Standing in front of the former location of Paddy McGee’s and Coyote Grill on Waterview Road, both demolished after Hurricane Sandy, owner and developer John Vitale gestured to the 50-foot pile driver towering above the flattened-earth site slated to become an 86-unit luxury rental apartment building in the coming months.
“Pile driving: It’s gonna be loud,” he said as he raised a hand above his head and brought it down with a clap, pantomiming the operation of the machine. “But that’s the sound of progress.”
Many in Island Park know the pain of bouncing back after the 2012 hurricane. The village and surrounding areas were particularly hard hit. Five years later, some still have a ways to go, and for local business owners, the storm jeopardized not just their homes, but also their livelihoods.
Some didn’t make it. A handful of salons on Long Beach Road never returned, according to Island Park Chamber of Commerce President Michael Scully. But others saw the damage the storm wrought as an opportunity to build back better.
For Vitale, whose properties cover about 10 acres in Barnum Island, the flooding prompted him to reassess the use of the land on which his two restaurants sat. “I had a vision of what I thought could be,” he said of the idea to build rental apartments. “And I put all my efforts into making this become a reality.”
The choice to tear down Paddy McGee’s was particularly difficult, he added. The 30-year-old establishment had been named for his grandfather, Anthony LaRocca, but Vitale said he felt apartments would better serve the community, and hoped it would bring a younger generation to the neighborhood.
While Vitale said he believes the apartments will be a net positive for the area, not everyone has been happy with the development. In June, the Town of Hempstead’s Industrial Development Agency approved tax breaks for the apartments, including a 10-year payment in lieu of taxes agreement as well as a mortgage-recording tax abatement and sales tax exemption.
The breaks were approved over the protests of the Island Park School District, whose representatives asked the IDA board to reconsider in light of ongoing tax certiorari proceedings with the Long Island Power Authority over its E.F. Barrett power plant in Island Park, which is seeking a 90 percent reduction in its property tax valuation. The plant accounts for nearly half of the district’s revenue. School officials argued that because of the breaks, the potential influx of school-aged children brought by the apartments would not be matched by additional tax revenue.
Other businesses Vitale rebuilt after the storm included Jordan Lobster Farms, whose dining area was expanded to partially fill the void left by McGees. It, too, had been badly damaged by Sandy, and according to co-owner Stephen Jordan, it saw about four feet of water enter the building.
And across the street, Vitale’s King Kullen shopping center location, set to open the month the storm hit, had all of its tenants pull out. It took him about a year to secure new ones, he said, all the while continuing to construct additional storefronts.
The complex is currently occupied by businesses such as Panera Bread, EmPower Solar, Pet Valu and Liquor & Wine Warehouse. “We built it, and they came,” he said, happy with the results.
On the other end of Barnum Island, Peter’s Clam Bar was shuttered after the storm, prompting developer Butch Yamali of the Dover Group to purchase the nearly 80-year-old seafood eatery. Peter’s was on its last legs, he said. “It was going away,” he recalled of the restaurant and his decision to purchase it. “When we got it, it was just about finished.”
An Island Park native who now lives in Merrick, Yamali said Peter’s had been a lifelong local staple for him. He estimated that he spent about $1 million restoring the building to its original state. Of his decision to rescue it, he said, “It was just a no-brainer for me.”
For businesses of the mom-and-pop variety, Scully said, few better exemplified the will to survive after the storm than the Island Park Diner and its owner, Olympia Stassinopoulos. Sitting on Long Beach Road across from the former Village Hall, which was also demolished after Sandy, the classic Greek diner has been a family-run business for 15 years.
“They did it all on their own,” Scully said of Stassinopoulos’s efforts to rebuild. “It’s a small family operation, so they had to do a lot.”
For Stassinopoulos, coming back after the storm was far from a sure thing. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s it,’ not just the store, but the whole area,” she recounted. “Nothing is coming back.”
Roughly five feet of water had rushed into the building, which lacked flood insurance. Stoves, refrigerators and coffee machines all float, it turned out, and all had to be replaced. Stassinopoulous recalled that she didn’t see how she could continue until customers started asking when she would reopen and her landlord asked her to come back.
Stassinopoulous, her husband and four adult children toiled to rebuild. Three months and $55,000 in expenses later, the Island Park Diner reopened, and little by little, she said, her customers started to return. Half of the cost of rebuilding was reimbursed by NYRising, and the family took out a loan to cover the other half.
She thanked her customers for coming back and supporting the diner. They were “like a family” to her, she said. Because of them, she said, “I’m going to stay here.”
Stassinopoulous and others, like Vitale, said that while recovery after the storm was not guaranteed, they took a chance, and so far it is paying off.
“It’s about keeping hope alive,” Vitale said. “Just keep building and hoping. Keep trying to make dream a reality and come back better. Hope it works out.”