Thursday, March 26, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South


Residents to Fight Natural Gas Storage Island Plan

In Wake of Tragedy, a Push to Prevent Unattended Car Idling

Outrage Over Engine 271 Closing

New Push for Dog Run in Juniper Valley Park

Hearing Held on Ridgewood Theater Landmarking

New Executive Officer for 106th Precinct

Contractor Admits to Underpaying Employees on City Projects

Eleven Charged in Sports Gambling Ring

Residents to Fight Natural Gas Storage Island Plan


Company Wants to Build Off-Shore Island

By Conor Greene

Environmentalists are gearing up to fight a company’s proposal to build a man-made island off the Rockaway coast that would be used to store liquid natural gas delivered by huge tankers. Concerns include environmental and security issues - and some question whether the need for natural gas imports even exists.

The Atlantic Sea Island Group has applied for federal permits needed to build the Safe Harbor Island thirteen miles off the coast. The island would be at least 60 acres at the water surface and more than 110 acres at the ocean floor, containing about 700,000 truckloads of fill – ten times the volume of the Empire State Building. Tankers from nations such as Russia and Iran would deliver the liquid natural gas, which would then be converted to natural gas and transported to consumers through an existing pipeline.

At a joint meeting Tuesday night hosted by the Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers and the Rockaway Park Homeowners/Residents Association, a New Jersey-based group called Clean Ocean Action educated residents about the proposal, and the need for residents in both states to fight it. “This is not a company that appreciates how important the ocean environment is to those who live here,” said Cynthia Zipf of Clean Ocean Action.

The project has also caught the attention of environmental groups in the Rockaways. “This particular project slipped past the radar screen,” said Dan Mundy, Jr. of the Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers. “It’s been a long road to get the ocean back – it’s amazing how much improvement there’s been in the past 20 years.” He added that it was “not by accident” that many residents are now aware of this “stealth project.”

Aside from the environmental implications, some residents and officials are concerned about the potential for a large-scale accident or terrorist attack. “It will create the perfect terrorist target,” said Mundy, Jr. during the meeting, which attracted a large crowd in PS 225 in Rockaway Park. “The bottom line is, at the end of the day nobody here benefits from this. It’s the first step in basically an industrialization of the ocean.”

Zipf echoed the sentiment that we “don’t want to turn our oceans into an industrial park” as she presented a PowerPoint presentation on the proposal. She said the key to fighting it is to “galvanize” residents in both New Jersey and along the South Shore of New York. “We have got to be loud and clear,” she said.

After hearing about these proposals for liquid natural gas docking stations, Clean Ocean Action investigated this type of energy to see if there might be a benefit to U.S residents. “What we came to was the conclusion that LNG is not in any of your interests.” Instead, it will only benefit “big corporations that stand to make millions.”

According to Clean Ocean Action, 97% of the nation’s current need for natural gas comes from sources within North American, with 86% produced within the United States. In addition, two LGN facilities that opened in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana and Texas are only operating at 10% capacity because the demand for imported LNG doesn’t exist, said Zipf. “We should be fighting back against becoming addicted to another foreign country” for our energy needs, she added. “We don’t want to go down that road again.”

Congressman Anthony Weiner told the crowd that there is “a lot more we don’t know about this proposal than we know” and said the Coast Guard will hold a public hearing on the proposal before any approvals are granted. “Until we know some of those answers, none of us are in a position to sign off on it,” he said. In order for it to be approved, it must be safe in terms of both security and environment, and must make sense economically. “I have not seen scrap paper one from a non-biased source answering those questions.”

In a statement, Weiner previously vowed to use his seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee “to ensure that New York City residents are not ignored in this process… If we are going to make an informed decision we need to hear from the federal agencies and Atlantic Sea Island Group.”

Company officials were not present at the meeting, and have not responded to several requests seeking comment on the proposal. Howard Bovens, chairman of Atlantic Sea Island Group, told the Daily News that the company would spend at least $700 million in contractor wages for the project, which he claims will result in cheaper energy costs. “We don’t pose a threat to people. We think we bring a lot more benefits to the South Shore than problems,” he said.

The proposal is just one of three being considered for the waters between New Jersey and New York. Exxon previously attempted to get approval to build a floating island in the Long Island Sound, which has never been attempted before, but the governor of Connecticut rejected it. The same plan was also rejected in California. In addition, a company called Excalibur is considering seeking approval for another island off the coast of Asbury Park, New Jersey. In addition, the Atlantic Sea Island Group has never completed this type of project in the past, something that further concerns residents.

Currently, state governors have the ability to veto these types of projects, which is why the proposals for California and the Long Island Sound didn’t materialize. Zipf said that New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine has supported LNG in his Energy Master Plan, but Gov. David Paterson has yet to take a position, and still has the ability to nix the Safe Harbor Island proposal.

For Zipf, the key to fighting this is for residents and officials opposed to all three proposals to band together. “They said we could never end ocean dumping [but] the power of the people won that day,” she said. “We absolutely can do it – it’s just a matter of gearing up for this battle.”

In Wake of Tragedy, a Push to Prevent Unattended Car Idling


Crowley Introduces City Council Legislation
HIT AND RUN SUSPECT ATTEMPTED SUICIDE

By Conor Greene

Nearly two months after a man driving a stolen car killed two pedestrians, the defendant has yet to appear in court after attempting suicide, and a local council member has introduced legislation she hopes will help prevent such tragedies in the future.

Kenneth Guyear, 27, is facing up to 25 years in prison for running down 16-year-old Robert Ogle (left) and 20-year-old Alex Paul on 80th Street in Middle Village in the early morning hours of February 1. However, Guyear’s last two scheduled appearances in Queens Criminal Court were postponed because he tried to kill himself while in custody, according to his former attorney.

Guyear was admitted to the prison ward of Bellevue Hospital after the suicide attempt following his arrest, said attorney Ruth Addadoo-Johnson of the Legal Aid Society. Since he was just recently released from the hospital and returned to Rikers Island, court appearances scheduled for March 12 and March 19 were adjourned.

Guyear, of Middle Village, is now scheduled to appear in court on April 6. His current attorney, Scott Bookstein, refused on Tuesday to comment on the proceedings against his client. When asked to confirm that Guyear had tried to kill himself, Bookstein responded, “What does no comment mean?”

The tragic events began when Ogle and Paul were walking to Ogle’s house after attending a house party at a nearby friend’s house in Middle Village. Meanwhile Guyear, who later admitted to being drunk, stole a car that was left running outside a Woodhaven Boulevard deli. Just minutes later, Ogle and Paul were lying dead in the middle of 80th Street, only blocks from their destination.

Currently, the fine for leaving your car running while its unattended is just five dollars, according to Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village). In hopes of discouraging others from leaving their vehicles open to theft, she has introduced legislation to raise the penalty to $250. Crowley was joined by Robert Ogle’s parents, Brendan and Mei, and Council Members John Liu and David Weprin on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday to announce the legislation.

“A few weeks ago, a seemingly avoidable tragedy struck my district,” said Crowley. “Sadly, the deaths of the two young men… may have been avoided if a man had not left his car running while shopping in a store.”

Liu, who chairs the Transportation Committee, noted that another similar tragedy occurred weeks before Ogle and Paul’s death when an unoccupied van was left in reverse, causing it to jump the curb of a Chinatown sidewalk. The van rammed into a group of preschool students, killing two and injuring at least 11 other people.

“Unattended idling vehicles pose a substantial danger to the public,” said Liu. “The danger has been brought to light by recent tragedies where vehicles have gone into motion without anyone in the driver’s seat… We must simply shut the engine off.”

Ogle was a junior at Brooklyn Technical High School, where he played football and aspired to be a journalist. Paul lived in Cypress Hill, Brooklyn and had met Robert that night at a mutual friend’s party.

Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, attended Tuesday’s press conference and it “good legislation” that could save lives. If an unattended vehicle is stolen and then used during a crime, Holden thinks there should be both criminal and motor vehicle penalties incurred. “There has to be some kind of responsibility because you obviously are making it easier for criminals,” he said.

In partnership with the new law, Council Member Crowley is working with Council Member John Liu to implement an awareness campaign to prevent people from leaving their cars running while unattended. “Leaving your car running and unattended seems like a minor, careless mistake, but all New Yorkers must understand that it is irresponsible, dangerous and potentially deadly,” said Crowley.

The Queens District Attorney’s Office didn’t respond to several messages regarding the status of the case against Guyear.

