Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski Prioritizing Passage Of Bill
By Tina Traster
A referendum to allow expansion at the Palisades Center, which has been bedeviled by a protracted coronavirus shutdown, will be voted on at the Town of Clarkstown’s July 30th meeting if a New York State Assembly bill is passed in the Legislature and signed by the Governor. The bill, A34-24, originally died in the Assembly in 2015 but is now a top priority, according to a spokesman for Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski.
“The timing in town law doesn’t match up with county election law,” said Zebrowski’s spokesman. “We’re working to align the date so all towns have the freedom to choose to hold a referendum during a general election or during a special election.
Bowing to pressure from Councilman Don Franchino, County Executive Ed Day and others, Clarkstown’s town council appears to be united in a desire to put a referendum on the Nov. 3rd ballot to allow the mall to expand into its unused space, according to Franchino. As Zebrowski’s spokesman points out, special elections generally attract fewer voters and can cost a town in excess of $100,000 to hold. “When you have a high-interest topic,” he said,” “a special town election can be a recipe for disaster.”
Clarkstown faces an August 3rd deadline to decide whether it will put a referendum on the Nov ballot. According to the County Board of Elections rules, the town can meet the 90-day window if the resolution vote takes place on July 30th. However, due to a quirk in town law that requires a 60-75 day prior to the general election, the timing is askew.
For the Assembly bill to pass, the legislature would have to go back in session before July 27th, which would give Clarkstown the three-day leeway it needs to include the resolution on the July 30th agenda.
At least three of the council’s five members have said it’s time to put the issue to a vote but no one has championed the cause more vociferously than Franchino, who believes the mall needs to be free of its covenant if it is to successfully reinvent itself.
Councilman Patrick Carroll is hoping the bill will pass, adding “there is no Plan B.”
The Palisades Center had been struggling prior to the pandemic, losing anchors such as J.C. Penny, Lord & Taylor, Bed, Bed & Beyond, as well as scores of big box retailers. Since the state-mandated lockdown, tenants have not been paying rent. The reopening of the mall has been stalled, and many stores that have gone dark may never reopen.
Pyramid Group, which owns the mall, is more than three month in arrears on its mortgage. It is unclear how and whether the mall will find its footing but Franchino and other proponents say unshackling the mall from its covenant will give it more freedom to potentially redevelop portions of the mall into housing, hotel and convention center. Retail, everyone agrees, is not sustainable.
In May, the mall filed a grievance with the Town of Clarkstown to slash its tax bills by 50 percent, citing economic difficulties. The mall is seeking a reduction of full market value of nearly $466 million to about $230 million. However, taxes are not levied on full market value; they are assessed after an equalization rate is applied to the full market value to determine an assessed value. Should the mall succeed, its assessed value would be reduced from $140 million to $60 million.
The debate over a vote on the covenant to lift the restriction has been going on for years. The mall and Clarkstown are still awaiting a ruling from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals over the mall’s efforts to lift the restrictions preventing it from expanding beyond its present 1.85 million square feet without voter approval.
Back in 2002, voters overwhelmingly said no to the mall’s expansion after the town held a referendum to release the mall from the “restrictive covenant,” that prohibits expansion.
Franchino, who has been fighting to put the covenant issue to a vote for years, said, “This is the year for it. The mall has to be enhanced. Voters will lift the covenant.”