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Saturday, June 15, 2024

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Avalon Turns Thumbs Down on Hotel

Anthony Zurawski makes a presentation to Avalon’s Planning and Zoning Board Aug. 9.

By Vince Conti

AVALON – Avalon’s Planning and Zoning Board meeting Aug. 9 drew an overflow crowd interested in the consideration of developer and local businessman Anthony Zurawski’s application for a boutique hotel in the borough’s business district. 
After three and a half hours of presentations and public comment, the board rejected the application, possibly bringing an end to Zurawski’s attempts to build a hotel in the B1 commercial zone. That zone is over two miles from the authorized hotel zone which borders Stone Harbor.
In 2014, Zurawski introduced a plan for a much larger hotel on the same property between 21st and 22nd streets. That proposal, which included a building with restaurants and a roof-top pool and bar was strongly opposed by some borough residents.
The application, deemed incomplete, was never amended and resubmitted. No formal hearing was held before the Planning and Zoning Board.
This year Zurawski returned to the concept of a business district hotel and proposed a plan he hoped would address many of the specific objections to the earlier proposal.
A smaller project with 20 units accompanied by commercial space, the hotel proposed no restaurant or bar. The building essentially met the height requirements with the exception of a decorative cupola which Zurawski was willing to remove if required.
Zurawski and the three other witnesses that joined in presenting his application stressed what they saw as the value of the project to Avalon’s business district.
The developer himself referred to his application as a “vastly reduced project” when compared to his 2014 plans. The term “petite hotel” was used more than once.
Armed with artist’s renditions as well as required planning documents, the story for the hotel placed emphasis on the need for things that extend the summer season in support of local businesses.
Arguing that the borough hotel district really feeds its patrons into the Stone Harbor business district, Zurawski pushed for something located in the heart of the Avalon commercial center.
The hotel as proposed would have a large amount of commercial space which Zurawski said he planned to use for an art and antique store as well as a teaching art center that would run programs revolving around art, music and even culinary arts. He spoke of already working to bring in local artists.
Attempts to make the proposal more attractive to the board included allocating 23 percent of the buildable area to green space rather than the minimum requirement of 15 percent. The pool was set in the back of the property set back 90 feet from the 22nd Street property line. Parking included two more spaces than required and Zurawski’s team argued it was properly secluded behind a “living fence” which would shield 22nd Street from headlights and noise.
Much like a wedding where two sets of family and friends sit on opposite sides of an aisle, the supporters and opponents of the plan largely separated between the right and left sides of the public area facing the board.
Those opposed to the project not only cited specific areas of concern with the application but also continually returned to a theme of distrust.
Zurawski’s many decades as a business owner in the target area had not earned him the trust of many neighbors who openly worried that the open space in his plan and the two kitchens included in order to support art programs would soon “morph” into a restaurant and a bar.
While Zurawski argued for something to increase foot traffic to local businesses, opponents voiced concern that the character of the borough was one in which little emphasis was placed on night life and similar activities.
References to The Reeds at Shelter Haven in Stone Harbor were used as a selling point for the application by one side and as an image of parking cones, noise and congestion by opponents.
There were a number of individuals who took to the microphone in support of the project. They largely argued for its potential benefit to the business district with many seeing this as one step in a larger direction of borough zoning support for local businesses.
One speaker noted “Let’s remember the past but not stay in it.” Yet that was exactly the opposite of the feelings of others.
Where Dan Ryan argued that a “20-room hotel is not a game changer, but it helps,” Frank McLaughlin could argue that the proposal “makes an already congested area worse.”
The world was seen through the glasses one brought to the meeting.
In the end argument about already existing congestion in the area, along with concerns for worsening traffic, parking and pedestrian safety concerns held sway. The board rejected the proposal with only two yes votes.  Some praised Zurawski’s “creative development,” but could not support the project.
An underlying theme throughout the evening was that the choice was not between this hotel and nothing. Zurawski’s team returned again and again to the fact that many projects could be built on this land that would need no variance: first-floor commercial with condos above, a convenience store with significant traffic flow, and a bank were things mentioned.
Obviously part of the effort was to get neighbors to realize that the land would be developed in any case with the hope that they would support the hotel project as the lesser of the many proposals that could go on the site.
As a tactic, if it was one, it did not work. As a reality, time will tell. It is hard to believe that such a large parcel of land in the heart of the business district will stay vacant for very much longer. The economic imperatives seem to dictate otherwise.
This zoning battle may be just a chapter in a longer story.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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