Outrage Over Engine 271 Closing

By Conor Greene

Local officials, residents and the Uniformed Firefighters Association are ripping the city’s decision to close Engine Company 271 permanently on July 1 as a result of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget cuts.

The city announced last year that the company, which is located near the Ridgewood-Brooklyn border and helps serve parts of Queens, would be closed during overnight hours beginning January 17. It was then announced that Company 271 and three others slated for overnight closings would be eliminated entirely as part of FDNY budget cuts.

That news didn’t sit well with Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who rallied against the closings on the steps of City Hall last Friday before attending the City Council hearings on budget cuts affecting public safety.

“The Fire Department is an essential service for the safety of the people of New York,” she said. “Even when the city is in a budget crisis, safety is the last thing we should sacrifice to fix a budget… As a city we are one of the highest profile terrorist targets in the world, and we have no room to compromise our emergency services.”

At the budget hearing, Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) criticized FDNY Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta for not standing up to Mayor Bloomberg in opposition of the budget cuts. Avella, a mayoral candidate, told Scoppetta he should resign from his position rather than accept the closing of numerous firehouses around the city.

“It’s pretty disgraceful from my perspective that the fire commissioner, who is responsible to ensure fire safety throughout the entire city and protect his own firefighters, doesn’t stand up to what the mayor wants to do in terms of closing firehouses,” Avella later told The Forum. “He should say to the mayor that he can’t do those cuts, and if he’s forced to, that he will resign. But he laughs when I say that.”

In Avella’s view, not all city agencies are equal, meaning some, such as the fire department, should not be forced to make drastic cuts. While he blamed Scoppetta for not fighting the cuts, he said the blame ultimately falls with the mayor. “It has a direct impact on people’s lives and could cost lives, and you have a fire commissioner who is a total bureaucrat. Obviously the mayor is to blame to begin with for not realizing that the fire department shouldn’t be cut.”

In response to Avella’s criticism, Scoppetta questioned why Avella himself didn’t resign after he voted for a budget that included firehouse closings. “When you run into difficult times, when you are dealing with adversity, the response should not be, ‘I’m going to run away from this.’ The response should be “Let’s do the best we can, let’s see if we can make these cuts if we have to. And there is no question we have to given the deficit and the need to balance the budget,” said Scoppetta, according to a report in the Daily News.

During the hearing, Scoppetta said that the department’s budget is earmarked for counterterrorism initiatives, training services and new equipment to enhance emergency medical response. Crowley questioned his priorities, in light of the fact that firehouses are closing under the current budget.

“How can you talk about using the budget to enhance the emergency medical response through training and counterterrorism initiatives when the reality is you are closing firehouses and cutting out firefighters?” asked Crowley. “Doesn’t closing firehouses reduce the response time and put people at greater risk? There seems to be a case of mistaken priorities.”

According to the Uniformed Firefighters Association, just the nighttime closing of Engine Company 271 has resulted in the loss of several homes. In the early morning of March 18, with the company shut for the night, a three-alarm fire destroyed three homes and several neighborhood stores located near the Ridgewood Senior Citizen Center. The properties sustained severe damage, displacing several families and storeowners. If it hadn’t been closed, Engine 271 at 392 Himrod Street – about three blocks from the fire – would have been the first on scene.

The scene was nearly repeated this past Tuesday morning, when a fire broke out at 376Palmetto Street in Bushwick. Because there was additional manpower available, Engine Company 271 happened to be open and staffed that evening, according to Tom Butler of the UFA. Residents were blocked from the building’s fire escapes because of heavy smoke and flames, so the first firefighters on scene were forced to rip child-proof window guards before rescuing the trapped family.

“This fire could have easily resulted in numerous fatalities,” said Steve Cassidy, president of the UFA. “Today’s fire was the second significant one in Engine 271’s coverage area in less than a week. It is unsafe for the bean counters at City Hall to be playing God with people’s lives and safety.”

The blaze left residents shaken and grateful for the quick response from Engine 271. “You could feel the heat when it started,” said Chetkiela Jenkins. “You could hear the windows breaking and everything.”

“I commend the firemen,” said Elaine Hamilton. “We just kept saying to ourselves, we didn’t know how they kept going in there. And they were on the roof and I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about it.”

According to the UFA, the city has identified four firehouses to close and will identify another dozen it will shut in the next few months. Community Board 5 members voted against the nighttime closing in December, and District Manager Gary Giordano said on Tuesday that he is concerned about the pending closing, in part due to the company’s proximity to Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. He also questioned the city’s assertion that the response time to emergencies would only increase by 20 seconds following the closing.

“I have a hard time believing the difference is only going to be 20 seconds, at least without endangering lives on the streets,” he said. “But these are very difficult budget times, and when you are talking about [closing] fire companies, you are desperate to close the gap. Usually, that would seem to be one of the last things you want to cut.”

New Push for Dog Run in Juniper Valley Park


The current off-leash site at Juniper, where a group would like a dog run. The JPCA has suggested a site elsewhere in the park due to the damage already caused to grass and trees in this area.(Photo by Christina Wilkinson)

By Conor Greene

The push for a dog run in Juniper Valley Park has gained new momentum, with a group of animal lovers now lobbying the local community board for support.

Dogs are currently allowed to run off-leash in city parks from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., provided the park is open during those hours. That means that residents must bring their dogs to Juniper Valley Park from between when it opens at 6 a.m. until the off-leash time ends at 9 a.m., making it difficult for many people who work.

Joe Pisano, who lives three blocks from the park, has pushed the effort at the monthly Community Board 5 meetings since November. “More and more people in the neighborhood have dogs now and having three hours in the morning as the only legal off-leash just isn’t enough time for everybody… We’re just looking for the opportunity to enjoy our dogs in the park,” he said. “There’s something in that park for everyone except people with dogs.”

The battle over dogs in the Middle Village park goes back a number of years, to when the city Parks Department had an unofficial off-leash policy allowing dogs to run free from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. In 2006, the Juniper Valley Civic Association filed a lawsuit against the department on the grounds that the policy violated the city health code. The civic association was ultimately unsuccessful, but the lawsuit led to the formalizing of the Parks Department’s off-leash policy.

Now, members of the group Juniper Valley Park Dog Association including Pisano and Terri Sullivan are leading the effort to have a formal dog run area established in Juniper Valley Park. They would like it to be located in the same area currently used during the off-leash hours and are asking the Parks Department to simply erect a fence to enclose it.

“Now there are a lot of younger people who have a renewed energy and really want a dog park,” said Sullivan, who was involved in the prior battle with the JPCA over the issue. “I think it will happen, I just don’t know when.” She called it a natural progression from the off-leash law, which would be repealed in Juniper Valley Park if the dog run is created. “I do believe that it is a natural progression, but I know that the Juniper Civic doesn’t like changing Middle Village.”

However, JPCA President Robert Holden said that the association isn’t necessarily against the dog run, provided that it is done properly. He said that the area where the dogs currently go during the off-leash hours isn’t appropriate due to the proximity of about 30 large mature trees, which he said can be damaged by dog urine. Instead, he would like an area behind the bleachers near the roller hockey rink.

“I did some research and found that it is not a question of if the trees will be damaged – they will be,” he said. “The Juniper Civic is calling on Parks to save those trees, have the dogs immediately removed and the area they’re in now doesn’t become a run. They have done irreparable harm, and arborists have said there definitely shouldn’t be trees in a dog run. It is becoming a dirt area which kicks up. It is a health hazard at this point.”

The Parks Department “is working with the community to meet the needs of all our park patrons – both human and canine,” said a spokeswoman, who noted that while no formal proposal has been submitted for a dog area at Juniper Valley, there have been informal requests made. There are about 100 dog runs throughout the five boroughs, she said.

Community Board 5’s Parks Committee will hold a meeting on April 20 at the location in Juniper Valley currently used for off-leash hours “to try to figure out if there is something that’s better than the current situation,” said its district manager, Gary Giordano. He said the main problem might be finding a suitable location.

“One concern I have is that the current area is between two ballfields, so kids would be in the same vicinity.” While other locations might be more suitable, they likely would be closer to homes than the area currently used. “Even thought it is a big park, is there a perfect location? Probably not.”

In Holden’s opinion, the current location is clearly not appropriate. “You just don’t put a fence around a grassy area because it will quickly become a dirt area. I would hope the Parks Department would be a little more vigilant in protecting our natural resources and trees in general,” he said. “It is one of the nicest spots in the park for strolling, and you can’t avoid it.”

