Williston Park weighs demolition, future of scorched commercial corridor

Williston Park Mayor Paul Ehbar stands by storefronts Williston Park Mayor Paul Ehbar stands by storefronts in a key commercial corridor on Willis Avenue that were destroyed by a five-alarm fire last month on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Williston Park officials are developing plans to raze the last two of five structures heavily damaged in a five-alarm fire that swept through a key commercial corridor on Willis Avenue last month.

Village officials plan to meet Monday night to discuss the demolition and the future of the area that lost several popular businesses in the blaze, including The Place bar, S&F Shoe Repair, Williston Plumbing and the Hair Junkie salon.

"I've talked to the owners, and they still don't know what they're going to do" about returning to the site, said Mayor Paul Ehrbar. "After the meeting, we'll have some idea of when the remaining buildings will be coming down."

The mayor said it will probably "be six months to a year before anything can be rebuilt. It depends how quickly the insurance companies can settle the claims."

Although the village has another, larger business district on Hillside Avenue, the loss suffered in the fire is being felt by everyone because the village is very tight-knit, Ehrbar said.

"It's different since the fire," said Faraz Khan, whose father, Zaman, owns a Willis Avenue convenience store a few doors north of the destroyed businesses.

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"I was really good friends with all of the people," he said of the other business owners. "They'd come by to get their cigarettes, cleaning supplies . . . The foot traffic here is slower."

The July 24 blaze was reported at 2:45 a.m. and took dozens of firefighters from 13 departments nearly three hours to bring under control.

"There was nothing suspicious," said James Hickman, division supervisor for the investigations division of the Nassau County fire marshal's office, who said the exact cause of the fire remains under investigation.

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"It looks like it started in the roof space between the shoe shop and the bar," he said.

The bar, shoe repair business and a laundry damaged in the fire were torn down immediately after the blaze, but the plumbing company and hair salon buildings were left standing until inspectors determined their structural integrity was unsound, Ehrbar said.

"The buildings that were razed on the day of the fire were razed because of their unsafe condition," he said. "The walls were leaning out, so we had to take them down."

Earlier this month, a huge hole was filled with the charred remains of the three businesses already razed. The plumbing and hair salon buildings remained boarded up. Family Dentistry, located next to the hair salon, was also boarded up because of smoke and water damage, but it will not be demolished, officials said.

"It's a sad thing to see everyone lose their business," said Giovanni Speciale, who works at his family's pizzeria across Willis Avenue from the scene of the blaze. But he added, "I hope it [the site] gets cleaned up, because it's not great to look at every day."

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Herbert Romero, a part owner of S&F Shoe Repair who owns another shoe repair shop on Hillside Avenue, said "we're thinking about" possibly opening a new shoe repair shop at the fire site. "But we're also looking for a new location."

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