Thursday, January 29, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Residents Appeal to 104th Precinct for Help

Battling Burglaries, Vandalism, Drunks in Maspeth

By Conor Greene

Despite the bitter cold weather, a group of Maspeth residents descended on the recent COP 104 meeting to bring attention to issues including several recent burglaries and packs of unruly teenagers who they say terrorize the neighborhood after leaving a nearby bar every Monday night.

The meeting last Wednesday in Maspeth Town Hall began with a review of 2008 crime statistics within the 104th Precinct, specifically the seven major crimes: homicide, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft.

2008 Crime Statistics

Despite the major crime numbers being “through the roof in June,” the precinct finished the year down about two percent from 2007, according to its executive officer, Captain Ralph Forgione.

There were four homicides last year - all in connection with the Father’s Day fire on 69th Street - which equals the total from 2007. There were 18 rapes, up from 12 the prior year. In most cases, the victim knew the assailant, noted Captain Forgione. “It is not a serial rapist,” he told residents. “It wasn’t as bad as it seems.”

There were 297 robberies in 2008, down one incident from 2007. The precinct made big gains in fighting felony assaults, with 132 last year, compared to 159 the prior year, a 17 percent decrease. “We were very happy with that,” said Captain Forgione, adding that many of the incidents take place at or near bars.

There was also a large decrease in burglaries, with 387 last year compared to 456, a 15 percent decrease. “That is one of the hardest to fight,” said Captain Forgione. “You have two minutes to catch the person going in. The burglary team did an unbelievable job.”

One area that saw a spike in incidents was grand larcenies, which include theft of purses and other unattended property. There were 508 incidents in 2008, compared to 437 the prior twelve months, a 16 percent increase. “You would not believe how many people leave purses and wallets in their cars,” said Captain Forgione. There was a slight decline in auto theft, with 337 reported in 2007compared with 357 the prior year – a five percent drop.

However, the precinct scored a major victory in its battle against grand larcenies when officers from the 104th stationhouse apprehended a “career criminal” late last year. The man has been linked to 15 crimes within the 104th Precinct alone, and is suspected in upwards of 100 others just in this area. He had been grabbing wallets and purses from cars at gas stations as the victim was inside the store or pumping gas. He is wanted for incidents across Queens North and South, said Captain Forgione.

So far this year, there has been an increase in house burglaries, including several reports in Maspeth and Ridgewood. In most cases, the perpetrator enters the home through a rear door or window. “People are still leaving windows open, doors unlocked,” said Captain Forgione. “They’re going in the backyard and checking – if it’s open, they’re goingin.” Several of the incidents were near Fresh Pond Road and Madison Street, with the suspect entering second and third floor apartments via fire escapes.

Problems in Maspeth

The remainder of the meeting was dominated by issues raised by a group of a dozen residents from the neighborhood bounded by Maurice Avenue, 69th Street and the Long Island Expressway. Not only have there been several home burglaries in the past few weeks, the residents were left feeling as though the responding officers didn’t take the incidents seriously.

In one incident, a resident noticed a suspicious person inside his neighbor’s home, which was supposed to be unoccupied at the time. When the officers arrived, neighbors had the house surrounded and were afraid the perp was still inside. In their view, the responding officers did not take the situation seriously enough. “We weren’t feeling any kind of support,” said one resident. “We had to embarrass the officer to go in.”

Another problem is vandalism in overnight hours, including graffiti, smashed windows and damaged cars. According to the residents, the majority of the problems occur late on Monday nights, when O’Neill’s restaurant and bar is filled with customers, including many teenagers, enjoying their weekly hot wing special. “They just completely wreck the neighborhood,” said one resident.

Said another resident: “We know that George O’Neill has to make a living, but the feeling among people living here is that he has the cops in his pocket. Nothing is done about the drinking and the 18 and 19 year olds speeding off.”

Captain Forgione told the residents that he would reach out to Queens North to see if their DWI task force can be assigned to the area. He also promised to send patrol cars through the area, particularly on Monday nights. “I’ve never heard this complaint before,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody’s businesses, but I don’t want anyone hurt either.”

Nobody from O’Neill’s was in attendance to respond to the complaints. On Tuesday, restaurant assistant manager Melissa Meadows said that no underage patrons are served alcohol and expressed doubt that the vandalism is caused by O’Neill’s customers. She said that the restaurant has received several complaints in recent days from neighbors who refused to leave their names.

“We are aware of the situation and had a couple of friends in last night to keep an eye on this,” she said. “The worst part about it is, the complaints we are getting are due to the fact that they [the customers] are of a different color other than Caucasian… The neighborhood people don’t like the fact that we have n’s and s’s in our neighborhood.”

Meadows said part of the problem might stem from the fact that many groups have to wait about 20 minutes to get a table due to the promotion’s popularity. “If they have to wait, we take their name and number and what they do is probably walk around the block a couple of times,” she said. “We have been dealing with this situation; I sat down with [owner] George [O’Neill] this morning and he’s very concerned about it.

“I wouldn’t want a bunch of underage kids sitting on my stoop waiting to eat wings, but it’s a very prejudiced neighborhood,” continued Meadows. “We are part of the community, the place has been here since 1928. We’re not looking for a bad reputation.”

Hero Firefighters save Four from Woodhaven Blaze

Children Recovering, Mother, Grandmother in Critical

By Patricia Adams

Fire officials say a two-alarm blaze in the three-family row house at 97-12 93rd Street in Woodhaven may have been caused by a lit cigarette. Investigators say the fire began in the rear bedroom of the second-floor apartment, sending flames out the front and back windows, and filling the floor above with intense heat, smoke and carbon monoxide.

Shortly before 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a frantic Veronica Montero was screaming to the 911 operator. The 28-year-old mother of two was trapped inside with sons Dylan, 5, and Carlos, 10. The operator tried to talk to her. “Can you get out?” “No,” she screamed, “Please I have two kids.”

Less than four minutes later, Engine Company 285 arrived at the scene. Deputy Chief Paul Ferro said that there had been numerous reports on the way to the fire that there were people trapped inside on the third floor. Engine Companies 285 and 293 began extinguishing the blaze while the outside team from Ladder 142 raised the ladder tower to get to the victims trapped inside.

Firefighters Mike Czech and Ed Rissland rode the bucket up to the third floor windows; breaking through the glass, they climbed through the windows. Inside the bedroom, Czech started feeling around for victims. “The smoke conditions were extremely heavy," said Czech. “I felt a foot— I knew it was a child. One of the kids was on the floor and the mother and that child were huddled up. The second child was on the bed next to them pretty much all in the same area.”

“We knew we couldn’t get them out through the inside,” said Ed Rissland, “There were three victims and only two of us. So I went back out to the bucket and Mike passed them out to me.” At the same time, down on the ground, Lt. Mike Fitall of Ladder 143 was making his way up the interior stairs of the building to another victim. The 59-year-old grandmother lay motionless, face down on the floor, halfway in and out of the apartment’s front door.

Fitall was crawling on the floor when he felt the woman’s arm. With help from Doug Caffarone of Ladder 143, they got the woman out to Lt. Tim Murphy and Jay Griffiths, both of Engine 294. “When we got her downstairs, I knew she needed a breath,” Fitall said, “she was real red.” The victim was in cardiac arrest and Murphy and Griffiths administered CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. “It was a great thing to watch her come back to life,” Griffiths said.

Firefighter Doug Caffarone explained a part of the job that isn’t found in the training manuals or when working with mannequins. “When you have reports of children you get to a different level. You go into that mind-frame - you have to search a certain amount of rooms. You just go in there and do what you know how to do.”

Four victims were taken to area hospitals be- fore being transferred to Weill Cornell Burn Center in Manhattan for treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. As of Tuesday evening, the condition of both children was up-graded to stable, while their mother and grandmother were still listed in critical condition.

At the close of the press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Deputy Chief Paul Ferro addressed reporters and camera crews.

“I would just like to impress upon you that I was in front of the building and I witnessed the whole rescue. It was an extremely spectacular rescue,” Ferro said. “There was heavy fire underneath them and coming out the front and back windows. These guys placed themselves in very great danger.” Ferro continued on, “Watching children come out the windows was a very tragic thing, But it looks like it’s gonna turn out to be a great day in the city and a great day for the fire department thanks to these guys behind me.”

At the end of the press conference all the firefighters involved in the rescue were quick to shrug off their hero status. “This is a team effort. It’s wasn’t just Mike and me,” Ed Rissland said. “It was every guy here, doing what we do.”

“We’re just thankful that it turned out the way it did,” said Czech. “Whenever there are kids involved and things work out, you’re always thankful. Very thankful.”

And as though it had been officially adopted as the new motto of the FDNY, the corps of press heard it once again - the five words that explain simply how the lives of an entire family were saved. “It’s just what we do.”