However, Pisano said the area Holden is suggesting near the hockey rink wouldn’t work because it is located in a crowded area near the walking track. Despite the obstacles that must be cleared, he vowed to continue the fight. “We just want to keep the pressure on. We’re not going to go away,” he said. “We’re building up the dog association, and there are more and more people now who are for it. I don’t want to demand anything, but I just don’t understand why it is so difficult.”

Hearing Held on Ridgewood Theater Landmarking


City’s Longest Running Movie House Abruptly Closed Last Year

By Conor Greene

The historic Ridgewood Theater came one step closer to gaining official city landmark status on Tuesday, when a hearing on the proposal was held in Manhattan.

The theater, located at 55-27 Myrtle Avenue, was considered the longest continuously running neighborhood theater in the city, and possibly throughout the nation. However, it abruptly shut its doors in March 2008, ending a run that began on December 23, 1916 when the Thomas Lamb-designed building opened as a vaudeville house. The following year, the 2,150-seat theater was converted into a movie theater.

The abrupt closure and placement of a sign advertising retail space across the building’s marquee caused local historians including Michael Perlman to worry that the historic structure would eventually be lost forever. Perlman founded the group Friends of the Ridgewood Theater and submitted an application to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to have the building’s exterior granted landmark status.

On Tuesday, the commission held a hearing on the application, with about 20 individuals and groups testifying in favor of the landmark status, according to Perlman. Among those backing the proposal were Thomas Lamb, a great-grandson of the building’s architect who submitted testimony that was read at the hearing, and Mario Saggese, one of the theater’s current co-owners, who testified in person.

Perlman informed the Landmarks Preservation Commission that the building was modeled after Times Square’s long-demolished Mark Strand Theater, which was the first movie palace in the world. “The three-story Indiana limestone and terra cotta fa├žade is highly ornate, incorporating unique geometric patterns, medallions, a frieze, pilasters and proudly boasts the name Ridgewood Theater,” he said. “Theaters are the ultimate public institutions which bridge generations, as they foster community growth and pride, harbor countless memories and often exhibit the work of our country’s most skillful architects.”

The owners indicated they are planning to re-open the space in the near future with a mix of retail stores and movie screens, said Perlman. “He said they are interested in preserving as many of the individual attributes as possible and adaptively reusing the space while keeping the history in mind. It really floored me to hear that they are not going to just jackhammer away.” On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the space will reopen in July with a three-screen cinema and stores.

Thomas A. Lamb said in his written testimony that his greatgrandfather “truly believed that theaters should be… a palace of the common man,” adding that the building provides a sense of the area’s history to future generations. “Untold thousands have watched movies on her screen, and many a first date took place there,” he wrote. “It would be a great loss to the surrounding community for this theater to be torn down or converted to other uses.”

The board is expected to vote on the proposal within the next three months, said Perlman, who is hopeful it will be approved. “It was definitely a very passionate hearing, and I’m confident they will vote in favor of [landmark] designation,” he said. “Official landmark status would contribute to an up and coming neighborhood, and a diverse borough,” he testified. “It would be the crown to a landmark in the eyes of the majority, and would ensure a rare survivor’s longevity for future generations.”

Photos courtesy of Michael Perlman

New Executive Officer for 106th Precinct


Will Focus on Reducing Traffic Accidents

By Patricia Adams

Capt. Jimmy Kimmel worked in the borough for the last year and a half, but before that he was stationed in the 101st Pct. where according to the Executive Officer there were less accidents in one month than in a day in the 106.

“One of the responsibilities I have as the Executive Officer is the traffic program within the command. I got here about the middle of January and traditionally the 106 - specifically Cross Bay Boulevard, has been a nightmare because of traffic accidents.”

Kimmel says that as part of the program to stave off the traffic accidents, electronic traffic information signs warning about accident-prone locations were installed. Two signs were placed in the confines of the 106, one at Crossbay Boulevard and 107th Avenue right before the troublesome spot at the Woodhaven/Liberty/Rockaway Blvd. Intersection. The other sign is placed at Crossbay Boulevard and the Conduit, also known as a dangerous intersection.

Feedback from the neighborhood has been positive thus far and preliminary accident figures have come in at a lower rate. “We’ve had a 48% in accident reductions this week, but at this point it is impossible to tell if the reduction is a direct result of the signs,” said Kimmel.

“I am hoping that if we can get the message out with regard to simple traffic safety tips that in the long run, are important factors in saving lives.”

Sitting down with the new Executive Officer Jimmy Kimmel was Police Officer Kenneth Zorn, 106 Community Affairs officer. Zorn was quick to point out that not only was the use of the electronic signage a key, the precinct was really looking into how to improve the traffic flow on Crossbay Boulevard which of course is contributing to the accidents. Everyone blames the light 149th Avenue, but the bottom line is pure volume,” confirmed Zorn. There really is nowhere else to go, especially to get to Brooklyn. Unless you know Cohancy Street you’re not going to get through without sitting in a mess.”

In addition, other measures are being taken by the 106 to implement as much traffic safety as possible. “People don’t like to get ticketed, but we are engaging in an initiative to target drivers for specific traffic infractions,” Kimmel said. Cell phone, seat belt and speeding violations are all on the hit parade of summons priority lists because statistics prove they are at the root of most vehicular accidents. According to Kimmel, a review of percentages shows that cell phone involvement is a contributing factor in almost 95% of accidents.

“The worst times for accidents in the 106 is between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. and then from 4 p.m to 6 p.m.” said Kimmel. “We’re trying to put sector cars along the road in the hopes that the presence of marked cars will deter the incidence of traffic infractions.”

Capt. Kimmel maintains that he considers his responsibility for the traffic problems to be extremely high on the priority list of precinct problems. He reads and reviews every single traffic and accident report as a basis for establishing and understanding effective means to target the problems.

While the late night show host he shares his name with is busy cracking jokes through the late night hours, Jimmy Kimmel at the 106 is busy all day cracking down on motorists who don’t take their driving seriously enough.

Contractor Admits to Underpaying Employees

Failed to Pay Prevailing Wages on City Projects

A Brooklyn electrical contractor has admitted to cheating ten employees out of more than $1 million in wages on six public works projects funded by the city.

Arie Bar, 57, of Long Island, owner of AAR/Co Electrical, Inc. of Brooklyn agreed last Friday to provide back pay to the 10 former employees who were not paid prevailing wages, which are established by the City Comptroller to reflect the predominant rate of wages and benefits for workers in each of the construction trades.

The corporation pleaded guilty in Queens Supreme Court of six counts of second-degree grand larceny, two counts of third-degree grand larceny, 63 counts of first-degree falsifying business records, 63 counts of first-degree offering a false instrument for filing, 228 counts of making a punishable false statement and 29 counts of failure to pay prevailing wages. In addition, Bar personally admitted to one count of failure to pay prevailing wages.

In addition to making restitution of $1,019,553, Bar and the corporation are not eligible to submit a bid on or be awarded any public work contract or subcontract with the state, any municipal corporation or public body for five years.

“The failure to pay prevailing wages is a prevalent problem all over New York and in Queens, in particular, due to our large immigrant population,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. “Many immigrant workers who come to the United States with skills, like electrical work, are forced to work for private contractors for far below prevailing wages.”

Brown said that in this case, Bar and his corporation are accused of paying the workers between $20 and $30 per hour less than the prevailing wages. In addition, they were not provided with any benefits. “The end result is that the workers are put in the difficult position of complaining and losing their jobs or staying silent and being taken advantage of,” added Brown. “This guilty plea and penalty should serve as a warning to those who would cheat employees out of fair wages that this behavior will not be tolerated.”

The investigation into AAR/Co began several years ago after the city Department of Design and Construction informed Thompson’s office that electricians working for AAR/Co on a city project at the Queens Botanical Garden were not being paid prevailing wages. The comptroller’s office expanded the probe to include all AAR/Co projects from April 2004 to August 2007 and found that Bar had falsely certified payrolls for the ten workers at various city work sites, including Queens Hospital Center, Fort Greene Park and the Wards Island water treatment plan. Bar falsely claimed that workers were being paid $73 an hour as required by state labor law, when they were actually being underpaid.

After learning that Bar threatened and fired workers who had filed labor law complaints, Thompson brought the case to Brown’s attention in 2007. “Contractors should think twice before cheating workers out of prevailing wages, or they could face serious consequences like Arie Bar and AAR/Co Electrical, Inc,” said Thompson.

