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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

In New Cassel, a community's dreams die hard

The site of redevelopment on Prospect Avenue in

The site of redevelopment on Prospect Avenue in New Cassel. (April 18, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

They had a dream.

Their representatives - according to the Nassau district attorney's office - had a scheme.

The alleged scheme that resulted in charges against two former Nassau County lawmakers and two former or current North Hempstead officials doesn't sound particularly creative - backroom dealing isn't especially new.

But it must sound especially cruel to the residents of New Cassel.

It's been almost a decade since the community became one of the first on Long Island to try something new. Under the auspices of the town and Sustainable Long Island, it banded together to dream up a future. New Cassel's leaders sat down at tables and drew pictures of what they wanted the community to become.

They wanted clean streets.

A community center.

And, at the top of the community's list, a supermarket and a bank.

These are trifles in suburbia.

But in New Cassel, a community settled decades ago by German and African-American farmers, they were the stuff of dreams.

And for once, nothing - not even a local church property cleared through eminent domain, to the dismay of its pastor - was going to stand in their way. Then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was among the dignitaries joining residents at another local church to celebrate the transformation-to-come.

It's yet to be.

Not because of the economy, which would make sense, but because the redevelopment allegedly became an opportunity for easy money.

The original developer, according to a Newsday report that helped launch the district attorney's investigation, overexcavated the site, taking away too much sand. Which is why a portion of the foundation began to sink.

Eventually, the developer went broke. Why?

According to Kathleen Rice, Nassau's district attorney, the firm had trouble multi-tasking: It couldn't cover construction costs and allegedly funnel money to officials at the same time.

"The money he was paying [out] ended up bankrupting the project," she said during a news conference in Mineola.

The officials - former county legislators Roger Corbin and Patrick Williams, former town building and planning commissioner David Wasserman, and North Hempstead community development Executive Director Neville Mullings - pleaded not guilty to a total of 58 allegations against them.

Corbin and Mullings are charged, among other things, with receiving bribes.

Bribes.

For allegedly rigging a process to ensure that the right developer got it. Not because the developer, identified as Ranjan Batheja of Stoneridge Homes, could do the job. But because, according to Rice, he could help the defendants do a job on New Cassel. Instead of working to help the community, according to Rice, they worked to help themselves.

Thursday - eight years after the community set its dreams to paper - the building at the intersection of Prospect and Union that was supposed to house a grocery and a bank lies empty.

The sidewalk outside is new. But boards cover the building's arched windows. And graffiti covers the long wall along Union Avenue.

Melvin Jefferson, who has lived on Brush Hollow Road since 1977, came along, riding his bike, which has a basket and American flags adorning each side of his back wheel.

He saw two trucks from television stations parked down the street and wondered, aloud, why they were there.

"I don't like that, I don't like that at all," he said upon learning about Thursday's charges. "I wondered why this never was finished."

Jefferson said he rides his bike to go grocery shopping at a store several blocks away, and he handles his finances at a bank a few blocks in another direction.

He would love to have a grocery and a bank close by. "Somebody messed up everything," he said.

Town officials have hired a new developer and hope to have construction completed this year. Perhaps that grocery store and bank will follow.

Until then, New Cassel's left waiting for so modest, and so simple a dream.

Again.

 

Chronology of a stalled development

 

May 2004: North Hempstead Community Development Agency selects Stoneridge Homes Inc. for three Prospect Avenue sites - labeled B, C and D - of seven sites in the New Cassel project. Each site is to have a mix of housing and retail businesses.

July 2006: Town issues stop-work order at Site B after discovering it was over-excavated by nearly twice as much as necessary.

September 2006: Contractor Steve Governale says he started complaining to town officials about shortcuts he alleges Stoneridge was taking at the site.

Jan. 16, 2007: Town says it is investigating Stoneridge for possibly excavating too much soil, which could lead to unstable foundations in new homes.

March 2007: Construction at Site B halted after tests confirm subsoil is unstable.

Late 2007: Stoneridge defaults on construction loans. Work is delayed as ownership goes to a Stoneridge limited partnership, which later brought in other financial backers.

Currently: Sites B and C have been taken over jointly by First Sterling Financial Inc. and Bank of New York Mellon, and Site D by Bank of New York Mellon, according to town spokesman Collin Nash.

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