Rally to Save Local Hospitals

Caritas Sends Notice of Pending Closings at St. John’s and Mary Immaculate

By Conor Greene

Shouting “Governor Paterson Shame on You” and waving signs to cars passing by on Queens Boulevard, hundreds of employees, residents and elected officials rallied outside St. John’s Hospital on Saturday in hopes of saving the bankrupt facility.

A similar rally was held on Tuesday on the steps of City Hall, and a third event is scheduled for Saturday in front of Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica. Both hospitals are owned and operated by Caritas Health Care, which says it is forced to close the facilities because they are losing millions of dollars each year.

“We need to show Governor Paterson that St. John’s and Mary Immaculate are needed in the community,” said Myrna Bailey, administrative director of clinical services at St. John’s. “Losing 400 beds, a nursing home and trauma center is not acceptable.”

News of the hospital’s dire economic situation first came during Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s state of the borough address several weeks ago. Caritas’ board of directors has since voted to give hospital executives permission to file for bankruptcy by the end of the month and close the facilities if “no other sources of funding can be identified,” according to a statement released by the health care system.

In addition, the board also authorized hospital executives to submit a draft closure plan to the state Department of Health, which is required before the hospital is allowed to close, and letters were mailed to all employees notifying them of the possible closures.

“Recognizing the serious, far-reaching consequences of these actions, the Board voted to take these measures reluctantly only after exhaustively examining all other options and determining that sufficient funds likely will not be available to present a viable alternative,” Caritas wrote. “Due to the unexpected financial difficulties resulting from the depth of the economic downturn, and its resulting unanticipated severe impact on the State and City’s ability to provide sufficient additional funding... a permanent shutdown of its operations may be necessary.”

The 2,500 employees at St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals were informed in a January 23 letter from Caritas Chief Executive Officer John Kastanis that their employment with Caritas “will permanently terminate between February 14 and February 28” in the event of a shutdown.

Aside from the two hospitals, the closures would affect the 115-bed Monsignor Fitzpatrick Skilled Nursing Pavilion at Mary Immaculate and related medical practices and businesses in Elmhurst, Flushing and Jamaica, wrote Kastanis. In addition, Mary Immaculate is a level-one trauma center and also houses a cancer institute, while St. John’s is a certified stroke and heart failure center and has the only hyperbaric oxygen therapy unit in Queens.

In 2008, St. John’s had 48,000 emergency room visits, 7,000 surgeries, 1,227 deliveries, 14,000 discharges and 50,245 clinical visits. Mary Immaculate’s emergency room served another 50,000 patients last year.

According to Councilman Tony Avella’s office, which organized Tuesday’s rally at City Hall, the state and Governor Paterson’s office have yet to provide an update on the possibility that emergency funding could be released to prevent the closures. Marshall’s office has also been in touch with the state DOH on a nearly daily basis, but didn’t have any additional information on the funding request. However, a source at St. John’s said that the hospital is prepared to begin the closing process this Friday, meaning it might begin accepting people on an elective basis only.

The rally in front of St. John’s last Saturday was attended by hundreds of staff members and residents, along with elected officials including Avella and City Comptroller William Thompson (both men are mayoral candidates this year), State Senator Shirley Huntley, Assemblyman Michael DenDekker, Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, Assemblywoman Marge Markey and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley.

“We have to make sure the people of this city are protected,” said Avella. “This shouldn’t be about money... This is a battle that must be won no matter what.” He called working to keep the hospitals open a “top priority this year and beyond.”

Huntley stressed that the hospital is needed in the area, and suggested that other public officials aren’t doing enough to protect healthcare facilities. “I’m concerned about this hospital because we have people who need this hospital,” she said. “It makes you sad when we elect people who could care less about healthcare. We need to think about that.”

“Don’t let them tell you it’s about money,” said Thompson. “It’s not just about dollars and cents, it’s about people. We are here today to say no... The state has put dollars ahead of people, and we’re not going to allow this.”

Dr. Salman Aly, chief resident at St. John’s, said the impact of a closure would be “tremendous,” especially considering the facility is “packed” on a regular basis. “It’s going to be a substantial loss. We serve an under-served community. We put our hearts and souls into serving the community. The public needs to realize that we need their help... You can say that Elmhurst [Hospital] can take care of it or Jamaica [Hospital], but they’re already overcrowded.”

The two hospitals are losing a total of about $5 million each month and have received $44 million in state grants and loans in the past two years.

News of the potential closures comes just months after the closure of another Queens facility, Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills, which had 251 beds. Officials at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System are exploring a plan to acquire the two failing hospitals and replace them with a state-of-the-art hospital in central Queens.

Forest Park Senior Center Funding Woes Puts Seniors at Risk

By Patricia Adams

A struggling economy and a “stretched to the limit” budget continue to threaten the delivery of crucial city services. But at the Forest Park Senior Center, patrons and directors are not only worried about ‘money problems future’. It seems they’re still plagued by ‘money problems past’---they haven’t received funding to run this year’s program, the money for which was promised from last year’s pot of money.

The center’s longtime director, Donna Catalbiano, says that the need for the money was close to forcing the doors shut. Out of almost $250,000 promised to the center through state and city money, including $100,000 from the Office of the Borough President, Catalbiano still hadn’t received anything.

But on Monday Catalbiano got a call from the State Department of Aging to inform her that the city funding from the office of the Borough President is being released. And so for the Forest Park Senior Center, help is on the way. With one crucial piece of the funding puzzle having been pieced together, Catalbiano says she is now working to get access to the other funds. “The $100,000 that’s coming from the city has to be used by June 30.” After that Catalbiano says, “the money is lost.”

Another large sum of funding the center is waiting for is a $75,000 allocation from the state Senate originally put in place by Serf Maltese. “We need to get that money down here as well,” said Catalbiano. The discrepancy she says is that the state has said that there are paperwork issues and that is why she hasn’t received the funding.

Senator Joseph Addabbo, who replaced Maltese with a November election victory, told The Forum that “The center has not lost the money. Once the paperwork is settled, my office will be happy to expedite the processing and get this funding where it belongs.” The new deadline for filing is February 2. Sen. Addabbo said his office is also available to help with the paperwork should the center need any assistance. Another $45,000 in member items, $30,000 from Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio and an additional $15,000 from Maltese still hangs in the balance but for now, the center will remain operational, without the threat of closure hanging over its head.

But even as the immediate threat of closing down fades away, the regular crowd of those who flock to the center three to four days a week, are still deeply upset with even the slightest possibility that they could lose what some say is the reason for existing.

Mary Galante, 82, spoke frankly about the center’s problems. “We’re not getting funded. That means the center will close. This is our second home.” Mary lives in the area and comes to the center faithfully four days every week. “I don’t know what I would do. I live alone and this is what I have to look forward to. This is family.”

She has been coming to the center for 18 years and says that so many wonderful friendships have been forged over the years. “If someone doesn’t show up for the day we call to see what happened and if everything is ok. We look out for each other. If someone is sick or in the hospital we call and send cards. And when someone passes away,” Mary explains, “we know about it and we deal with it together.”

The sentiment seems to flow through the room where everyone is accepted. An introduction by Mary to friends Tony Parisi, 86 and his wife Maria, 84 revealed that the couple has also been coming to the center for the past 17 years. “We walk 17 blocks to get here,” said Tony. “The exercise is good. This is my wife, Maria, today is her birthday,” he says with a loving gaze. Tony is well known throughout the center for his singing which he shows off usually on a Wednesday when the band is around. Tony and his wife often share a spot on the dance floor on Wednesday afternoons.

“You know, it would be so hard without the center,” Mary said. “It would be so boring. I mean your kids come to visit you but it’s not the same. You need your friends. And you need a place to hang out.” In the middle of explaining why the center is so important Mary is interrupted by Tony ---it’s time to serenade his beautiful wife for her birthday. Of course everyone joins in.

Hanging out senior-style at the Forest Park Center includes bingo, cards, trivia, movies, music, dancing, eating , sharing stories, and of course the opportunity to spend time with some very colorful characters. Take Louie “Cassanova” for instance. The 83-year-old travels by bus from his home in Ozone Park to get to the center everyday. “I come for the girls,” he quips. A smile on his face is quickly replaced with a stare that reflects what he is thinking---that the center may one day close because of budget problems.

But it seems that here there is a spirited group of seniors who stick together and whose friendships are prepared to outlast any financial crisis that comes their way. That spirit may best be personified by 83-year-old legally blind, Joseph Palladino, the notorious “Kissing Bandit.”

“Ask me for my business card,” Joe says, “come on and ask me.” And of course you fall for it. “OK Joe, may I please have your business card?” Suddenly you are being hugged and a kiss is planted on your cheek. In your hand you will find a white card with a red rose on it. It reads, you have been kissed by the notorious Joseph Palladino. Have you received your Vitamin K today? Vitamin K—kisses. Please don’t call 911. Call Joe.