Eleven Charged in Sports Gambling Ring

Eleven men, including residents of Rego Park and Middle Village, have been indicted in a $6 million sports betting ring run out of two Whitestone houses and a Bronx wire room, authorities announced.

Nine local residents, including money collector Robert Corby, 58, of Saunders Street in Rego Park and agent William Rankel, 54, of 79th Street in Middle Village, were arrested Wednesday in New York, while two other men were taken into custody in Texas. All were charged with enterprise corruption, first-degree promoting gambling and fifth-degree conspiracy and face up to 25 years in prison if convicted.

According to a 19-count indictment filed in Queens County Supreme Court, the gambling ring brought in $6 million over a 10-month period by accepting wagers on various sports events including horse racing and professional and college football, basketball, hockey and baseball. The two top defendants, Dennis Cermak, 54, and Donald Abo, 50, are accused of running a large part of the business out of their Whitehouse homes and out of a wire room in the Bronx.

“Illegal sports betting reaps millions of dollars in cash profits that are easily diverted to more insidious criminal enterprises,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. “Oftentimes, these operations are run by individuals who have no qualms about using threats, intimidation and physical force to collect on debts owed to them.”

The investigation into the ring began in September 2007 when State Police and the Queens District Attorney’s Rackets and Organized Crime Bureau developed information about an illegal sports begging operation. The investigation included physical surveillance, intelligence information and court-authorized electronic eavesdropping.

The “unlawful gambling enterprise” made money by accepting bets ranging from as little as $30 to as much as $1,000 on single events. Investigators executed search warrants and recovered miscellaneous gambling records at Cermak’s house along with gambling records and a tape recorder next to a telephone at Abo’s house. In addition, gambling records, tape recorders and cassette tapes containing betting calls were recovered from the Bronx wire room, according to authorities.

“The indictments resulting from this collaborative investigation are evidence that we are serious about pursuing illegal gambling operations and will bring their ringleaders to justice,” said State Police Superintendent Harry J. Corbitt.

Also charged in the ring were the following individuals, who were listed as “agents” by authorities: James Farnochi, 61, of Flushing, Michael Lauria, 65, of Flushing, Christopher Mallon, 43, of Mineola, Michael Parente, 53, of Lynbrook, Jeffrey Richards, 62, of Merrick and James Morales, 53, and Marc Levy, 48, both of Texas.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

This Week's Forum South and West

Cord Meyer Rezone Clears First Hurdle


Attorney Objects on Behalf of Bukharian Jews

By Conor Greene

The rezoning of Forest Hills’ Cord Meyer neighborhood – intended to prevent out-of-character McMansions - cleared its first hurdle last week when the local community board overwhelmingly voted in favor of the plan.

Under the city’s proposal, the 32-block area’s zoning would be changed to R1-2A, a new zoning classification that restricts the height of single-family detached houses. The current zoning has been in place since 1961 and lacks a maximum building height, which has led many property owners, including some Bukharian Jews, to replace modest Cape Cod and Tudor style homes with huge houses.

Queens City Planning Director John Young said at last Wednesday’s Community Board 6 meeting that the new zone will provide “predictability” as to what can be built. The area has been under intense development pressure for the past decade, leading to “some concern in the community about scale,” said Young. The new zone will “keep what is good [while] creating a little more predictability.”

The Cord Meyer rezoning area is bounded by 66th Avenue to the north, the Grand Central Parkway to the east, 72nd Road to the south and 108th Street to the west. The majority of the homes were built on large lots between 1910 and 1940, giving the area a low-rise character that is in distinct contract with nearby blocks lined with mid-rise apartment buildings to the south and west, especially near Queens Boulevard.

Under the plan, the R1-2A zone would be implemented, which is similar to an effort underway in North Flushing. The zone would establish a 25-foot maximum perimeter wall height and a 35-foot maximum roof height. Under the existing zoning, building height is based on what is known as the sky exposure plane, which has resulted in houses as tall as 37 feet, according to DCP.

Attorney Albert Dayan spoke on behalf of the Bukharian Jewish community in Forest Hills, some of whom have spent a lot of money to buy large lots with the intention of building a home for several generations of family members.

“It’s not that we’re doing it to show off and display our wealth,” he later said in an interview. “We’re doing it because it is necessary for us to house families that on average have four children and then we have our parents live with us. We happen to be by tradition very humble people taught never to arouse envy, so we don’t do it for those reasons; we do it out of necessity.” Dayan said that the only aspect of the city’s plan his clients object to is the 25 foot maximum perimeter wall height.

“I think it is a fair compromise to say we can limit the building height at 35 feet, that’s fine, but don’t limit the wall to 25,” he said. “Everybody wins, they get their height restrictions and we can get more living space on the third floor.”

Several residents spoke in favor of the proposal at the hearing and said the current construction practices are destroying the neighborhood.

Enid Brownstone wondered why the large families with several generations don’t simply buy several modest houses within the neighborhood instead of paying as much as one million dollars to buy a large lot and tear down the existing house. “There might be some money around to buy some [smaller] homes and not disturb the conformity of our neighborhood,” she said to loud applause. “The zoning is adequate – the problem is, it’s been violated.”

Steve Goodman of the Association of Old Forest Hills stressed that the new regulations are not about keeping any particular group out of the area. “Personally, we welcome people moving in – they are certainly allowed to do that,” he said. “We just ask that they maintain the overall look of the neighborhood.”

However, Dayan said many of his clients only bought land in Cord Meyer because of the existing zoning’s flexibility, and accused the board of moving forward with the rezoning due to negative feelings towards the Bukharian community. “We want to build homes that reflect our tradition… We believe the source of this is negativity,” he said at the meeting.

In the subsequent interview, Dayan said the new zoning “takes away living space from us… without lawful justification.” He said he will discuss the proposal with Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, who reviews the plan now that the community board approved it. “This change is not for the benefit of the community. We are part of the community, but nobody wants to take our concerns into consideration,” he said.

If the City Council eventually adopts the proposal, Dayan said it is likely he will challenge it in court based on the argument that the government can’t take private property without due process. “Like I said, I think they are taking the property away from us without justification.”

Once Marshall reviews the plan, it moves on to the City Planning Commission and the City Council as part of the city’s land use procedure.

This marks the fourth rezoning effort in Forest Hills and Rego Park since 2002. In October, the community board threw its support behind the creation of a special district limiting building heights within ten blocks of Austin Street bounded by Queens Boulevard, the Long Island Railroad tracks, Ascan Avenue and Yellowstone Boulevard. The plan would also allow for residential uses along the popular shopping strip.

Under that plan, which will likely be voted on by the City Council later this month, building heights on the south side of Austin Street would be limited to about 40 feet, while buildings on the north side would be limited to 70 feet. Currently, there is no height restriction along Austin Street, and since the area is primarily zoned for automotive uses, some developers have sought variances that could allow them to build 20-story towers.

As a result of public input, one change has been made to the proposal since it was presented to the board: buildings along eight blocks on the south side of Queens Boulevard would be limited to 125 feet, instead of 150 feet as originally proposed, according to Young. “There were concerns at 150 feet because people felt they would get a lot of buildings that are too tall,” he said.

Senate MTA Rescue Plan Ripped

Commuters Face 23% Fare Hike; MTA Sets March 25 Deadline

By Conor Greene

A plan by Senate Democrats to rescue the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that would have reduced the looming fare hike and prevented tolls on East and Harlem river bridges was dismissed by Governor David Paterson as a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

The MTA’s 2009 operating budget includes a $1.2 billion deficit, and the agency has said it will raise bus and train fares by 23% in the coming months unless the state bails it out. Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith said Tuesday that his plan could maintain current levels of service while raising fares by 4% through implementation of a payroll tax.

“Particularly during these times of severe economic distress, it was absolutely essential that we protect working families’ access to an affordable and reliable means of mass transit with an MTA recovery plan that minimizes fare hikes and prevents the loss of services and jobs,” said Smith.

Facing the growing budget deficit, the MTA initially proposed extensive service cuts and fare increases of up to 23%. Last year, Gov. Paterson appointed former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch to make recommendations regarding the way in which MTA is funded. That group recommended a payroll tax of 33 cents per $100 of payroll within the 12-county region the MTA serves, an 8% fare increase and tolls on the East and Harlem river bridges.

