Discomfort Over Plan for Webster Comfort Inn
By ALEX KRATZ
On a recent Friday afternoon, Korean War veteran Harold Hekimian pointed to the side of his house where sand from the construction site next door has spilled onto his property, under his porch, into his basement and onto his backyard.
Wearing a linen bathrobe and sporting a shaved head — the result of a four-year battle with stomach cancer — Hekimian loudly laments the imminent arrival of his new neighbor: an 80-room Comfort Inn.
A plywood fence runs suffocatingly close alongside Hekimian’s house on Webster Avenue between East 202nd and 203rd streets. He can only imagine how intrusive a five-story motel will be on him and his sister, Virginia, both in their 70s.
“They’re taking away my oxygen,” Hekimian says, putting his hand to his chest. “I won’t be able to breathe.”
That same day, June 30, the hotel’s developer, Sam Chang of Floral Park, received design approval from the Buildings Department for a five-story, 80-room motel on the slender plot of land wedged tightly between Hekimian’s house and an auto body shop to the north. Chang has yet to apply for a building permit, but that’s mostly a formality, said Jennifer Givner, a spokesperson for the department. All Chang needs is the proper insurance documents and the permit will almost certainly be granted, Givner said.
Queens architect Michael Kang, who designed the motel and has worked with Chang for 12 years on other New York hotel projects, refused to offer any details about the hotel without the developer’s permission. Chang specializes in low-cost hotels and has constructed more than 30 in New York, mostly in Manhattan. As of publication, Chang failed to return several calls from the Norwood News.
Because the area is zoned for heavy commercial buildings, Chang’s development company, McSam LLC, has a right to build the hotel regardless of community opposition.
“They have an ‘as of right’,” said Rita Kessler, the district manager for Community Board 7, talking about the developer’s “right” to build on commercially zoned Webster. “But we’re going to fight them.”
At a Board 7 Land Use Committee meeting two weeks ago, Chang sent his lawyer, Patrick Jones, to discuss the project with Board members. Kessler and other members peppered the lawyer with questions.
“He had no answers for anything,” Kessler said.
Instead, the lawyer jotted down questions in his notebook and said he would bring them up with his boss. Kessler also gave Jones something else to give to Chang — a copy of a petition, created by the Hekimians, with more than 800 signatures of people opposing the new motel.
With PS/MS 20 just a stone’s throw away, Kessler and others are concerned about who will inhabit the rooms and what they will be used for. The motel will be available for short-stay rentals, Kessler said, meaning customers will be able to rent rooms for less than four hours at a time.
“Webster certainly is not a tourist attraction,” Kessler said, adding that she’s concerned the hotel will also be used to house the homeless.
Father Richard Gorman, chair of Community Board 12, sympathizes with the community’s plight. He’s fought against what he describes as “no tell motels” or “hot sheet motels” for more than a decade.
Gorman says a motel like Chang’s in an area like Webster Avenue is only designed for two types of people — drug addicts and prostitutes looking for a private place to conduct illegal activities or homeless families sent there by the city because there is nowhere else to put them. The city pays out of the way motels up to $90 a night to house homeless families, Gorman says.
Recently, Gorman says, there was a brutal murder in one of the dozen motels in his district in the northeast Bronx. The community has been cut out of the approval process, Gorman says, even when motel developments directly affect the community surrounding it. “To have it across the street from a school, I would be very concerned,” Gorman says.
Barbara Rondon, who has worked at PS/MS 20 for the past 10 years and lives in the area, agreed. “We don’t need that [a motel] here,” she said. “We’re trying to bring this area up, not bring it back down.”
Back on Hekimian’s porch, Harold says “hello” and smiles to everyone passing by on the sidewalk. Both he and his sister were born in this house. Their parents, Armenian immigrants, fled Turkish death squads in 1915 and ended up here in Norwood in 1927. The Hekimians remember when Webster was a narrow cobblestone road trafficked with horse carriages. Virginia points to where the family’s lush green lawn spread out to what is now gray concrete.
Harold Hekimian looks out from his porch and sweeps his hand over the neighborhood – a place where the siblings now have myriad immigrant friends, mostly young families, from places like Ghana and Chile. They could be the next Hekimians.
“We’re used to it here,” Hekimian says. “Where are we going to go?”
“But Harold,” Virginia says, “you’re not going to like it here when the motel comes.”
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