Joe, Mary, Tony, Maria Louie and all of their friends may not have a wealth of funding but they have certainly found riches within each other and in their home away from home.

Weiner Rips State Child Support Fee

Single parents who turn to the state for help chasing down child support payments are currently hit with a $25 fee, something a local congressman hopes to change.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Queens) held a press conference on Sunday to slam the fee, which he said affects hundreds of thousands of parents who rely on the state Division of Child Support for help receiving payments due to them.

“It is wrong to place an additional tax on struggling families,” said Rep. Weiner. “New York’s middle class are already getting hit with rising energy and property bills and spiking transportation and food costs. Our first reaction simply cannot be to raise another tax on these families.”

The problem started in 2005 when Congress cut billions of dollars in federal aid to child support enforcement. To cover the gap, Congress gave the states the option of passing the cost on to either the receiver of child support or the payer, or to simply pay the fee itself.

In October 2008, the state decided to charge a $25 fee to single parents and their children who collect child support. In New York State, an estimated 287,000 families - including 113,000 in the city - potentially pay this tax, according to Weiner. The fee only applies to families who receive at least $500 in support in a year and have not received public assistance.

At the press conference on Sunday, Lisa Bongiorno, a 44-year-old single mother from Queens who is juggling three jobs while trying to get her daughter through college, said it’s outrageous that money intended to help support her child was taken away. “Every cent towards these children counts. It is ridiculous that this fee is being imposed upon the children and literally taking food out of their mouths.” Bongiorno argued that dead beat parents who refuse to make payments should be responsible for the fee instead of parents receiving support.

Weiner is pushing for $1 billion to be included in the federal stimulus plan for the child support enforcement program. He also wants to prohibit states from charging the fee on to the receiver of the child support.

The bill will be co-sponsored by Senate-designee Kristen Gillibrand (D-Hudson), who was recently appointed by Governor David Paterson to fill the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. “While families across New York are struggling with the effects of an economic slowdown, the government should not be taxing money intended to help children,” said Gillibrand. “The budget deficit should not be balanced on the backs of single parents."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

New Management Coming to Atlas Park

By Conor Greene

The Hemmerdinger family’s involvement managing The Shops at Atlas Park in Glendale is coming to an abrupt end, according to a letter circulated to community leaders and business owners this week.

“I must regretfully inform you that, effective February 19, ATCO Properties & Management will no longer be involved with the management or leasing of The Shops at Atlas Park,” wrote Damon Hemmerdinger, whose family owns the property, in a January 21 letter.

The mall’s two French-based lenders, Calyon and Societe Generale, will be appointing a new management company to run the upscale outdoor shopping center, which opened at 80th Street and Cooper Avenue in April 2006. It has since been met with some backlash from local neighbors, especially when the MTA, which is run by Damon Hemmerdinger’s father, Dale, agreed to reroute the Q45 bus to serve the shopping center.

In the letter, Damon Hemmerdinger notes that “despite the sluggish economy, traffic on the property was up 30% in 2008, and even held during December, as more people discovered Atlas Park, liked it and returned.” He adds that 12 new stores opened last year, and “a number of new stores are forecasted to open in the next six months.”

He also indicates that ATCO Properties still plans on developing the remainder of the property it owns in Glendale around the mall. Some residents have expressed concern over the past year that the Hemmerdingers plan to build a hotel and office space there, but the family has declined to provide specific information on future development there.

“ATCO is a solid business, and will continue to operate its other assets, including Atlas Terminals, within the tradition of excellence that we have long upheld,” wrote Hemmerdinger. “ATCO will seek growth opportunities as the economy turns around. One of these opportunities will be the redevelopment of our remaining property in Glendale. While we have no firm plans for how and when we will proceed, our belief in the community remains strong, and when the time is right we will redevelop the balance of Atlas Terminals.”

Calls to Damon Hemmerdinger and Calyon were not immediately returned on Wednesday.

Two Area Hospitals in Danger of Closing

St. John’s, Mary Immaculate on Verge of Bankruptcy

By Conor Greene

Residents and elected officials are anxiously awaiting word on the future of two Queens hospitals that might be forced to close if their parent company declares bankruptcy.

The executive board of Caritas Health Care, which owns both St. John’s Hospital in Elmhurst and Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica, was set to meet on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the future of the struggling facilities, which each lose about $5 million annually. It is possible that Caritas will vote to declare bankruptcy at that meeting, according to people involved in the discussions.

While both hospitals have struggled financially for several years, news of their impending closure came during Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s annual State of the Borough Address two weeks ago. “I am extremely concerned today about the stability of St. John’s Queens and Mary Immaculate hospitals,” she told a stunned audience. “I am working with the state to sustain health care in these communities.”

Both hospitals are operated by Caritas Health Care, a corporation created by Brooklyn Queens Health Centers of New York when it purchased both facilities from St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers for $40 million in 2006. Brooklyn Queens Health Centers of New York also owns Wyckoff Hospital and created Caritas to continue running the two Catholic hospitals.

News of St. John’s and Mary Immaculate’s potential closure comes just months after another local facility, Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills, was shut based on a recommendation by the state’s Berger Commission. The closures would fly in the face of findings made in a 2006 PricewaterhouseCoopers study of the future of healthcare in Queens, according to Dan Andrews, spokesman for Marshall.

In response to the news about Caritas, Marshall held an emergency meeting last Friday with other elected officials and community board representatives. “Indications were that the outlook is rather bleak for the two hospitals to remain financially viable,” said Andrews. “At the meeting, both the state health commissioner and Caritas officially agreed that the future of both hospitals is bleak.”

A major concern for Marshall and other officials is “how in the world other local hospitals would absorb the patient load that would be generated, with both doing about 50,000 visits each to the emergency room on an annual basis,” said Andrews. In addition, the closings would result in the loss of about 3,000 jobs, “the majority of which are held by Queens residents,” he added.

The two hospitals have a total of about 400 beds and combined are losing about $5 million each month.

Marshall has reached out to Governor David Paterson for assistance and expects to meet with him soon to discuss health care issues. “She will be asking him to delay any closures and will see if the state has formulated a closure plan, which it is required to do,” he said. “The great concern obviously is for the health care needs of the two communities, and the fact that Mary Immaculate has a trauma center, which is one of only a few in the entire borough.”

However, given the state’s looming $15 billion budget gap, it is not clear now much financial assistance the state can provide to maintain the hospital’s operations. According to a source at St. John’s Hospital, staff there has already been instructed to put together a closure plan, which seemingly would pave the way for the hospital’s closure.

One possible outcome to the problem is a takeover of both facilities by North Shore-Long Island Jewish Hospital, which would close both buildings and construct a new state-of-the art facility in central Queens. In November, LIJ entered into an agreement allowing it to negotiate exclusively with Caritas, according to spokesman Terry Lynam.

“We’ve been in discussions with them as well as with the state, toured the facilities, done our due diligence with regards to their books, and what we have proposed is actually building a new facility for the people of central Queens,” he said Wednesday. “The current sites are antiquated and the feeling is you could deliver much better quality care in a much more efficient manner with a new facility.”

However, Lynam noted that the plans face the possibility of being derailed by the current economic crisis surrounding the state and city. “The obvious issue is money,” he said. “Like all hospitals, particularly in this environment, we don’t have that capital, the hundreds of millions needed to build a 400-bed facility.”

The hospital would need “significant state funding” to complete the project, but “given the state’s financial situation, that’s kind of where it’s hung up right now,” said Lynam.

If that plan ever came to fruition, LIJ would likely cease operations at Forest Hills Hospital, which it also operates. He couldn’t say whether the new facility would be built at one of the sites currently used by St. John’s and Mary Immaculate, or elsewhere in central Queens.

High School Likely on Former Restaurant Depot Property

Residents Updated on Proposal at CB5 Meeting

By Conor Greene

The city is moving ahead with plans to build a high school in Maspeth, but is unwilling to meet the biggest request from local residents – that the facility be zoned specifically for local children.

Officials from the School Construction Authority presented updated plans for a 1,100-seat school at the former Restaurant Depot site on 74th Street at last week’s Community Board 5 meeting. Based on concerns voiced at past meetings, the SCA has reduced the proposal from 1,650 seats and eliminated an intermediate school portion of the plan.

The proposal now calls for two 500-seat high schools under one roof, which is consistent with the city Department of Education’s push to create smaller schools. It will also include 100 seats reserved for District 75 special needs student as is required, according to Mary Leas, a project support manager for SCA. It is scheduled to open in the fall of 2012.

“We had a lot of feedback and listened to a lot of criticism and complaints,” Leas told residents and local officials who crowded into the cafeteria at Christ the King High School last Wednesday. “I don’t know if it’s more palatable or not,” but the authority did try to address the “very valid concerns” raised at prior public hearings, she said.