Under the Senate Democrat’s plan, the payroll tax would be reduced to 25 cents per $100 of payroll (expected to generate $1.16 billion) and an increase of 4% for MTA, Long Island Railroad and Metro-North riders (expected to generate $117 million). Under the senate’s plan, all potential service cuts will be restored and no fares would be placed on bridges.

During a press conference in Albany to announce the rescue plan, Smith said it is clear that the MTA currently has separate shortterm and long-term problems to address. “What they have done is basically linked the short-term and long-term problems together, which we believe is not a sound practice,” he said, adding that the short-term problem is in regard to the authority’s operational budget, which will run out of money by June 30. The capital budget, which Smith said is the longterm problem, is financed through 2010.

“The last thing we wanted to was write a blank check to the MTA when our state could least afford it. Through a deliberative process and the insistence on greater measures of transparency, our conference was able to determine the best course of action to address the MTA operating budget shortfall and assure New Yorkers that their money would be spent wisely,” said Smith. “We don’t want to have an AIG situation with the MTA.”

However, it was the Democrat’s focus on just the short-term operational shortfall that concerned Gov. Paterson, who has backed the Ravitch Commission’s recommendation. “The solution must be taken now,” he told reporters after Smith’s plan was announced. “Unfortunately there seems to be a belief that these types of issues can be deferred into some sort of future activity. This is what’s gotten Albany in trouble time and time again.”

In addition, Dale Hemmerdinger, MTA chairman, claimed that the Senate plan will still leave the authority $1 billion short. He said that under the Senate plan, fares would have to be raised by 17 percent, not 4 percent. MTA officials have said they are ready to vote next Wednesday to move forward with planned service cuts and a 23% fare hike if state leaders can’t come to an agreement on a rescue plan.

Student Dies on School Basketball Court

REMEMBERED BY ALL AT MS 210

By Patricia Adams

Please note that those quoted in this story are not named due to a regulation “gag order” from the school administration.

Although his life ended in the span of just a few minutes, the impression that 13-year-old Alhaarith Atthahabi left on everyone he touched was one of gentleness and warmth. It is an impression that will stay with his teachers and friends for the rest of their lives.

He was known for his ever-present smile. In fact, the smile was the only thing that seemed larger, next to his huge, almost six-foot frame.

Eighth-grader Alhaarith Atthahabi was known by his teachers at MS 210 as a gentle giant. A student who got consistently good grades, ranging from high 80’s to 90’s. A typical boy who was very smart but who sometimes wanted to do what he liked best — play basketball.

Teachers, who spoke off the record, said there was only one complaint about the student they affectionately named Big Al—his other name was the “Gum Guru”. Any of Al’s classmates, who were in search of a piece of prohibited gum, knew where they could find it. Al always had a plentiful supply that could be seen tucked away in the corners of his mouth when he flashed that big smile.

“He was always, always, always smiling. Never, ever in all the time that I taught him was there an attitude or an unkind word. He just was an amazing kid. An amazing kid.”

Al loved basketball, talked about going to college and was adored by his classmates. One teacher said, “It’s very unusual when a student is liked by all of his school mates. Of course he was closer to some than others, a product of all relationships forged, but in Al’s case, everyone just adored him.

Whether it came from teachers, students or subsidiary staff at MS 210, everything spoken about Al echoed the same words —a quiet, gentle boy, an ever- present smile and that undeniable passion for basketball. “It is so ironic that this tragedy happened on the basketball court,” said one of Al’s teachers. The tears collected in her eyes were unmistakable as she continued, “I can’t even imagine that this has happened, but knowing Al, if it had to happen anyplace, he would have been happiest leaving from the basketball court.”

On Wednesday afternoon, shortly before 3:30, Al was shooting hoops on one of the outside courts with his friend Mark. Inside the school, Al’s mother, Aaishah Francis, was there to pick up her three children from school. Everything happened so fast according to the account of Al’s friend. “We finished playing. “We were getting ready to go home. Al put his foot on the basketball and clenched his chest. Then he just went down. Al’s little brother was there in the schoolyard with him. “Al get up. Get up.” His brother thought Al was just playing around.

But Al was not playing a practical joke. He lay on the court in cardiac arrest, his distraught mother over him. A teacher walking to her car saw what was going on and ran to check for a pulse. There was none. An assistant principal raced to Al’s side and began to administer CPR. But the boy was non-responsive. Staff inside the building said they heard a very distinct moaning, mournful wailing, coming from outside. They figured it was some of the kids playing around.

“No one thought that this harrowing sound was coming from the mother of one of our kids. It’s just not where your mind goes. Your mind never wants to go there.” Teachers say that because of the school’s proximity to Woodhaven Boulevard, the sound of sirens and emergency vehicles is commonplace.

Al did not respond to resuscitation efforts by FDNY or EMS personnel at the scene who used basic and advanced life saving and support equipment in hopes of restarting his heart. And on the day before his 14th birthday, Alhaarith Atthahabi, with no medical history of heart problems or any other health conditions, died next to his mother and on the beloved basketball court that was at the center of his universe.

Al was buried on Friday in a quiet Muslim ceremony and on Monday students and teachers spent their day remembering Al by beginning a series of bulletin boards with pictures and letters and thoughts of Al written by his classmates.

Maspeth School Hearing Postponed as Zoning Argument Continues

Crowley Vows to Vote Against Current Plan

By Conor Greene

A key hearing on the city’s proposal to build a high school in Maspeth has been postponed for two weeks to give Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley more time to negotiate with the Department of Education over the school’s zoning.

Crowley (D-Middle Village) wants the DOE to zone the school it’s considering at the former Restaurant Depot site on 74th Street for children attending five neighborhood schools. However, the DOE is sticking to its stance that it doesn’t restrict admissions to those living near the school and has offered to give preference to students throughout District 24, which stretches from Long Island City to Corona and south to Ridgewood.

Under Crowley’s proposal, students from PS 58, 49, 128, 229 and 153 would get the option of attending the new 1,100 seat high school, according to her spokeswoman, Meredith Burak. “These schools are extremely overcrowded, so she is hoping that if a school is going to be in this area it helps alleviate overcrowding in this area,” said Burak. “Her belief is that parent and community involvement is fundamental for a good education.”

The city’s proposal calls for opening admission first to District 24, and then to District 27 and District 28. At its meeting last week, Community Board 5, which initially voted against the school proposal, agreed to the city’s latest plans with some exceptions, including that Crowley’s plan is implemented.

A City Council land use sub-committee was supposed to vote on the proposal this week, but agreed to delay the vote for two weeks while Crowley and DOE officials continue to discuss how the school would be zoned. According to Burak, Crowley is ready to vote against the plan, despite the area’s need for a high school, if the city doesn’t guarantee it will be open to neighborhood children.

“We are hoping for more community involvement, and as it stands right now she will only support a school that gives preference to local children,” said Burak. A school that is open to all of District 24 “is just not the best thing for the community, and she won’t support something that doesn’t benefit the community… If the DOE doesn’t budge on giving preference for District 24, the councilmember is not going to support anything that isn’t locally zoned.”

However, according to comments made by the DOE and Deputy Mayor for Education Dennis Walcott, it appears that the city is not willing to budge from its current stance. “We always try to respond to residents, but not to go counter to our beliefs,” Walcott told the New York Times this week. “We don’t want students blocked out, which can lead to a have and have-not type of society. We want to build an inclusive society.”

Walcott went on to say that the city will not make any further concessions, and the school might not be built if the land use sub-committee doesn’t approve the application this month. “We have been very accommodating with this particular project. We have a responsibility for the borough and the city at large,” he told the Daily News. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, the City Council has yet to reject a new school plan.

During public hearings, many Maspeth residents have argued that the area is already too congested, especially since there are two schools within three blocks of the proposed site. The city is currently attempting to negotiate a purchase of the site from owner Lucky Star Elmhurst, LLC but has said it might use its powers of eminent domain to seize the land if no deal is reached.

Ulrich Sworn in by Mayor Bloomberg

By Patricia Adams

Councilman-Elect Eric Ulrich was administered his oath of office last Sunday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a ceremonial swearing in held in the auditorium of P.S. 207.

In his remarks the Mayor said, “We're going to work together in this city. One of the things that Eric is going to find out is that while sometimes you read about all the differences between one party and another, at a city level, everybody works together. There are Republicans, Conservatives, Democrats, Liberals, Working Families Parties, and Communist Party for all I know. From every party in the world, they live in this city, they work in this city, and some of them work for the city. But one thing is for sure, they do work together. And that's what makes this place the greatest city in the world.”

