A major concern is the future of Ohr Natan, a synagogue and community center housed in the historic Trylon Theater at 98-81 Queens Boulevard, and Tower Diner at 98-95 Queens Boulevard, as well as many other small businesses occupying a triangular lot at the intersection of Queens Boulevard, 99th Street and 66th Avenue.
In 2013, RJ Capital Holdings purchased the property for a reported $9 million. If the developer acquires the necessary approvals, the buildings will be demolished and replaced with a five-story glass office building.
Leaders of Ohr Natan, which has over 1,000 congregants who are mostly Bukharian Jews, worry that it will be displaced when the lease ends in February of 2017. In addition to daily religious services, the synagogue offers English classes, food for nearly 500 needy families, and activities for local youth and seniors.
Ohr Natan’s also publishes “Druzhba,” the largest Jewish magazine in Russian in the United State, in addition to publishing the popular “Shalom” magazine in English.
“In Judaism, if you raze a synagogue, you will never have a blessing,” said Rabbi Nahum Kaziev. “In Chernobyl, a synagogue was destroyed during WWII and then a nuclear plant was built in its place, leading to a nuclear disaster. I cannot imagine any reputable business opening in a space where there was a synagogue, a holy place that served thousands.”
Rabbi Kaziev tried to negotiate with the developer and offered a compromise, but to no avail.
“We brought in a structural engineer who said that beams can be placed around our synagogue to build above it, but the developer refused,” he said.
Congregant Leah Davidoff is a native of Tashkent and said the synagogue is part of her roots.
“I have very good kids, and feel a lot has to do with joining the youth programs Ohr Natan offers,” she said. “When we lived in the former Soviet Union, my grandfather was sent to Siberia because he was Jewish. We come here and think what a beautiful, safe country, but now my second home will be demolished by some selfish developer who only sees a big dollar sign instead of a community center and a synagogue.
“When the Powerball was on I asked my kids what they would do if they won, and my son said he would buy Ohr Natan from the guy who wants to destroy it,” she added.
For over 10 years, Uzbekistan native Nellya Khaimov and her family have attended Ohr Natan.
“My grandchildren attend the Sunday program for kids and they love it,” she said. “Just the thought that it will be destroyed brings tears to my eyes and pain to the heart. All we can do is pray to God and hope he will show us a miracle.”
Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz said she will work on behalf of the congregation to try and work out a deal with the landlord.
“A congregation of mostly immigrants depends on Ohr Natan, not only to be the center of their spiritual universe, but their social safety net,” she said. “If the plea should fall on deaf ears, I will try to persuade the developer to retain the Trylon façade and Tower Diner’s clock in his design, and I will do whatever I can to assist Ohr Natan in finding a new home.”
Other local residents fear losing a piece of history, including the Art Deco façade of the former Trylon Theater that reflects the style of the 1939 World’s Fair from when it opened. After shuttering in 1999, it underwent a $2.1 million renovation and reopened as Ohr Natan in 2006.
“The Trylon and Tower Diner should have been landmarked in 2005, when preservationists fought with passion,” said Forest Hills resident Carol Griffin.
“The developers are destroying the very reason for choosing to live in a particular area,” added Michael Iozzino. “Once a neighborhood’s personality is gone, you might as well be anywhere in your gilded condo.”
Tower Diner has served the community since 1993, and the former bank's Federal-style façade is a distinctive presence along Queens Boulevard. Co-owner Spiro Gatanas vowed the restaurant was not closing.
“Tower forever,” he said. “We have a long-term lease and all is hearsay.”
Adjacent small businesses that could be forced to close include Trylon Liquors, Sky Spa & Laser, Spin City Cycle, a kosher supermarket, Rego Park Express, La Moda Boutique, Entourage Beauty Salon, and Gold Gifts shop, as well as several professional offices.
“I am for the preservation of buildings with history, but let’s invest the funds to maintain them,” said Spin City owner Jimmy Yeh. “Preserving small businesses is also important, since you cannot get quality customer service online.”