While school safety officers provide security while school is in session, the SCA officials noted that the DOE doesn’t provide parking for teachers or students. It was later suggested that the DOE could ask the city Department of Education to allow parking along 57th Avenue near the site of the new Elmhurst Gas Tanks park. Board member Kathy Masi noted that zoning the school for local students would eliminate the parking concerns, since most of the children would then walk to school.

Robert Holden, who is a board member and president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, expressed concern that DOE officials will decide to convert an area on the property currently set aside for recreation into classroom space. “What’s to prevent the city from coming in and saying it needs more seats?” he asked. “You could say 1,100 now, but by the time it becomes reality, it’s 1,650.”

Holden also questioned why the school won’t be zoned for local children, since they currently are forced to leave the neighborhood to attend high school. “What are the guarantees that our kids will go to this school?” he asked. In response, Leas conceded that she couldn’t make any promises regarding zoning, and that “preference will be given to Queens residents.”

Regarding concerns that the proposed capacity would be raised by the time the school is built, Leas said that “it is not our preference” to eliminate green space in favor of more seats. “If we have an explosion of more kids, we will continue to look for more sites,” she said.

A board member asked if the SCA and DOE had considered instead purchasing the former St. Saviour’s property in West Maspeth instead of the Restaurant Depot site. Leas said it was investigated but is “not really a desirable location for a school” due to its industrial setting and heavy truck and train traffic. She called the Restaurant Depot property a “spectacular site that doesn’t come along very often.”

Leas said the next step is to bring the proposal before City Council’s Land Use Committee for approval. At that point, the city would move ahead with a purchase of the property and hopes to have the design work completed by late spring, allowing the project to go out for bid by June. If a contract is awarded in the summer demolition work would begin by fall.

The community board’s executive committee will review the current proposal and is seeking follow up answers on issues including zoning, parking and the drop-off area. Still, despite the changes, concerns such as parking and security have not been addressed, argued board member Manny Caruana.

“It’s not the building the community is so concerned about, it’s the impact it’s going to have on the community,” he said. “I don’t see any of these problems being addressed… It seems that this is a done deal no matter what the community says.”

Several Local Catholic Schools Might Close

Lay Personnel, Demographic Shifts and Rising Tuitions Cited as Factors

By Patricia Adams

A nationwide trend — most disturbing among the Catholic community’s faithful — remains the steady decrease of enrollment which continues to plague the Catholic school system.

In 1965 at the height of enrollment, Catholic schools topped out somewhere around 12,000. Over the past eight to ten years across the United States however, the Catholic community has borne painful witness to the closing of more than 2,000 of their parish schools.

In the thick of the closure crisis is the Brooklyn-Queens Archdiocese which announced 14 possible closings of Catholic Schools within that Diocese. Slated for closure in Queens is St. Anthony of Padua in South Ozone Park, St. Benedict Joseph Labre in Richmond Hill, St. Catherine of Sienna in St. Albans, St. Aloysius in Ridgewood, and Blessed Sacrament in Jackson Heights.

But what are the core issues responsible for the continued enrollment decrease that hangs over the parish schools formerly seen as a permanent fixture on the education horizon? What is it that could possibly jeopardize the institution of Catholic education and threaten its very existence?

The church has offered the fact that the steady drop in clergy has left them with a tab for replacement lay staff. It’s a big tab at that - including benefits - which has added significant financial burden to the schools formerly operated by nuns and priests at no cost.

Another key factor is the shift of middle and upper-middle class parishioners who have been replaced in the church by Latinos and other immigrant groups who are without the financial resources of affluent parishioners who have since migrated away from Catholic communities. This is especially prevalent in rural areas, where parochial schools attracted low-income families and minority students in an effort to keep them away from public schools justifiably labeled as troubled and potentially unsafe.

Consistent rises in tuition factor heavily in all discussions of why the system is failing. Frustrated parents and advocates for Catholic education point fingers to the damage caused by what is seen by some as the church’s inability to adapt to societal change quickly enough to make a difference. Add these factors to a group not generally noted for their business acumen, and it’s fairly easy to piece together what could bring about the demise of Catholic education as we have come to know it.

According to experts in the field of tracking the downfall of the parochial system and the failure to generate enrollment, it is a common belief that some of the largest inherent problems rest in the traditional governance structure.

For years, the administration of the parish finances and the schools has weighed on the shoulders of parish pastors and priests. Clearly, to wage effective war against the enrollment dilemma, the balance of power needs to be shifted to a body of professional lay volunteers and educators far more qualified to manage ever-changing financial structures and present day requirements for success.

In a five year plan unveiled earlier this week by Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio, the Brooklyn-Queens Diocese has released plans for a two-tiered management structure which would shift the financial administration, marketing, recruiting and hiring of principals to a body of lay professionals who have backgrounds with diversified experience and who also demonstrate a strong commitment to the Catholic school model and its preservation. These “lay boards” would be comprised of volunteers and the duties of the pastor or parish priest would be confined to the enrichment of the spiritual community and other religious matters.

According to published statements released by the Bishop, the goal is to set sights on a blend of professionals and lay faculty that operates a successful collaboration with the religious community at large. In his own terms, Bishop DiMarzio called for a “communion of schools and dedicated people.”

In a statement the Bishop said, “When we determined that our schools are operating at only 85 percent of capacity, it became clear that we had to consider why this was happening and how we might reverse the trend.”

Despite all the steps taken to revamp the system, one blaring fact remains — although Diocesan officials are holding their ground that the situation with schools purported to be on the verge of closing will not be formally decided upon until February — the facts and the numbers point to the inevitable loss to be suffered by students and parents when their proposed closures become reality.

Officers Indicted in Bogus Drug Bust

By Conor Greene

Two NYPD officers were indicted Thursday for falsely accusing four men of selling cocaine at an Elmhurst bar last year. The men were exonerated after surveillance footage showed that the officers and men never made contact that evening.

Police Officer Henry Tavarez, 27, and Detective Stephen Anderson, 33, surrendered to authorities on Thursday morning and were arraigned in Queens County Supreme Court on a 42-count indictment. If convicted, the men face up to nine years on charges including unlawful imprisonment, conspiracy and official misconduct.

The two officers were part of an NYPD narcotics unit conducting buy and bust operations at Delicias De Mi Tierra on 91st Place in Elmhurst beginning on the night of January 4, 2008 and continuing into the next morning. A total of six individuals were arrested for their alleged involvement in two separate drug transactions.

According to the charges, Detective Anderson bought three bags of cocaine for $60 from Gabriel Lira and Julian Martinez, but later claimed in court documents that he had only bought one $40 bag from the men. The officers then arrested Jose Colon, his brother, Maximo Colon, Raul Duchimasa and Luis Rodriguez and allegedly used two of the bags purchased earlier that night as evidence against the Colon brothers and their friends.

In reality, the officer “never bought drugs from them and the two bags of cocaine vouchered into evidence were allegedly the ones Detective Anderson had purchased from Lira and Martinez, according to a statement issued by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. Based on the officer’s word, the six men were arrested and charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance, punishable by nine years in prison.

“Such egregious conduct not only taints the reputation of their fellow officers but erodes public confidence and trust in the department. Such conduct cannot – and will not – be tolerated,” said Brown at a news conference in his Kew Gardens office.

Five of the men were released on their own recognizance the same day as their arrest, but Maximo Colon spent three days in jail until he was able to post $2,500 bail.

Upon his release from jail, Jose Colon went back to the bar and obtained a copy of security footage showing that the officers and four men never made contact that evening. As a result, the charges against the four men were dismissed. Lira and Martinez have pled guilty to drug sales charges and are awaiting sentencing, according to Brown. Anderson, of Long Island, has since resigned from the police force and Officer Tavarez, of New York City, has been placed on modified duty.

“In joining the NYPD, the defendants took an oath to uphold the law and to protect the innocent,” said Brown. “Instead, they are accused of knowingly engaging in criminal activity that could have resulted in lengthy prison terms for four innocent men.”

After the bar provided Jose Colon with a copy of the surveillance tape, bar owner Eduardo Espinoza, 36, told the Daily News that officers from the 110th Precinct were harassing him and citing him with dozens of violations. “Every two to three weeks, there’s cops in here, searching the bar,” he told the paper. “If there’s no violation, they’ll make it up. I lost all my clients – everyone’s scared to come in my place right now.”

Espinoza said that he suspected police retaliation because of a phone call he received following the buy-and-bust operation. He said that a man who identified himself as the arresting officer asked if there was a camera in the bar. “I said I already gave it to the defendants,” said Espinoza. “He said, ‘Oh s--t.’ He hung up.”

An NYPD spokesman said at the time that the department was looking into the allegations of harassment, but a source told the newspaper that the frequent police visits were the result of numerous community complaints against the bar.

All arrests made by the two officers are being reviewed, according to the district attorney’s office. Prosecutors in Brooklyn dismissed more than 150 cases in 200 after four officers in the Brooklyn South Narcotics Bureau were arrested on charges they traded drugs for information.