Ulrich, who was elected to fill the position vacated by State Senator Joe Addabbo in the February 23rd Special Election, was sworn in officially by the City Clerk March 18th following the certification of the election results on March 17th.

Those results show that Ulrich won the election with 3549 (44.5%) of the votes of the 8,030 voters who showed up to cast their ballots. Although not unusual in a special election, only 10% of the Council District's approximately 80,000 registered voters cast a ballot in the election to fill the City Council seat. The other 90% stayed home.

The segment of the district that saw the largest turnout was that part that lies within the 23rd Assembly District where three of the four candidates, Ulrich, Lew Simon, and Geraldine Chapey, who ended up on the ballot serve as District Leaders for their respective parties. A fourth 23rd AD District Leader, Frank Gulluscio was in the race until being knocked off the ballot. In the 23rd Assembly District 13% of the registered voters took the time to cast a ballot.

Councilman Ulrich must run again in the fall for a full Council term. Mayor Bloomberg offered up some advice for the second youngest person ever elected to the New York City Council. “If you march in Rockaway in the St. Patrick’s Day after doing something controversial, expect a lot of one finger waves. Make sure you attend all of the stated city council meetings; I don’t know if the Speaker keeps an attendance record, but I can tell you that the New York Post does.” Most importantly, Bloomberg explained to Ulrich, was that if he wanted a long and successful career in government, “Don’t ever vote against a bill introduced by the mayor’s office.” Before swearing in the Councilman elect, Bloomberg quipped that he hoped to do a better job than Justice John Roberts.

Ulrich thanked the attendees, the mayor, his family and all those who he says helped him get elected. “I said I would represent this district with honor and integrity and that is the only promise I will make. There were many obstacles in the way and people who said this couldn’t be done.” Ulrich addressed the fact that some people feel his role in politics would be brief. “I’m here to stay, I’m not a benchwarmer.”

On Wednesday, the city clerk officially swore in Ulrich. “I’ve heard among some of my colleagues that I may not be here very long and that I’ll have a tough time getting re-elected.” Ulrich says he can understand those remarks, especially considering Democrats outnumber Republicans by a majority of about 3-to-1 in his council district.

“But I am a person who has been proving people wrong all my life. I was told I would never be the district leader. Then I was told I would never be the city councilman. I still hear that I won by a fluke.” Ulrich says he doesn’t intend to focus on those remarks. “I was officially sworn in today and all I am thinking about is getting my offices open and getting about the business of my constituency. I’m going to do my job in the council now and I hope I’ll be doing it in the future.

Ulrich says that he feels if Mike Bloomberg secures the Republican line, the mayor's position at the top of the ticket will prove a tremendous help to his own re-election bid. “If you look at 2005, the Mayor received over 70% of the votes in our council district. Obviously the new addition to the council is hoping for history to repeat.

Resident Seeks Relief from LIRR Noise

By Conor Greene

Tired of constantly being subjected to blaring horns from trains passing by on the LIRR tracks behind his apartment, a Forest Hills resident has turned to the local community board for help.

Russ Gundlach, who lives in a fifth-floor unit in the Tennis View Apartments building along Burns Street, approached Community Board 6 last week with a petition from residents asking for help in convincing the Long Island Railroad to rebuild a wall that was demolished in October.

The problem began in October 2007 when the LIRR cut down a number of large, healthy trees, many at least 80 years old, that had served to block some of the noise coming from the tracks. The situation was exacerbated last September, when the railroad removed an eight-foot wall at the top of the embankment near the tracks along Burns Street. While the wall wasn’t built as a sound barrier, it served that purpose and its removal has made noise from the tracks much louder for nearby residents, said Gundlach.

“It’s very disconcerting to have an outside force or entity so close to your property that pretty much feels it can do whatever it wants without consulting the neighborhood,” he said. “We’re always reacting to what they do instead of giving our input… It’s devastating, the noise, vibrating and sparks.”

According to an LIRR spokesman, the wall along Burns Street was removed “after an inspection determined it was unsafe and could not be rebuilt.” The spokesman, Salvatore Arena, noted that while it isn’t clear why the wall was built in the first place, “it was never intended as a sound barrier and the LIRR has no plans to replace it.”

Regarding the cutting of trees, which helped block both noise from passing trains and the view of the tracks, Arena said the agency is “involved in ongoing discussions with the community about landscaping the area.” In the meantime, the LIRR “is doing everything possible to reduce the use of train horns and their decibel level without compromising safety.” Those efforts include a recent amendment to the LIRR’s operating rules to reduce horn use and installation of a muffling-type device on its M-7 trains.

Gundlach said that residents had been under the impression that the wall would be replaced, as the LIRR told them that work must be completed before the area is landscaped. However, they found out in October that the wall wouldn’t be replaced. “It’s been going on for over six months, and I cannot get used to this,” he said. “I certainly got used to the noise for the past nine years [before the wall was removed] and it didn’t bother me.”

Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-Queens, Brooklyn) said in a statement that a sound barrier should be installed along the tracks. “The LIRR has long been an uneasy neighbor to the residents of Forest Hills Gardens. We need a hearty sound barrier where the crumbling wall once stood.”

For Gundlach, the situation has left him unable to find peace and quiet in his own home. “I’m having a hard time justifying staying there, but the problem is I truly love my apartment,” said Gundlach, who dreamed of living in the Gardens while growing up in Woodside. “It was always like a fairytale land, always a place I wanted to live. The Gardens allowed me to buy something and be pretty much assured it wasn’t going to change.”

Noise from trains passing through Forest Hills has become a problem since the Long Island Railroad removed trees and a wall from an embankment along Burns Street, according to a resident. The Forum Newsgroup/photos courtesy of RUSS GUNDLACH

Parks Department Gets Public Input on Ridgewood Reservoir's Future


By Conor Greene

As part of the effort to decide the future of Ridgewood Reservoir, the city Parks Department is gathering public feedback as it develops three different proposals.

Last month, Comptroller William Thompson approved a contract between Parks and Mark K. Morrison Associations for work along the perimeter of the reservoir, which is located on the Queens-Brooklyn border. The initial phase of the project calls for installation of fences, lighting, steps and benches to increase safety along the paths.

The contract also calls for the firm to create three conceptual plans for the overall construction and design of the reservoir, including one dedicated to passive recreation. Last June, Thompson rejected a previous design contract that would have allowed Parks to replace a large swatch of the reservoir’s wilderness with limited public access. That proposal was part of the department’s plans to build ballfields in one of the reservoir’s three basins.

“As part of Parks’ normal design process, Parks is revisiting our efforts to obtain more community feedback on the schematic design phase,” a department spokeswoman said. “Now that the contract is registered, Parks can begin moving forward on the conceptual design phase and working on construction documents for upgrading existing features such as paths and lighting.”

About 100 people from Brooklyn and Queens attended the department’s first listening session, held this past Monday. “Participation by the community is key to helping Parks develop the Ridgewood Reservoir to meet the needs of all its users,” the spokeswoman continued, adding that “a mix of uses was requested” by community members, “from keeping the reservoir natural to creating some area for ball fields.”

The contractors will hold two more listening sessions as they begin to develop the three conceptual plans, one of which will be dedicated exclusively to passive recreation. In addition, the department will gather feedback from park uses through surveys.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) was among those in attendance at Monday’s listening session.

“If we are serious about protecting our wetlands and about restoring our parks, I believe we have an opportunity with the Ridgewood Reservoir, particularly in regards to environmental education for our kids,” she said in a press release. “This natural habitat is the city’s unknown jewel and preserving it would significantly improve the quality of life for those surrounding the property. I look forward to working… to ensure that the proper plan is implemented for our families and local residents.”

The reservoir was built in 1848 to provide drinking water to Brooklyn residents. It was converted as a back-up reservoir in 1959 and taken off-line in 1989. Since then, trees, plants, turtles, fish, frogs and more than 137 bird species, including eight rare ones identified on the National Audubon Society’s “Watch List,” thrive on the land, according to the comptroller’s office.

Howard Beach Columbus Day Foundation Honors Province of Palermo President


PLEDGES SUPPORT TO RELAY FOR LIFE

By Samantha Geary

The Howard Beach Columbus Day Foundation held its monthly meeting last Tuesday evening, taking time to recognize a special visitor who travelled with his delegation from Sicily.

