December 2003: A clash between Roslyn Heights residents and developers

Published in Newsday, December 11, 2003. Written by Ellen Mitchell.

In 1949, while Levitt & Sons Inc. was putting up more than 17,000 modest homes for World War II veterans, the builder also completed a tonier North Shore development of 668 houses in Roslyn Heights, known as the Roslyn Country Club community.

In his sales brochures Levitt touted upscale homes for $17,000 on a third of an acre – but the centerpiece of the development was an existing mansion, converted into a country club, surrounded by 10 wooded acres.

For an annual membership fee of $100, homeowners who joined the club were entitled to use the dining room, bar and meeting rooms, as well as the lush grounds, tennis courts and Olympic-sized swimming pool.

It was a development decades ahead of its time – a forerunner of today’s popular country club communities – and for awhile, things went swimmingly. But it soon became apparent that the operators to whom Levitt leased the clubhouse could not meet their expenses on resident fees of only $100 a year, even though they also were permitted to run a catering business for outside events.

By 1956, tempers flared as traffic generated by the caterer, coupled with threats to raise the dues, bounced the squabble from the tennis court to the judicial courts, and the wrangling has gone back and forth ever since.

The roots of the latest discord took hold a couple of years ago when the club’s then-operator ran into financial difficulty and allowed the whitewashed, wood-shingled mansion to deteriorate so that it is unusable. The outdoor activities are shut down at least for winter.

In 2002, the club and its 10 acres were purchased from CCR of Roslyn Inc. in a bankruptcy proceeding by a Texas-based real estate investment trust. The trust next sold it to Corona Realty of Mineola, headed by Manouchehr “Manny” Malekan, a prominent real estate manager and Sands Point resident.

Now the club that once was the heart of an unusual community has become a thorn in its side. The club’s future is uncertain, with many homeowners embroiled in emotional arguments and lawsuits, taking sides as to what to do.

Should the facility be condemned and made into a park? Should it be designated a historic landmark? Should it be maintained as a catering operation? How high would the dues go? Might the property be sold to allow for multimillion-dollar houses?

It all depends on the community members, Malekan says: “If they pay to have a park, they’ll have a park. If they pay to have a country club, they’ll have a country club. If they don’t do either of those, it will be houses. I don’t want to fight with them.”

Malekan will not discuss his purchase price, other than to say he has a $2 million mortgage. Some homeowners say he paid about $2.5 million including back taxes, which they label a “steal.” The price was low, they say, because of the implied easements, which give the residents the right to use the clubhouse. If the easements did not exist, the 10 acres could more readily be subdivided for houses. As it stands, however, subdivision would likely require lengthy litigation over easements, zoning and environmental issues.

Malekan estimates the market value to be between $15 million and $25 million, depending on the number of houses that could be built.

The parcel is clearly in demand. With no vacant land available in the Roslyn Country Club community, buyers are purchasing the older homes, razing them and rebuilding. Linda Wohl, manager of Daniel Gale Real Estate in Roslyn, said prices there can range between a low of $650,000 for an older house and a high of $2.6 million for a new house. She said the country club amenities remain a selling point with prospective buyers.

The legality of the easements was affirmed in court years ago. In response to a lawsuit filed by homeowners in an attempt to hold down fees, the Court of Appeals of New York State ruled in 1960 that Levitt’s original sales agreement gave residents the right to continue to be members of the country club for $100 a year – but it also said the fee could be adjusted if the club operator was unable to make sufficient profit. The case did not address the question of what would happen if a club ceased to exist.

“The lawsuit was, unfortunately, too successful,” said Donald Ostrower, who was president of the homeowners association when the suit was filed. “It created a codependency between this community and the owners of the country club, which no one recognized at the time. They had to work together, but they never did. They were at each other’s throats from the very beginning.”

Over the years, club operators sought to increase the dues, which subsequently rose to $150. Last summer, in a one-year arrangement with Malekan, the dues were raised to $500.

“But they’re not going to have it for that [$500] this year. It’s impossible,” Malekan said. “I tried to run it for that money and the company lost over $200,000.”

Malekan says the $100 fee Levitt promised in 1949 equals $1,200 today(standard inflation calculators estimate a more conservative current value of about $755). He has filed a lawsuit in Nassau County Supreme Court against the civic association to try to extinguish the easements altogether and increase annual dues.

Meanwhile, lawyer Rita Stein, a resident of the community since 1963, has filed a cross motion to dismiss Malekan’s suit. Malekan was able to buy the property at a reduced price because of the easements, Stein said, and if he were allowed to vacate them, he would be “unfairly and unjustly enriching himself.”

Stein and her husband used to play tennis at the club. In recent times, her husband, who is disabled, has ridden his electric scooter to the clubhouse for bridge games with fellow seniors.

“The club has been a lifeline,” Stein said, adding that she would support any option that maintains the club, the pool and tennis courts.

The club also has provided fond memories for generations of other homeowners, such as Louise Sobin.

“I moved here in 1950 with my parents. Everybody belonged,” Sobin recalled recently. “It was a tremendous feeling of community. You’d go there and meet your friends, you could go to the pool and if you wanted a nice lunch, there was the Birdcage Room [an elegant dining room].”

