosset area near the mall.
“The fact that they’ve had their tax status revoked or only have a P.O. box speaks to whether or not they represent a broad swath of people in the community like they say they do,” says Menashe Shapiro, a spokesman for the developer who was director of opposition research for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign and a spokesman for Dan Donovan, a Republican who ran for New York State Attorney General in 2010. “By barely existing, one can credibly argue that they don’t.”
Kevin Ryan, a publicist and a leader of the Cerro Wire Coalition, countered that the only reason the civic groups lost their tax-exempt status is because of “sloppy paperwork.”
Avrutine defended Simon Property’s help.
“The community is very, very fortunate and very, very thankful that Simon has supported us,” says Avrutine, who’s been involved in this issue since 1995. “Quite frankly we were happy to get it because it put us on a level playing field with these guys.”
That’s not how the Taubman team sees the situation. Simon Property, whose 337 properties comprise some 245 million-square feet in North America and Asia, just turned in “outstanding” results for the last quarter, a spokesman tells the Press, and the stock “is near a record high.” Their pockets are deep but their methods run deeper.
“There’s transparency on the Taubman side, there’s zero transparency on the side of the opposition,” says Shapiro. “This is basically a competitor doing anything necessary to block what is a legitimate and good idea, not just for Taubman but for all Long Island, and it’s keeping people out of work. And it’s keeping $5 million a year out of the hands of the Syosset public school system, which is what they’d get directly from the mall.”
The Syosset school district, which, The New York Post writes, “serves an enclave of gated communities, ritzy eateries and children’s boutiques like ‘Spoiled Rotten,’” has earned the dubious distinction of having the highest paid superintendent in the state, Carole Hankin, who gets $506,322 in reported compensation—almost $200,000 more than that paid the New York City schools chancellor. The district and the school board declined to comment on the mall issue despite repeated requests by the Press.
However, Jeffrey Rozran, the president of the Syosset Teachers Association for 18 years, did go on the record, at least to defend the superintendent’s stratospheric salary.
“The basic feeling is that she’s worth every penny,” he tells the Press. “It’s no mystery why you would be the highest paid when you are a manager of one of the best performing school districts in the state, and you’ve been there for 22 years.”
As for the Taubman mall proposal, Rozran says: “We certainly believe that something should be built there. We don’t have a position on what….It’s very sad that with this level of unemployment we can’t come to some conclusion on what to build on that property.”
And therein lies the rub.
“At the end of the day it’s up to Oyster Bay and the local community to determine what the fate of this project is,” says Eric Alexander, head of Vision Long Island, a pro-smart growth advocacy group.