An attorney for Detective Anderson did not return a phone call seeking comment on the charges against his client.

Lawrence Fredella, who is representing Officer Tavarez, said that was the first buy-and-bust operation his client had participated in.Officer Tavarez was not present inside the bar when the undercover cops - Detective Anderson and another officer who has not been charged - made the purported buy from the four men, said his lawyer.

After uniformed officers went inside the club and arrested the men, the narcotics officers told Officer Tavarez that they would credit him with the bust, according to Fredella. “He thought those guys really sold drugs to Detective Anderson. He was just following two senior officers and was out there to observe. It’s a little shocking that he was indicted and arrested on this… They are compounding a wrong situation by indicting a rookie officer.”

Fredella noted that his client was charged with about half of the 42 counts contained within the indictment and said Officer Tavarez has been cooperating with investigators. Detective Anderson was on the NYPD for eight years before resigning and Officer Tavarez is a four-year member of the force. According to the district attorney’s office that evening was the first time the two officers worked together.

Catholic Academy to Open at OLG Site in September


By Patricia Adams

In the midst of 14 catholic school closings announced by the Brooklyn-Queens Diocese last week, supporters of Catholic education in one Howard Beach School can rest easier. Although the parish school of Our Lady of Grace (OLG) will close at the end of the school year, a Catholic academy at the same site will open in September 2009.

OLG Principal Barbara Kavanagh says the main difference is the structure of governance at the school. “The Academy will be run by the principal and a Board of five Lay Directors,” says Kavanagh, “with each with lay professional having expertise in diversified fields.”

In a release by the Diocese of Brooklyn set forth by Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio in a “diocesan wide strategic planning process” a Diocesan Reconfiguration Committee (DRC) has returned a list of 29 regional proposals to “ensure the long term vitality and strength of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn, the role of the pastor and parish priest will take on a whole new meaning under the intense project to revamp the way Catholic Schools are administered to and operate.

According to Rev. Kieran Harrington, “This is a process. Every school in the diocese will be moving in the same direction over the next five years. In reviewing the schools,” Rev. Harrington said, “everyone is in a different place in the queue.”

Father Harrington confirmed Kavanagh’s understanding concerning the primary difference between the traditional parish school and an academy-- it lays within the structure of governance and administration that is essentially is being re-imagined. Under the newly proposed governance system, the pastor will be responsible for the spiritual welfare of the school and his parish.

The principal’s responsibilities will rest with education and the professional development of teachers. “Spiritual welfare is the competence of priests and education is the competence of principals,” Rev. Harrington said, “neither of these people should be concerned with finances or duties outside their competence.”

The administration of finances, governing salaries, marketing and other administrative functions will now fall on a Board of Lay Directors, comprised of five professional individuals within the community who will volunteer their time in administering the needs of the school which fall outside the realm of religion and education.

“Our sense is that in Howard Beach, many people have been very successful in building business,” said Rev. Harrington. “These are professional people who have demonstrated though personal venture that they have the tools to succeed.”

“Not everyone has all the components,” Rev. Harrington further explained. “Empowering professional lay people from the community, allowing principals and teachers to focus on education and priests on spirituality, are all part of the plan to create long-term viability for Catholic education.”

Preparing for Academy Status

OLG was one of five area schools invited to participate in a pilot program to attain academy status. One prerequisite of the program was to complete a Catholic Identity Assessment designed by the Diocese to evaluate the visible signs that make OLG uniquely Catholic.

Although the assessment had a survey design, the intent behind the project was to establish cross-section views of parents, faculty and staff as to the factors present that contribute to an overall description of the Catholic character at OLG.

As an academy the school would still follow the guidelines of New York State and of course, the rigor of religious education would not be diminished. “The reason we were chosen for this program is because our school and parish community has a very strong Catholic identity,” said Barbara Kavanagh.

The new academy, for which a name has not yet been chosen, will still face the challenges unique to them which include a declining enrollment and a projected financial deficit for the coming year. “We have every confidence that we will be able to make the new governance work for us,” Kavanagh maintains.

But in addition to what remains the obvious goal - to maintain the strong Catholic character - Kavanagh stresses the need to also feature other educational components entitled to children in public school. “The value of Catholic education as a component of the Catholic faith is undeniable,” she said, “but there are other things which need to be stressed. The public needs to be aware that the differences in Catholic education are not focused solely on the Catholic religion.”

In support of the obvious desire to point out equally important educational differences Kavanagh has much to say on the inclusion of support services in Catholic schools. “Support services available to Catholic school students are exceedingly limited. We need language programs from K-8. Help with homework after school, tutoring and a place for play and organized sports programs. Children with special needs should have the option of a Catholic education.” Kavanagh also want to be far more inclusive of arts programs within the curriculum.

The explanation of other key differences rests in several factors, one of which is the overall average cost to educate a Catholic school student as opposed to a public school student. According to Kavanagh, the cost per child for a Catholic school is roughly $4,000 per student.

In a report issued by the Department of Education on school based expenditure reports the cost of a public school education per student can range anywhere from $12,535 for a General Education student to $42,975 for Special Education students. While some may quip that this is an “apples to orange comparison” the merit of recognizing the difference is imperative to Catholic school survival, according to Kavanagh.

“We have consistently proven that the level of education at our schools, as measured by mandated state testing, carries a higher ranking in NYS ELA and math test results.” Kavanagh’s point is that in some cases, for what amounts to a fraction of the cost, students with Catholic school educations are still outperforming their public school counterparts.

“The bottom line is that we have to move ahead, with Diocesan support, to preserve the Catholic school education for the generations to come," said Kavanagh. "No child should be denied a Catholic education, whether their needs be defined by enrichment or remediation. Howard Beach and the community of Our Lady of Grace are fortunate to have been offered the chance to act as a beacon in this crucial process.”

Civic Group Concerned about Bar Opening

Update Also Provided on Stalled Downzoning at CB 5 Meeting

By Conor Greene

Progress on the long-stalled downzoning of Glendale, Middle Village and Maspeth, and concerns over a new bar opening in Ridgewood, highlighted the remainder of last week’s Community Board 5 meeting.

Downzoning Moving Forward

Tom Smith of the Department of City Planning and Walter Sanchez, chair of the board’s Land Use Committee, briefly discussed the stalled downzoning, which is intended to protect about 350 blocks from out of character development.

The effort has wallowed in the DCP since volunteers began the effort three years ago by surveying thousands of properties within the study area. Residents and civic groups whose members have put countless hours into the project have since waited for the DCP to certify the plan, which is needed before it goes to the City Council for approval.

Smith told the board that he is “confident” that the process is in the “final stages” of its DCP review. He said several changes were made as a result of input provided to the department several months ago when the plan was first presented to the Land Use Committee.

Among those minor changes were retaining commercial overlays in some residential areas, such as where corner stores already exist. “We don’t want to lose those small commercial stores,” said Smith. Examples of these types of overlays include portions of Metropolitan and Cypress avenues, he said. In addition, the department is taking another look at the area around Atlas Park in Glendale, which includes properties used for industrial purposes.

Concerns Over New Bar

During the meeting’s public comment period, board member Ann Maggio, also president of the Citizens for a Better Ridgewood, read a letter expressing concerns about a new bar and restaurant opening at 205 Cypress Avenue.

The location “has had a bad history in our neighborhood,” said Maggio, most recently due to La Nueva Tinaja, “which was finally closed down after many neighborhood protests.” A new application for a liquor license for that premises was recently filed under the name La Planeta Azul, which would be open from noon until 4 a.m. Monday thorough Friday, with weekend hours not specified, according to Maggio.

“We would like to meet with the new owners before a liquor license is approved to find out what their plans are,” she said. With several other “troubling establishments” already operating in the neighborhood, “this is not what we want in our area and we want to make sure that 205 Cypress is not the same type of establishment,” said Maggio.

“Citizens for a Better Ridgewood had to work for several years to get rid of La Nueva Tinaja, Equinoxio and the Belly Dancing Café. We don’t want to have to work to get rid of another problem; we’d rather stop before it begins.”

Councilwoman Diana Reyna, whose district covers a portion of Ridgewood, later vowed to look into the issue on behalf of the civic association.

Bloomberg Looks to Past and Future During State of City Address


By Conor Greene

In his annual State of the City address last Thursday in Brooklyn, Mayor Michael Bloomberg focused on the economy, job creation and crime while presenting a nine-point plan he says will result in as many as 400,000 jobs over the next six years.

At a time when the nation is enduring what is widely considered the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, Mayor Bloomberg made references to historical figures and events such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, 9/11 and the 1930s during his hour-long speech.

The speech, presented at Whitman Hall in Brooklyn College, was quickly overshadowed when just hours later a commercial airliner was forced to land in the Hudson River after striking a flock of geese upon takeoff from LaGuardia Airport. News organizations dedicated the majority of that day’s coverage to the near disaster, meaning the mayor’s speech did not receive the attention it normally would.