The country club was part of the reason Sobin and other residents moved back to the community to raise their own families, she said. Sobin lives across the street from the club and has been among those residents staunchly opposed to enlarging the catering facility. She favors establishing a park district on the club property instead.

“It would really be nice if it were the center of the community again, but maybe I’m living with rose-colored glasses,” she said.

As president of the civic association until September, Abraham Luttinger was among those who interviewed prospective caterers earlier this year. Most said they would have to greatly enlarge the catering facility from its 150-seat capacity to make a profit. When Luttinger recommended one he felt would compromise on size, his efforts met with a barrage of criticism and anonymous communitywide mailings opposing any enlargement of the facility at all, he said.

“Where this is all going, I have no idea,” Luttinger said. “The division has started a lot of animosity among the board members.”

When Luttinger’s presidency ended, he was replaced by co-presidents Caryn Fink and Burton Roslyn, who favor establishment of a park district. Luttinger sent out a newsletter expressing frustration and stating that doing battle over the future of the country club might “result in the destruction of the association itself.”

He denounced the park district idea primarily because he said it would place a tax burden of unknown proportions on the residents.

David Wasserman, a resident of the community since 1984, is among those who say they are “passionate” in favoring a park district. Wasserman has removed himself from official decision-making on the issue because he is the Town of North Hempstead commissioner of buildings, planning and economics. But he says that if a park district were approved by referendum or petition of the community’s residents, the town would either come to an agreement with Malekan to buy the property or, failing that, condemn and take over ownership. The town would then assume responsibility for the park, while all homeowners in the district would be consulted about improvements and maintenance – and pay the taxes to support such costs.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” Wasserman said. “But personally, I feel we have the opportunity of making sure that the Roslyn Country Club, the park-like setting and lifestyle it affords the community is there for me, my children and grandchildren. This is an opportunity we’re probably not going to have again.”

Malekan said he has no objection to his property becoming a park district. “But they’ve got to be ready to pay for it,” he said. “It won’t be a park for free. First they have to pay to buy the real estate or condemn it.”

And there is yet another proposal. The civic association and others have made application to the Town of North Hempstead to have the mansion declared a landmark, as a way to protect the facility’s future. The mansion, owned in the 1920s by Dorothy Draper, is one of the few surviving examples of Levitt’s planning concepts for a community, Wasserman said.

The civic association’s request was approved by the town’s landmarks committee, and approval by the town board is expected soon, perhaps as early as next week.

Malekan says he has affidavits from community residents saying that the landmarking application is an attempt to thwart renovation of the clubhouse, thus lowering its value and making it easier for the town to buy it.

Malekan recently signed a 20-year lease with Jericho-based JEM Caterers to overhaul the clubhouse. But the building permits have been held up, pending the town’s decision on landmark status.

“They basically have tied our hands,” Malekan said. “If JEM cannot open up, the lease is going to be void and what will happen is they will have no country club altogether.” Michael Einhorn, copartner with Tito Prunell in JEM Caterers, said they would not have signed a lease it they knew the permits would be held up.

“I’m paying rent for what?” Prunell said. He said he still hopes to create a catering facility with a ballroom suitable for 275 people. “We build beautiful places with first-class food and presentation. It’s not just a couple of meatballs,” Prunell said.

According to Fink, the copresident of the civic association, the landmarking decision should not hamper refurbishing.

“The caterer can do things, it just has to be approved by the landmark committee,” she said. “It doesn’t mean he can’t make it beautiful. It just has to be consistent with the facade of the building.”

Fink, who has lived in the community for three years, sees the country club issue as a rallying point rather than a rift. “I think it is getting everybody back and coming together,” she said. “There was a nice turnout at the meeting when we brought up the park district. People stood up who have been here four years and 40 years and all seemed to have a sense of pride in the property.”

But others saw it differently.

“It was very hostile. The dissension was horrible,” said Joel Graff, a resident since 1977. “At the end of the meeting I said to myself, ‘I don’t know if I want to go back [or] if I even care.'”

Graff said he would probably not be interested in a park district, with taxes in the community already extremely high – his own property and school taxes will be $25,000 in 2004.

Millie Grossman, a community resident and an associate real estate broker with East-Brook Realty in East Hills, said her annual property taxes also come to nearly $25,000. Grossman said the club still is a big selling point with home buyers. “Most of the couples are both working, and during the week it’s a place for the children and the housekeepers to go and spend a day,” said Grossman. She added that the community’s current generation of parents generally belong to clubs elsewhere.

There had been talk of the homeowners buying the club property, but civic association copresident Roslyn called that unrealistic.

“We can’t offer to buy it because nobody here wants to put up the money,” added Donald Ostrower. “Levitt should have created a homeowners association that could have owned the club as part of the common property. But I don’t know that such a thing even existed in 1949. So it wasn’t done and now we have this white elephant out there.”

Today, developers of country club communities do not leave such matters to chance.

For instance, Elliot and Gerald Monter, developers of the Hamlet condominiums, set the fees and own and maintain the country clubs in their communities in perpetuity, according to Ron Bloomfield, director of sales and marketing for the Hamlet at Willow Creek Golf and Country Club in Mount Sinai.

“It’s a viable business situation,” Bloomfield said.

While Bloomfield has no involvement in the Roslyn Country Club controversy, he was troubled over the club’s uncertain fate.

“I know it well,” he said wistfully. “I had my bar mitzvah there.”

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