Thursday, August 7, 2008

Maltese and Como Host Town Hall Meeting

Issues Include Truck Traffic, Reservoir, Crime and Flooding

by Conor Greene

Providing residents with a chance to air grievances about a host of city agencies and issues, Senator Serf Maltese and Councilman Anthony Como hosted a town hall meeting last week in Middle Village.

The session last Thursday in Our Lady of Hope auditorium attracted several hundred residents and touched on a wide variety of issues, including crime, overdevelopment, traffic woes and a school construction project being considered in Maspeth.

The meeting included representatives from many city agencies, including the Department of Transportation, the 104th Precinct, the FDNY, Sanitation Department, Finance and the Department of Environmental Protection.

“It will let you put a face to some of the people you talk to when you call the office or 311,” said Maltese (R-Glendale). “We want to hear what you have to say and direct it to the right person.”

Como (R-Middle Village) thanked the large crowd for coming out on a warm evening. “I know there are a lot more pleasurable things you could be doing right now,” he said. “You care about making sure this community goes in the right direction.”

After the city officials were introduced, the senator and councilman allowed residents the chance to express any complaints or issues they have.

Maspeth School Proposal

First up was Jerry Matacotta, founder of the civic group Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together. He expressed concern about the city Department of Education’s proposal to build a 1,650-seat school at 74th Street and 57th Avenue in Maspeth.

While agreeing that “the school is necessary,” Matacotta said he “has some trepidation” about the students it will likely serve, including children from outside the area. “This is going to be a giant problem for us,” he said. “It is going to bring in a lot of things from other areas… It will be the end of this community, mark my words.” He said that the school should be “a special
high school for top students” only.

Como noted that Community Board 5 voted down the proposal. “We agree that a school of that magnitude will destroy the community,” he said. “We are on board with that.” He said that he is meeting in the coming weeks with officials from the Department of Education and School Construction Authority. “We’ve been unhappy with what they’ve told us,” he said.

Added Maltese: “It is absolutely unacceptable to us and we will not tolerate [a school that large] going into the community.”

Air Traffic Overhead

A resident who said she lives near Maltese asked what can be done about low-flying planes that pass over the neighborhood many times each day as they head towards LaGuardia Airport.

“Planes are flying very low over our houses every few minutes,” she said. “”We can’t sit in our yards anymore and read a book.” She expressed frustration that a phone call to Congressman Anthony Weiner proved fruitless. “He’s [too busy] running around on Larry King,” she said, referring to his mayoral campaign.

Maltese explained that “the problem is a federal problem” and the state and city officials “don’t have the authority to deal with the Federal Aviation Administration.” He noted that the same problem occurs in other neighborhoods around LaGuardia and JFK airports. “It’s definitely a problem, but I can’t promise we can address it with legislation or communications… but we will try,” said Maltese.

Juniper Boulevard Speeding

Resident Helen Steinhauer voiced what has become a common complaint from Middle Village residents: speeding along Juniper Boulevard North, especially between Lutheran Avenue and 80th Street.

“It’s unbearable to sit on my own stoop,” said Steinhauer, adding that the long flat stretch of road doesn’t have speed bumps or traffic lights and is used for drag racing. “I’ve come out to meetings every year and get no satisfaction.”

Maura McCarthy, Queens Borough Commissioner of the city Department of Transportation, said her agency will conduct a speed study along the boulevard to determine if traffic calming measures are warranted.

“We will analyze if we physically can put in [speed] bumps in this section of roadway,” she said, adding that it sounds like Community Board 5 would support that type of project. A traffic light and speed bumps were previously installed on Juniper Boulevard South, helping to cut down on speeding drivers there.

Local Crime Patterns

Crime is up so far this year within the confines of the 104th Precinct compared to the same time last year, with major incidents rising nearly 8 percent so far, according to statistics released recently.

A resident who said she has rented in Middle Village for the past few years expressed concern about several incidents that have taken place within a block of her home. She told Maltese and Como that she is now in position to buy a home, but is afraid to commit to the neighborhood due to increasing crime.

“It just seems like in the last two months, in a one-block radius, I’ve watched the crime go through the roof,” the woman said, adding that there has been a “deterioration of the neighborhood as whole. “Middle Village right now is the last place I’m looking,” she continued. “I’m afraid to purchase a home here due to criminal activity.”

She listed a home invasion shooting death and a large seizure of fireworks as two examples of recent incidents. An officer from the precinct said that crime is up a total of 65 incidents compared to the same time last year. The largest increases have been in robberies and burglaries, and the largest jump has been in grand larcenies.

The precinct recently had 14 additional officers assigned to the Ridgewood station house to help combat the rising numbers.