And, with Mayor Bloomberg poised to run for a third term this fall after convincing City Council to amend the city’s term limits law, the speech served in many ways as a campaign speech. When not looking ahead to the road of recovery the city and nation currently faces, the mayor pointed to gains New York has made since he first took office.

“Until recently, the New Deal and the 1930s seemed like a distant memory – and something we read about in history books,” said Bloomberg. “But last year, when the sub-prime mortgage write-down became a global financial meltdown, the bank panics returned and today, more people are worried about losing their jobs, their savings and their homes than at any time since that Great Depression.”

However, he harkened back to 9/11, “when the experts were predicting it would take decades for our city to recover.” In that time, the city has made great strides in areas including crime (“down 30 percent, thanks to our Finest”), fire deaths (“the lowest seven-year total in history, thanks to our Bravest”), high school graduation rates (“up 22 percent, thanks to our Smartest”), tourism (“up more than 30 percent”), welfare rolls (“down to a 45-year low”), ambulance response times (“the fastest on record”), the city’s population (“at an all-time high”) and average life expectancy (“longer than ever and longer than the country’s for the first time since World War Two”).

“Those achievements have touched New Yorkers in all five boroughs and made our city a national leader in nearly every area of public policy,” continued Bloomberg, a former Democrat and Republican turned independent. “But now, I think we all know, we are being tested again. We don’t know how bad the recession will be, but we know it will be bad enough. Plenty bad. There’s no question that the temporary State of our City is shaken. But I’m here today to tell you it’s not broken!”

While many New Yorkers are enduring tough times economically, Mayor Bloomberg noted that it could have been much worse had the city not prepared ahead of time. “We knew that – as sure as night follows day – the market would eventually turn downward,” he recalled. “And we prepared for it.”

Since 2007, the city has cut planned spending by more than $2 billion, according to the mayor. Debt costs have been cut by $3.2 billion, and $2.5 billion has been set aside for retirees’ benefits. “If we hadn’t taken those steps, instead of confronting a crisis today we’d be caught in a cataclysm.” Still, despite the foresight, the city still faces a “fiscal reckoning that will involve some very painful budget choices,” which he will describe in his preliminary budget presentation on January 30.

However, the brunt of Mayor Bloomberg’s time was spent laying out the nine-point plan he says will “allow us to retain and create as many jobs as possible now and 400,000 jobs over the next six years, in all five boroughs.”

Aspects of the plan include investing in new infrastructure, which Mayor Bloomberg said would continue a trend set this year when the city funded a record $10 billion-plus in capital projects including the 7 Train extension to Hudson Yards, breaking ground on a new Police Academy in College Point, building two libraries in Queens and a major renovation of the Queens Museum of Art.

“For the past year, we’ve been pushing Washington to focus the Federal stimulus on ‘ready to build’ infrastructure,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “In all fairness, they’ve finally come around – and thanks to all the work we’ve done over the past several years, we’re ready to build. We look forward to working with Congress and President-elect Obama – not just on the stimulus package, but on rethinking the entire way we fund infrastructure projects in this country.”

Another major element of Mayor Bloomberg’s job creation plan is to “continue diversifying our economy and continue reducing our dependence in Wall Street.” In Queens, that includes projects such as the redevelopment of the industrial Willets Point neighborhood near Citi Field and development of Hunters Point South in Long Island City.

As the economy struggles, Mayor Bloomberg noted that it is especially important to make sure that crime and quality of life issues don’t impact the city’s neighborhoods. “In fact, the best thing we can do for Wall Street – and for every corner store in the city – is the second leg of our economic recovery strategy: continue to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” he said. “And make no mistake – we will.”

Calling public safety “the bedrock of society that makes economic growth possible,” Mayor Bloomberg cited FBI statistics showing New York as the “safest big city in the country.” Crime is at a “more than 40-year low,” nearly 30 percent lower then seven years ago. “It means if crime levels from 2001 had remained constant, there would have been more than 78,000 individuals, families and businesses robbed or burglarized,” he said. “None of it happened, thank God – thanks to the brave men and women of the NYPD.”

One initiative Mayor Bloomberg introduced as part of his focus on quality of life issues is a plan to identify the “Dirty Dozen,” the 12 worst repeat quality-of-life offenders in each borough. “So let me make this promise now: we won’t cede an inch to the squeegee men, turnstile jumpers and graffiti vandals who breed a sense of disorder and lawlessness. Not on our watch,” he said.

Mayor Bloomberg closed his speech by telling the story of Yan Fei and Chen Fei, who moved to Sunset Park five years ago from a small town in China. Chen is studying to become an accountant, and Yan recently became an American citizen. “These New Yorkers – together – are why I am so confident about our future... That resilience, that perseverance, that stubborn optimism, is something everyone in this room recognizes.

“We are New Yorkers – together. We have rallied from every setback – together. We have always emerged even stronger than before – together. And now as one city, with one common destiny, we’ll do it again,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “By never fearing. Never quitting. Newer accepting failure. And always believing that our best days, and the best days for this city, are still to come. Thank you. God bless you all and God bless New York City.”

Ridgewood Man Convicted of '06 Murder


By Conor Greene

A Ridgewood man has been convicted of murder and attempted murder in the 2006 shooting of two men outside a Woodside nightclub, announced Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

Victor Gavalo, 26, of 1816 Stephens Street was convicted last Thursday of murder, attempted murder, assault and criminal possession of a weapon by a jury of six men and six women. The panel deliberated for less than five hours over two days following a weeklong trial before Queens Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman.

Gavalo, who is unemployed, faces up to 50 years to life in prison when he is sentenced in Queens Criminal Court on February 6.

“The defendant stands convicted of callously standing in front of a parked car and shooting at its two passengers, who had no place to run or hide,” said Brown. “I hope that the victims’ families find some closure in knowing that the person responsible for shooting their loved ones has now been held accountable for his actions and will probably spend the rest of his natural life in prison.”

According to trial testimony, Gavalo exited a minivan at about 4 a.m. on October 1, 2006 and walked in front of a Honda parked outside of Club Phenomenon at 62-43 30th Avenue in Woodside. He began shooting into the front windshield and passenger side window, striking the front passenger, 22-year-old Ernesto Salgado of Sunnyside at least once in the chest, killing him. Gavalo also shot and critically wounded driver Tony Morales, 24, of Woodhaven, before fleeing in the minivan. He was arrested and charged in the shootings about three months later.

The incident occurred after the victims had left the Fantasia nightclub, which is located in the same 30th Avenue building as Club Phenomenon. Salgado was the third person to be fatally shot outside the club in a three-year period, and the eighth shooting victim overall.

In December 2006, Club Phenomenon and Fantasia were shut in accordance with the city’s nuisance abatement law following a five-month investigation by the District Attorney’s office. Over the course of a year, undercover officers made nearly three dozen arrests there for offenses including gun possession, drug sales and prostitution. That year, the club’s owner paid $15,000 in fines stemming from nearly two dozen citations for infractions such as noise complaints and disorderly conduct.

“Far from being the ‘gentlemen’s club’ it presumes to be, the club has long been a hotbed for drugs, prostitution and gunplay and the subject of numerous complaints – both to my office and the NYPD – from area residents and local officials,” said Brown after the building was padlocked. “Businesses that allow prostitution or other illegal activity to occur on their premises are at risk of being shut down.”

However, the club is preparing to re-open for business this week, according to the district attorney’s office. A billboard on top of the building visible from the nearby expressway advertises the January 16 grand opening of Perfection Upscale Gentlemen’s Club.

Assistant District Attorney Karen Ross of the DA’s Homicide Trials Bureau prosecuted the state’s case against Gavalo.

Rego Park Library Closed for Renovations

Queens Library at Rego Park, 91-41 63rd Drive, will be closed as of January 24, 2009 for renovations. Limited service will be provided from a temporary mobile library in front of the building every Monday and Thursday from 10 am to 6 pm.

The newly renovated library will re-open in late spring, 2009. Improvements will include new heating, ventilating and air-conditioning equipment; fast RFID self service check-out, a new young adult area, a new customer information center, more computer workstations; laptop work counters and a bright new décor. Funding for the improvements has been provided by New York City Councilmember Melinda Katz and the Queens Delegation to the New York State Assembly.

Library customers are invited to use the temporarily mobile library, or visit any of Queens Library's other locations. The closest to Rego Park are Queens Library at Forest Hills at 108-19 71st Avenue, a half-block north of Queens Boulevard; Lefrak City at 98-30 57th Avenue between 99th Street and 99th Place; Elmhurst at 86-01 Broadway at 51st Avenue.

Many library services, including the renewal of library materials, can be accessed at

Thursday, January 15, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Howard Beach Site Eyed for Senior Housing

By Conor Greene

Affordable housing for senior citizens could be built on the Howard Beach site which now houses the Bernard Fineson Developmental Center as part of Governor David Paterson’s effort to convert under-utilized state-owned properties to residential uses.