A packed crowd joined the regular Foundation membership to welcome the president of the Province of Palermo, Giovanni Avanti. At the meeting Mr. Avanti was asked to act as the 2009 Italian International Dignitary at the Foundation’s Columbus Day parade and Gala Dinner in October.

President Avanti has accepted the offer and says he has plans to work with the Foundation on many projects in the future. “It is very important that you continue your work to weave the Italian-American cultures together,” said Avanti.

He informed the audience that his visit included discussions with the Foundation board members to facilitate the implementation of a language study exchange program between American and Italian students.

“The fact that we are so privleged to be joined by such a distinguished member of the Italian government is a great honor,” said Mario Faulisi, the Foundation’s president. “But what is really important is that there is a clear understanding that we are all interested and committed to the development of our cultural integration. Education and language is central to our cause and we welcome the help we will be receiving from abroad."

Later in the evening, it was Faulisi himself that was honored with the announcement that the Howard Beach Columbus Day Foundation is planning on taking a lead role to help the American Cancer Society in their Relay for Life Event beginning on Saturday June 13. The Foundation has committed to raising funds in Faulisi’s honor as a cancer survivor after his recent battle with an aggressive form of lymphoma.

“The opportunity for our Foundation to help give back something to people who fight cancer every day is something that we can never express,” said Angelo Gurino. “Mario is not only a cancer survivor, he is an inspiration to everyone with the disease that you can fight this battle and win. We hope we can help the American Cancer Society with their work so that every year the number of survivors and champions, like Mario, will grow."

Photo: The president of Province of Palermo region was greeted at City Hall by Mayor Bloomberg on his recent visit to New York. His visit to meet the mayor was facilitated by Councilman Eric Ulrich. Pictured from l to r: President Giovanni Avanti, DOT Commssioner Palmero Giovanni Tomasino, Mario Faulisi, president of the Howard Beach Columbus Day Foundation and Foundation treasurer, Angelo Gurino.

Board Approves Richmond Hill Group Home


By Conor Greene

A house on 112th Street in Richmond Hill will likely be used as a group home for blind and retarded teenagers, now that Community Board 9 has backed the proposal by the Association for the Advancement of Blind and Retarded, Inc.

Following a public hearing at its meeting last Tuesday, CB 9 members voted 25-4 to support the proposal, which allows AABR to use a house located at 84-20 112th Street as a residential facility for six boys ages 16 to 18. Voting against the plan were board members Regina Santoro, Sam Esposito, Maria Thompson and Joe Tedisco.

The boys living in the home all suffer from
moderate to severe mental retardation. They have attended the New York Child Learning Institute, which is an AABR-run school in College Point, since they were about three years old. On Saturdays, they attend a recreational program outside the home from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Most of the children are verbal, although many are shy and quiet.

Residents who spoke at the public hearing had mixed feelings about the home, with some welcoming their new neighbors with open arms while other expressed concerns over safety. Susan Carter said she was “appalled” that a group was circulating a petition opposing the home, which she called a “wonderful opportunity… The presence of this home will not in any way lower our property values.”

Others argued that placement of another group home in the neighborhood would lead to an over-saturation of these facilities in the area. Rebecca Chen said that while she is not opposed to the group home itself, she “opposes the clustering of them,” noting that there already is one within 500 feet of the proposed site. “That in my book is clustering, and I oppose that,” she said.

For Arvin Taveras, who lives next door to the proposed site, the issue is the safety of his children. “You never know what can happen,” he said. “We just don’t feel that the neighborhood should have this kind of clustering of group homes.”

On the other side was Patrick Kearns, who has raised five children in Richmond Hill. He urged neighbors to get to know the group home residents to alleviate concerns. “Get to know who is coming to the neighborhood… There is nothing to fear,” he said, adding that a home run by AABR on 104th Street is the nicest home on the block. “I wholeheartedly welcome AABR to our neighborhood. Our greatest asset in Queens is our diversity, and that includes the mentally challenged.”

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley stopped by the meeting after the public hearing, but told the audience that her mother sold her childhood home in Maspeth to a similar group when she was 18. “My mother had a choice – [sell to] a developer or a group,” said Crowley, adding that some of her neighbors weren’t happy with the decision.

Some who spoke against the proposal said they were concerned that the 1890s Queen Ann-style home would be altered. The group’s executive director, Christopher Weldon, assured the board that the “integrity of the home will be maintained.” Interior work will include bathroom, kitchen and basement renovations, and the exterior of the home will remain the same with the exception of new landscaping.

While the community board acts solely in an advisory role, its members had three options: approve the plan, suggest alternate sites or reject it on the grounds that the area is over-saturated. If the board denied the plan, the group would have had the opportunity to appeal that decision.

Homeless Man Sentenced in Priest Assault

SUSPECT WAS CONVICTED OF BURNING DOWN CHURCH IN 1999

A local homeless man has been sentenced to at least 13 years in prison for assaulting a priest in front of a South Ozone Park church. The attack came eight years after the man was convicted for burning the church to the ground.

Calvin Bostick, 49, was sentenced last Thursday to thirteen-and-a-half years to life in prison by Queens Supreme Court Justice Stephen Knopf. Bostick, who has no known address, had pleaded guilty to second-degree assault in January in connection with the February 23, 2007 attack of Rev. Christopher Ezeoke.

According to the charges, Bostick approached Rev. Ezeoke from behind at St. Anthony of Padua on 128th Street just after 5 p.m. and struck him in the head with a walking cane. Bostick continued to strike the priest on the arms and head with the cane, ultimately pushing him into the rectory, where he continued the assault.

The attack came just 11 days after Bostick was released from prison after serving eight years for burning St. Anthony’s down. Rev. Ezeoke, a native of Nigeria, didn’t recognize Bostick as the arsonist from eight years ago because he was not assigned to the parish at that time. The priest, who at 6-feet-2 had about seven inches on Bostick, was able to hold his attacker until police arrived. Officers also found a crack pipe on Bostick while taking him into custody.

“Today’s sentence is more than warranted. The defendant has a long and violent criminal history, including a conviction for having burned to the ground the very same church eight years earlier,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who noted that Bostick faces an enhanced penalty of up to life in prison because he is considered a persistent violent offender with at least three previous felony convictions.

In 1999, Bostick was arrested after he confessed to starting the church fire after trying unsuccessfully to panhandle in front of it. The one-story building was severely damaged in the fire, and two firefighters suffered minor injuries battling the blaze. Bostick - who previously set fire to his cell at Rikers Island and has a history of drug convictions – was arrested after returning to the church to claim a reward for reporting the fire to 911. He has been arrested at least 20 times and has served prison time for several previous felonies.

Man Sentened for Theft of Officer's Gun

Jury Hung in Felony Assault Charges

A Queens man has been sentenced to 15 years in prison after he was caught in possession of an on-duty police officer’s gun and handcuffs, but a jury was unable to reach a verdict on charges the man viciously assaulted the officer with a baseball bat.

Danny Fernandez, 23, of 162nd Street in Flushing was found guilty on January 29 of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon following a two-week jury trial. While the jury determined that

Fernandez was in possession of an on duty officer’s gun and handcuffs, it was unable to reach verdicts on three other felony charges: aggravated assault of a police officer, first-degree assault and robbery. Fernandez was sentenced last Thursday to a determinate term of 15 years in prison, with Acting Supreme Court Justice Robert McGann noting that this is not a “simple possession case.” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown’s office plans to retry Fernandez on the three other felony charges, according to a spokesman.

According to trial testimony, Fernandez approached uniformed Officer Joseph Cho at the intersection of 39th Avenue and 102nd Street in Jackson Heights at about 1:30 a.m. on February 5, 2007 and struck him in the head from behind with a baseball bat, knocking him to the ground. Seeing that Officer Cho was still moving, Fernandez then struck the officer once more in the head before removing his gun and handcuffs and fleeing on foot.

Officer Patrick Lynch, who was out of the police academy for just two months and on foot patrol in the area, noticed the attack from about a block away. A former long distance runner in college, Officer Lynch chased Fernandez for several blocks before arresting him. The officer found Officer Cho’s gun and handcuffs on Fernandez, and the bat was found at the scene of the attack. Officer Cho, who was also assigned to the NYPD’s Field Training Unit, was transported to a local hospital and treated for a fractured skull and concussion.

