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Renovation of Port Commons Promises Modernization But Not Without Controversy

Major stretch of Port Washington Boulevard retail gets a makeover; renovation runs afoul of tree removal procedures.

It's more than a face-lift; it's a full-body makeover for most of the stretch of stores and offices that houses Port Washington institutions Saint Honoré and Dolphin Bookshop.

The 450-foot retail/office expanse on the east side of Port Washington Boulevard ranging from Lu Esther Mertz Plaza to Campus Drive is being renovated and re-branded Port Commons by developer Musso Properties.

Developer Victor A. Musso sees the modernization of the shopping hub as a win for the town. "It's a main thoroughfare, a central part of Port Washington," Musso said. "This renovation will change the town for the better," Musso added.

Changes include a new wrap-around brick and stucco façade, capped with crown moldings and uniform awnings and signage, providing a cohesive aesthetic for front and back. Also on tap, a redesigned parking lot affording better traffic flow and lighting with no loss of existing parking spaces.

"The look of the renovation is an upscale, urban streetscape," said Port Commons architect Michael McNerney. "We used traditional elements of brick coupled with crown moldings and traditional entryway doors, along with new landscaping and lighting." 

In the rear, stores will be extended to a common depth providing for a rear-entrance with greater curb appeal. An eight-foot wide buffer will run between the parking lot and rear of the store allowing for a sidewalk, benches, lighting and landscaping. Currently, rear doors open directly into the parking lot. The 192 existing parking spaces will remain, but the lot will be redesigned to improve traffic flow and include islands, lighting and landscaping.

Landscaping changes at the development have proven controversial. After the demolition of a stretch of trees along the back lot bordering Schreiber High School playing fields, concerned residents began calling officials in the Town of North Hempstead (TONH) and community groups such as Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington (RFMBPW).

"We were very upset that the trees were removed and we learned from the Town of North Hempstead that they were removed in violation of their site plan," RFMBPW executive director Mindy Germain said.

Musso Properties was issued a summons for tree removal without a permit. Musso contends that the charges of violating the tree removal permitting process stemmed from a misunderstanding.

"The town requires that the size and type of trees in a landscape plan be submitted and approved and that happened in 2007," Musso said. "We then had a building permit and approved site plan. We were under the impression that a separate tree permit was not required."

Colin Nash, communications director for the Town of North Hempstead, confirmed that Musso has a building permit and approved site plan.

"Musso Properties submitted a site plan and the TONH approved the site plan with the understanding that they would save as many trees as possible," Nash explained.

Musso asserted that saving the existing trees proved impossible. "We knew we needed to remove some trees and then we saw the roots were all so integrated that nothing could be saved," Musso said.

A judge will review the issue in June; determining what obligation Musso Properties may have with regard to replacing the trees that were removed.

"We want to make sure that they're not replaced with saplings," Germain said.

Once completed, the renovation will add 6,500-square feet to Port Commons. The increased space is a benefit to some businesses and a unecessary expense to others.

"We didn't need the extra space and we didn't want to pay for it," said Minuteman owner Mark Gutner, who has already decamped to 437 Port Washington Boulevard in the space formerly occupied by Paper Capers. Gunter's square footage would have increased an extra 600 feet.

Other businesses welcome the extra space. "We came in knowing about the renovation," said Bar Method co-owner Molly Mulholland. "We might have two studios; we could use an office, extra storage or expand our locker facilities."

Mulholland's partner Michelle Rowe added, "Our clients tell us they're excited about the renovations."

Main Street is proving a beneficiary of tenants unwilling to pay rising rents. QW Gallery relocated after 13 years to 113A Main Street; Allstate is set to move June 1 to 20A Main Street.

"The rent is going up too much," said Brien Sullivan, of Allstate who was facing an increase from $2,600 to $3,300 a month in rent. "I'm moving to Main Street for $2,000 a month."

Dolphin Bookshop will also relocate, moving to Lower Main Street over the summer in the space formerly occupied by Jolani Jewelers at the corner of Main Street and Shore Road.

Anchor tenants Wachovia Bank and Rite Aid are slated to remain as is Saint Honoré Pastry Shop, Dance Arts, Yoga Life, Baskin Robbins and Accents on Real Estate.

"We just signed a new lease," said Accents office manager Karen Morrison. "We love our location."

Musso Properties is negotiating leases for the new tenants; none have been confirmed to date. Musso described the ideal mix of tenants as national franchises, boutiques and destination retailers. "I definitely see a restaurant or two," Musso said.

Musso anticipates the project will be completed in late 2010, and anticipates occupancy in early 2011.

 "The town overall has been wonderful and very helpful in trying to move this project along," Musso said.

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