The state Housing Finance Agency (HFA) recently issued a request for proposals regarding the 3.4-acre site at 155-55 Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach. The site, which has two buildings totaling 111,000 square feet, is currently operated by the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD) but is scheduled to close on June 30.

On Monday, the HFA issued a request for proposals to developers interested in purchasing the property, which originally opened as a private hospital in the 1960s. It was converted into a residential facility by OMRDD in 1975 with a certified capacity of 160. Today, the facility provides residential and program services for 46individuals, including those diagnosed with autism.

Under the proposal, the chosen developer would convert the facility into 100 housing units. At least 80 of the units would be studio or one-bedroom apartments for low-to-moderate seniors 60-years-old and older. The remaining 20 units would be reserved for individuals supported by OMRDD. In addition, the developer is asked to set aside space for senior services for residents of the 80 units, such as a community center.

When the OMRDD ceases operations at the facility in June, some of the residents currently living there will be “transferred into the community and into a home of their choice,” according to agency Commissioner Diana Jones Ritter. Other residents living there would be transferred to the main Hillside Campus in Queens Village.

“My administration is dedicated to converting nonessential state property to private use and it makes tremendous sense to turn Howard Park into affordable senior housing,” said Gov. Paterson. “In these difficult fiscal times, we need to be as creative as possible in generating additional resources and providing affordable housing for our neediest citizens.”

The proposal has the support of local officials including Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, State Senator Joseph Addabbo and Betty Braton, chairwoman of Community Board 10.

Pheffer said it is especially important “during these fiscally troubling times” to watch out for “especially vulnerable” citizens such as seniors. “The creation of quality, affordable senior citizen apartments will provide a currently unmet need in our community,” she said.

State Senator Joseph Addabbo vowed to “promote community involvement and input on all aspects of planning and discussions of the proposed use” of the property.

Braton said the project is welcomed due to the “sizable segment” of the CB 10 population that is over the age of 65. “There is a real need for enhanced services,” she said. “We look forward to working with state officials to ensure active community involvement as development proceeds.”

The request for proposal is due to HFA by February 27.

Aqueduct Racino Plans Presented at CB 10

By Patricia Adams

Representatives from the Delaware North Companies made their awaited presentation on the proposed gaming package for Aqueduct Racetrack on Thursday. Ron Sultemeier, Vice President of Strategic Development for Delaware North led the discussion and used a Powerpoint presentation to give board members and residents a clear picture of what the company intends to do at Aqueduct.

Sultemeier was joined at the Community Board 10 meeting by Dan Gerrity, President, Saratoga Gaming and Raceway and Saratoga Harness Racing at the meeting. Also on hand was Joanne K. Adams, the Community Relations manager from NYRA. For the project, Delaware North will team with Saratoga Harness Racing and other partners including the Peebles Corporation and McKissack & McKissack to form the Aqueduct Gaming LLC Operating Entity.

Sultemeier began his discussion by emphasizing strong community involvement in the project to be accompanied by job and economic development. He also stressed the company’s commitment to focus on important aesthetic characteristics and very careful planning related to transportation, traffic and security. “The community has been waiting a long time for new development—our commitment is to build something you will be proud of,” Sultemeier said.

In addressing plans to deal with transportation and traffic issues related to the new facility, Sultemeier was very firm on the fact that every consideration will be taken to make sure that the utmost attention is paid to these components of the plan to avoid traffic congestion and all safety and security issues concerning transportation in and out of the facility. In total, Delaware North is intent on making a dynamic impact on the successful thoroughbred racing program and bringing great benefits to the community as a whole and the State of New York as a whole.

One point well made by the Delaware North representatives was that in the past, when record crowds lined the stands at Aqueduct, the facility saw many crowds numbering 50,000 or more. “This operation,” Sultemeier explained, “will see an estimated daily crowd of between 10,000 and 23,000, but those crowds will be spaced out through the day and night.

The focus of Aqueduct Gaming is to deliver world-class gaming and entertainment to Aqueduct Racetrack. In hopes of realizing the potential of the project quickly, all efforts are centered on beginning the generation of substantial revenue for the state as soon as possible through the use of the existing SEQR permit.

While the project would start out including the much talked about Video Lottery terminals, or slot machines, the overall vision is for expansion to a world class regional destination with hotel and conference facilities, restaurants, retail and entertainment options.

Development plans for such a facility would be integrated with transportation to provide seamless access to larger metro population and minimal impact to local traffic patterns. Specific features of the proposed Gaming and Entertainment would include a state-ofthe-art gaming floor with amenities expected as part of a regional casino destination, 185,000 square feet of gaming floor, approximately 4,500VLT’s, a 2,000-space parking garage and world class hospitality amenities.

Restaurant offerings would include a lobby feature bar, stage lounge, comprehensive branded food court featuring a grill, Italian, and bakery/coffee. Dining choices would feature a New York style-deli and a 25,000 square foot signature buffet with seating for 600.

Of primary concern to the Board and residents is the creation of jobs and revenue for the local community. Sultemeier offered a thorough explanation as to how the project will generate substantial revenue, jobs and overall economic development to benefit education while also supporting the thoroughbred racing industry.

“This project will create as many as 1,100 construction jobs and an additional 1,000 jobs at the gaming and entertainment facility. It is a $250 million project up front with a 30-year-franchise agreement,” said Sultemeier. “Over $170 million will be allocated to the facility alone.”

In addition to the creation of thousands of employment opportunities, Aqueduct Gaming will establish an employment and small Business Development Center which will host job fairs in coordination with local media outlets and community organizations.

Projections by Aqueduct Gaming are for total statutory payments to education and New York State Lottery of $10.3 billion during the 30-year term agreement and total payments to support New York State thoroughbred racing will be approximately $3.4 billion through the 30-year term.

While the primary focus of Aqueduct Gaming presently is to get things rolling with the state, there was also discussion about potential future operations that serve as naturally complementary to gaming operations including a resort hotel with 350-500 luxury rooms and a 3,000 to 5,000 square foot destination spa, a 15,000-30,000 square foot retail mall, additional restaurants, a 3,000 seat events center and a 60,000 square foot conference center.

To conclude the presentation, Ron Sultemeier outlined the next steps for an anxious audience. He said that immediate plans were to finish the final steps in the Memorandum of Understanding, begin the execution of a detailed development and construction timeline, establish the office/employment/small business center and very importantly to continue to build community partnerships. Once these remaining details have been settled it is expected that the actual construction phase will take 14 months to complete.

A mechanism is in place that will allow for community input as the project moves forward. Community Board 10 has designated nine community leaders to serve along with three representatives each from NYRA and Delaware North on the State Franchise Oversight Board’s Community Advisory panel for Aqueduct. In addition, Delaware North will be communicating with local groups on specific issues relating to the project as it proceeds.

“Delaware North has been forthcoming with information since their selection,” said Community Board 10 Chairperson Betty Braton following the meeting. “We look forward to the signing of the MOU with the State by Delaware North, and working with it to see Aqueduct become a much-needed economic engine for the region that enhances our local community at the same time."

South Ozone Park Teen Charged in Shooting

First Homicide in Queens in 2009

By Patricia Adams

Last Thursday, police from the 106th Precinct responded to a 10-34, an assault in progress, at 103rd Street near Rockaway Boulevard. Police Officers Competello and Nolie were traveling to the location when they were stopped by Building Department Inspector Gregory Heath who informed the officers that he was following a black male whom he had just witnessed shoot another male.

The officers then came upon the male, identified as 18-year-old Cameron Wade of South Ozone Park, and made the arrest of the alleged shooter. Sgt. Marcos Pichardo then arrived at the scene and was met by Jaqnanan Shamindra who told Sgt. Pichardo that he and his brother-in-law, Jagdesh Beni, had gotten into an argument with the suspect when Beni, who was driving, refused to let the teen pass in front of the car entering the driveway.

Witnesses at the scene said that Beni entered the driveway with no regard for the pedestrian and that if the teen did not jump to move out of the way he would have been struck by the vehicle. A surveillance video from a neighbor’s house shows that Wade banged on the side Beni’s car with his fist because he had not been allowed to pass.

Beni, his brother-in-law and another relative then got out of the gray BMW and after some heated words were exchanged, Beni and the two men pursued the 18-year-old, who fled across the street, and cornered the teen. The argument escalated and Wade pulled out a silver revolver and fired once hitting Beni in the chest. The illegal handgun was recovered at the scene.

Wade Cameron was arraigned in Queens Criminal Court on Friday on charges of second-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. He was ordered held on $150,000 bail and could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted. Cameron’s next court appearance is scheduled for January 23. The 18-year-old has no prior arrest record.