Street Fair Summonses

James O’ Kane, president of the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce, complained that 128 summonses were recently issued to the chamber, the Lions Club and the Kiwanis Club for advertisements for a street fair. He explained that Boy Scout volunteers had placed the filers on light poles around the neighborhood, not realizing that it is illegal to do so.

“They’re all volunteers who are dedicated and deeply involved,” he said. “To be issued this many summonses… I feel like they could cut us a break [since] we’re a not-for-profit.” He said that the fines ranged from $75 to $200, and tickets for each offense were given to all three organizations.

A representative from the city’s Department of Sanitation explained that anybody violating that law is given a ticket, regardless of whether it’s an individual, a business or a non-profit group. “We give everyone tickets, plain and simple,” he said. “We don’t give anyone slack – it’s against the law. Nobody gets exempt from that law.”

At that point, Jerry Matacotta of COMET interrupted, shouting at the sanitation representative about the lack of enforcement against illegal residents. “Meanwhile, you do nothing about illegals throwing trash everywhere,” he yelled.

Como, who closed his personal law practice when he took office, jumped in and said that he is representing the organizations pro bono and is hoping to have all three groups in court at the same time. He said that fining all three for the same offense “is wrong on its face” and promised that he “will get it straightened out.”

Ridgewood Reservoir Future

Ridgewood resident Tom Dowd asked about the future of the Ridgewood Reservoir, noting that city Comptroller William Thompson recently rejected a $3 million contract the Parks Department presented to a consultant as part of the plan to convert one of three basins into athletic fields.

“We don’t want a million yards of debris coming through the streets of Ridgewood for the next four or five years,” he told the officials, referring to the process of trucking materials to the park to fill in the basin.

Como called the property “the most amazing nature preserve in this district” and said it would make more sense to fix up existing ball fields in nearby Highland Park while leaving the reservoir “the way it is.”

Maltese had stronger words, calling the city’s plan to convert the natural area into ballfields a “complete waste of money... almost bordering on malfeasance.” He said the city “can’t afford to spend money paving over a reservoir that is a bird refuge.

“We have told the mayor and Parks Department in the strongest terms that we don’t want money wasted… We have a nature preserve in our backyard and we’re going to keep it,” he said, urging residents unfamiliar with the reservoir to visit it.

Flooding and Downzoning

Complaints that the city is taking way too long to downzone parts of Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale have become commonplace at neighborhood meetings, as the effort has been delayed for several years. “It’s been promised to us, and [the delay] is destroying the neighborhood,” said Patrick Trinchese.

The issue of the stalled downzoning couldn’t be directly addressed because there were no representatives from the Department of City Planning on hand. However, an official from the Department of Environmental Protection tried to reassure residents that the agency is “keenly aware” of the flooding problems that hit Middle Village last August.

The DEP official explained that storms of that magnitude statistically “are only supposed to happen every 100 years,” and the city sewer system “is not equipped to handle that.” The city “would have to tear up every single street in the city” in order to install sewer lines that can “handle a storm of the magnitude that came down last year.”

However, the mayor has created a Flood Mitigation Task Force that is piloting new strategies in neighborhoods around the city that were most effected by flooding, including Middle Village.

Maspeth Truck Bypass Plan

Another stalled effort, a plan to force trucks off busy Grand Avenue, was raised by a resident. She noted that Anthony Nunziato had help devise the plan years ago, which would require trucks heading to Brooklyn to exit the Long Island Expressway at Maurice Avenue and use Rust Street instead of traveling through the heart of the neighborhood.

“There is no reason why trucks to Brooklyn are going down Grand Avenue,” she said, reminding the officials that a large dump truck recently overturned there, spilling piles of sand onto the avenue and expressway. “Does someone have to get killed before the DOT says okay?”

McCarthy, of the DOT, acknowledged that the project has been delayed, but said it is moving forward, with the help of $500,000 provided by Congressman Anthony Weiner. “I guess it’s going to sound like I’m making excuses, and maybe I am, but it has taken a very long time,” she said. “I know it’s not as quick as you would like, but we are moving forward.”

Parking Woes

Another familiar complaint was raised towards the end of the evening by Thomas Murawski of the Liberty Park Homeowners Association – vehicles left on the street for weeks or months, making the neighborhood’s parking situation tough. “We have cars parked in the neighborhood for days, weeks, months, even years, taking up the same spot.”

He said that in one case, a burnt out car was left on the street for several weeks. Despite calls to the precinct, it was not removed until the day a letter to the editor about it was published in a daily newspaper, he said. “I don’t know if it was a coincidence or not, but that was the day it got towed.”

Community Affairs Officer Tommy Bell of the 104th Precinct said the vehicle was towed after the precinct received the complaint. “It had nothing to do with the Daily News,” he said.

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