Jagdesh Beni, 33 was taken to Jamaica Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The father of three was a welder by profession and has a string of arrests for violent crime including attempted murder, assault and criminal possession of a weapon dating back to 1995.

The Forum Newsgroup/photo by ROBERT STRIDIRON

Marshall Focuses on Economy and Redevelopment During Annual Address

Seniors, Transit, Public Safety and Culture also Discussed

By Conor Greene

Borough President Helen Marshall covered a wide range of issues in her annual State of the Borough address on Tuesday, but not surprisingly given the current economic crisis, much of her focus was on several redevelopment projects underway across Queens.

Before a crowd of nearly 1,000 in Queens College’s Colden Center, Marshall touted projects she has funded at local libraries, parks and cultural centers, while asking residents to elect her to a third term in office.

“With your help we will build on the foundations that I have created during my tenure,” she said. “To continue the work, I will ask the good people of Queens to allow me four more years to get the job done.”

Residents Honored

While the borough’s economic woes surfaced throughout the speech, Marshall began on a positive note by honoring some of the Queens residents who made news this year for the right reasons.

Marshall congratulated Digna and Victor Carpio – a city Housing Authority employee – on the recent birth of sextuplets. She also thanked NYPD Officer Patrick Plunkett, who apprehended a bank robber in Maspeth in October while off duty.

“And talk about bravery, I think all of us have admiration for a Queens resident who represents courage and resiliency in the face of danger,” said Marshall. “Eighty-six-year-old Vivian Squires, despite having been stabbed by an intruder in her home just nine days ago, fought back, had surgery and was just released from the hospital… And, can you imagine – is here today.”

Marshall also thanked three FDNY fire marshals who arrested the man suspected of setting a Whitestone shopping center on fire several months ago. Also honored was the Francis Lewis High School girl’s volleyball team, which just won its second citywide championship. Marshall noted that Francis Lewis “is the city’s most sought-after school.”

Redevelopment Projects

With the city’s capital budget “battered and stretched by credit crunches and the losses by many of our financial institutions,” Marshall spent much of the 90-minute speech on several major redevelopment projects planned across Queens, including at Willets Point near Flushing and Hunters Point South on the East River in Long Island City.

Combined, those two projects are expected to create more than 10,000 housing units, a convention center, retail space, community facilities and two schools, according to Marshall. “It has been said that construction is the engine that drives the economy,” she said. “In this ailing economy, we can create jobs, we can build housing and we can boost businesses. Naysayers beware, we will move forward.”

New Schools and a Hometown Favorite

Marshall boasted that six new schools opened this past September, including PS 305 in Ridgewood, PS 307 in Corona, PS 244 in Flushing, PS 306 in Woodhaven, PS 303 in Forest Hills and the Elmhurst Educational Campus.

During her tenure in office, Marshall said she has “worked to create more than 27,000new seats in 48 new schools or additions.” Seven more schools with more than 2,700seats are expected to open in September, followed by the new Metropolitan Avenue campus in Forest Hills and the Gateway High School for Health Care Professionals.

In addition, Marshall said that it has “been a pleasure and thrill to work with legendary hometown hero Tony Bennett to open the new Frank Sinatra High School in Astoria, just blocks from where he grew up.” The school originally opened in 2001 and is moving into a new building this year.

With that, Marshall welcomed Bennett to the stage to introduce the Frank Sinatra High School Concert Chorus, which performed two songs for the audience. “Mr. Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but I can tell you his soul is still right here in Astoria,” said Marshall.

After traveling around the world, “I still come back to Astoria and like it more than any other place in the world,” said Bennett. “It is the most exciting place to explain the greatness of the United States of America.”

Health Care and Seniors

While recognizing that “challenge and hope is felt no more acutely than in our health care delivery system,” Marshall delivered the bad news that one Queens health facility – Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills has been forced to shut its doors, while two others, St. John’s in Elmhurst and Mary Immaculate in Jamaica are currently threatened by bankruptcy.

However, there was some good news regarding local hospitals, as Elmhurst Hospital Center opened its new Hope Pavilion, a comprehensive cancer care treatment facility in July and the borough’s largest hospital, LIJ Medical Center, broke ground on a $300 million project that will feature a women’s hospital housed in a 10-story pavilion. In addition, New York Hospital Queens is planning to build a new seven-story wing that will add 80-acute care beds when completed next year.

Marshall also took time to speak against the city’s proposed changes to the Meals on Wheels program, slated to take effect in February. Under the new plan, frozen meals would be delivered to seniors instead of a fresh, hot meal. “It is obvious to me that the new system is designed to allow a caterer to deliver frozen – not hot – meals once or twice a week,” said Marshall. “And there is no menu of options for seniors in this, America’s most diverse county. Everyone gets the same meal.”

Public Safety and Fire Response

"Our city could not sleep restfully or get up every morning and function were it not for the commitment and dedication of our uniformed forces,” Marshall said, noting she is “deeply concerned that the average response time to structural fires in Queens is longer than in any other borough.”

She also said she is concerned about the “lack of Fire Department resources in western Queens, where almost 10,000 units of new housing are under construction, recently completed or planned.” As a result, she made reopening of Engine 261 a condition for her support of the Hunters Point South plan.

The borough’s crime rate dropped almost four percent in 2008, but the homicide rate in Queens South jumped a “staggering” sixty-five percent. “Despite reductions in the latest police class and pending budget cuts, we cannot accept the increase in murders from 43 to 71 lost lives,” said Marshall, adding that gunshot victims rose by twenty-six percent compared with 2007.

In addition, despite a more than seven percent increase in subway crime, the NYPD Transit Task Force was dismantled earlier this month, noted Marshall. “Because crime traditionally increases in times of economic pressures, it is clear to me that the police department cannot sustain any additional cuts,” she said.

Libraries and Culture

During her time in office, Marshall has provided more than $81 million in funding for local libraries and has worked on at least 18 library capital projects, but is “not finished yet.”

Recent efforts include an expanded children’s room in Ridgewood, and new branches in Corona, Long Island City and Cambria Heights. Moving forward, expansions are envisioned in Kew Gardens Hills, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Glen Oaks, Rego Park, Jackson Heights, Queens West and Far Rockaway. In addition, ground was recently broken for a project Marshall described as one of her favorites – a new children’s discovery center in Jamaica.

Culturally, Marshall bragged that Queens Botanical Garden’s new visitor and administration center was rated high by the U.S Green Building Council for its use of environmentally-friendly materials. She also called her allocation of more than $16 million to the New York Hall of Science for an expansion “a good investment,” especially considering the facility attracted a record half-million visitors last year. In what was one of her “largest capital investments” since taking office, Marshall looks forward to this summer’s groundbreaking for the Queens Museum of Art expansion, which will double its size and add new galleries, classrooms and event space.

Mass Transit

Marshall argued that “on the mass transit front, MTA must do more,” especially in eastern Queens, which needs “new bus routes, increased service and more express bus services.” She also called for the reopening of the Long Island Railroad stations in Queens neighborhoods such as Elmhurst to relieve subway overcrowding, something she has “been asking for since I became borough president.”

She opposes “any plan to toll East River bridges” since “too many of us here in Queens are victims of government’s failure to provide viable mass transit options.” She also called it “simply unfair to raise the fares while reducing services” and said she opposes the MTA’s doomsday budget.

Marshall also mentioned a recent fight to prevent the MTA from eliminating the residential rebate program on the Cross Bay Bridge linking Broad Channel and Rockaway. Pointing out that it is the only intra-borough toll in the city, Marshall noted that “shoppers on Fifth Avenue don’t pay a toll to drive to Madison Avenue.”

There was some good news in the past year on the transit front, as subway cars on the E line dating back to the 1960’s are being replaced with new cars. Working with several other local officials, also Marshall helped push for the installation of an elevator at the Union Turnpike/Kew Gardens station on the E and F lines, making it accessible to all riders.

Looking Ahead

While her speech touched on a wide range of topics, it constantly reverted back to themes of job creation and economic development. She pointed to examples such as Aqueduct racetrack in Ozone Park, where a developer plans construction of a gaming hall featuring 4,500 video lottery terminals, and the construction of a huge shopping center in Rego Park that will include the borough’s first Century 21 department stores.

“Almost everything I spoke about today is related jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Marshall. “I have talked about job loss, job creation, difficult economic times and transforming adversity into opportunity and hope… Though the stock market may resemble a roller coaster ride in an amusement park, and Wall Street has caused tremors on Main Street, every family and every level of government is finding new ways to maximize.”

Marshall ended her speech on a positive note, expressing hope that President Elect Barack Obama, who spent five years in New York and credits a local librarian with helping him to get a job as a community organizer in Chicago, “knows our problems.”

“In one week, we will inaugurate a new president who has also inspired us with amessage of change and a promise that help is on the way with millions of jobs, improved health care and an improved America,” said Marshall. “He has told us that the road ahead may be long and steep;

The Forum Newsgroup/photos by CONOR GREENE