Fernandez told police that he was $16,000 in debt, which he hoped to pay off by committing robberies with the officer’s gun and handcuffs. He began looking for an officer who was patrolling alone at about 9:30 the prior evening and came across Officer Cho sometime after 1 a.m. He followed the officer for about a half hour, waiting for an opportunity to attack him.

“This case is a reminder of the demanding and dangerous challenges that police officers face each day in protecting the public. It is fitting that he received the maximum penalty allowed under the law,” said Brown. “It is a miracle that the officer survived… I commend the arresting officer, Police Officer Lynch, who is only out of the police academy two months, and who acted quickly and professionally in removing from our streets the defendant – an allegedly dangerous predator who was intent upon committing additional robberies across our city.”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South


Guilty Verdicts in Forest Hills Dentist Murder


VICTIM’S WIFE AND GUNMAN FACE LIFE IN PRISON

By Conor Greene

It took a jury less than one day to find a Forest Hills doctor and her distant relative guilty of conspiracy murder in the death of the woman’s ex-husband, who was gunned down in front of the couple’s young daughter following a bitter custody battle.

Mazoltuv Borukhova, 33, and her cousin by marriage, Mikhail Mallayev, 51, were found guilty on Tuesday of first-degree murder and second-degree conspiracy in the October 2007 shooting of Dr. Daniel Malakov following a five-week trial in Queens Supreme Court. The pair now faces up to life in prison when they are sentenced on April 21.

Malakov, 34, who had just won custody of the couple’s daughter, was fatally shot at pointblank range while bringing four-year-old Michelle to Annadale Playground to visit her mother. Jurors believed prosecutor Brad Leventhal’s contention that Borukhova paid Mallayev about $20,000 to murder Malakov, who had recently won custody of Michelle.

After the verdict was announced Tuesday afternoon, members of the victim’s family walked out of the courthouse with arms raised over their heads. One proclaimed, “God bless America.”

“They thought that my brother was their problem and they thought by eliminating him they could fix their problems,” the victim’s brother, Joseph Malakov, told reporters. “But what did she accomplish? She didn’t accomplish anything. She created all this unnecessary pain for everybody.”

Police connected Mallayev to the shooting after matching fingerprints from a homemade silencer found at the scene to his, which were on file from a previous arrest. In the three weeks leading up to the shooting, Mallayev and Borukhova had 90 telephone conversations, during which time authorities say they planned the murder. Following the murder, the pair met in Borukhova’s Forest Hills medical office before Mallayev deposited $19,800 into 10 different bank accounts.

Mallayev was arrested in November 2007 at his home outside Atlanta and Borukhova was charged in February after a grand jury charged both in the murder. “They are still living… but my son is not living. It is very hard for me,” said the victim’s father, Khaika Malakov said. “I don’t care about her life now.”

“Daniel Malakov looked to the law for justice when it came to gaining custody of his young daughter several years ago,” said District Attorney Richard Brown. “Today, the judicial system was there once again to ensure justice for Daniel as prosecutors made sure that those guilty of his murder were held accountable for their actions – actions that intentionally cut short a life filled with much promise and robbed a daughter of a father she hardly had the opportunity to know.”

During the trial, Borukhova testified in her own defense, maintaining that she did not hear the two gunshots, even though she was standing just ten feet away. Mallayev did not take the stand.

A major point in the case came when school teacher Cheryl Springfield testified that she saw Mallayev shoot Malakov while she was walking her dog near the park. She provided police with a description of the shooter, which was used to create a sketch, and then picked him out of a lineup before identifying him in court as the killer. Members of Borukhova’s family declined comment as they left the courthouse following the verdict.

In a press conference in his offices following the verdict, Brown touched on the strain the sensational case has had on the tight-knit Bukharian community of Forest Hills and Rego Park, and on the lasting impact the murder will have on little Michelle.

“Today’s verdict cannot heal the wounds suffered by the child – perhaps nothing ever can,” said Brown. “Nor can it heal those of the family of Dr. Malakov who lost his life so tragically. I hope, however, it that it will bring some closure to the Bukharian community and that it will enable them to begin to bridge the divide that has formed as a result of what has occurred.

“I believe that it is fair to say that justice has been served – although the child at the center of this case will probably never recover from having witnessed that which occurred or from the custody fight that to this day remains unresolved,” added Brown.

Following the murder of her father and arrest of her mother, Michelle has been placed in the care of a paternal uncle.

Photos by Michael O'Kane. Top: DA Brown discusses the verdict with reporters; while members of Borukhova's family leave court without comment (left).

Delaware North Comes Up Lame; Aqueduct Deal Dead


Following months of swirling rumors, the plans for a video-lottery terminal “racino” to be constructed by Delaware North Companies are on hold. In October, Delaware was hand-picked by Governor David Paterson after a lengthy bidding process, beating out two other bidders for the project.

On Tuesday, the Buffalo based Delaware North notified the state that it did not have the promised $370 million that was to be paid to the state by March 31st. According to published reports, Delaware’s president, William Bissett, said, “Since our bid was submitted in October 2007, there has been a deterioration of the credit and equity financial markets in this recession economy which has caused Aqueduct Gaming LLC to restructure the timing for its financial offer.”

Both Assemblywoman Audrey I. Pheffer (D-Queens) and Senator Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr. (D-Queens) were extremely disappointed to learn that Delaware North, the would-be developers of the redevelopment and revitalization of Aqueduct Race Track, have defaulted on their deal with New York State.

Delaware North was awarded the contract based on their offer of $370 million upfront to the State of New York. Their offer far exceeded other developers and the financially strapped State chose them in hopes of helping to address the current fiscal crisis, according to Pheffer and Addabbo. However, Delaware North admitted on Tuesday this week that they were unable to meet the $370 million offer and asked the State to “restructure” their agreement. New York State said no.

“Delaware North was never our first choice,” said Pheffer. “There were others that not only had a better working relationship with our community, but also had a more fiscally viable project. Delaware North was chosen for their promise to pay $370 million upfront, and they have lost the deal because of their inability to live up to that commitment.”

“I look forward to immediately beginning the process to find a new developer and will work to ensure that community concerns and inputs are included in the process,” said Senator Addabbo. “The preservation of Aqueduct and quality horse racing are our paramount concerns and choosing the best development for the site is our ultimate goal.”

“Rumors have been swirling for many weeks,” said Betty Braton, Chairperson of Community Board 10, “that Delaware was attempting to renegotiate the deal promised in October. We expressed our skepticism then, although we were prepared to work with Delaware to move this project forward. We believed at the time that either of the other bidders offered more financial benefit to the state over the long haul, but it was the state’s pick and the state opted for the big up-front payment that now appears was far from realistic.”

In early January, Ron Sultemeier, Vice President for Strategic Development, Gaming & Entertainment for Delaware North, presented the racino plans at the Community Board 10 meeting. He did not indicate to the community then that there were any problems that would prevent the company from meeting its financial commitment of $300+ million to the state by the March deadline. At last week’s Community Board meeting, the Board’s Aqueduct Committee Chairperson, Donna Gilmartin, raised that question about Delaware’s ability to come up with the promised funds during discussion.

On April 23, 2008, information from the state relating to the VLT franchise at Aqueduct Racetrack was given to each of the entities planning to submit bids for the project, who were asked to submit a best and final offer to the Governor and Legislative leaders. Three bidders: Capital Play, Delaware North and SL Green submitted proposals and made an extensive presentation to State leaders on April 30, 2008. Between late April and the October announcement of Delaware’s selection, supposedly an extensive due diligence review and a financial analysis of each of the three bids was conducted.

According to press statements in late October at the time of Delaware’s selection to construct the 328,000 square foot gaming and entertainment facility at Aqueduct Racetrack, the governor’s choice of them was the result of “an extensive review and thorough process that weighed all factors of this critically important project to the State.”

The deal called for Delaware and its partners to pay a $370 million up-front licensing fee to the State. Aqueduct Gaming was to be responsible for all aspects of the construction and to spend a minimum of $250 million to complete the components of the project. Delaware also planned to invest $170 million in capital during the term of the agreement to maintain the gaming and entertainment facility.

The country’s financial crisis was already swirling in October. The large up-front payment to come to the state was said at the time to be the main reason for the company’s selection. At the time, press statements from the Governor’s office said that the“deal will provide a critical revenue stream - especially given the fiscal crisis that is battering our State and nation.”

On October 23th the Governor’s office issued a statement that said, in part, that “the three bids – all final submissions that were never changed – were carefully examined … and underwent significant due diligence, including another recent review to ensure financial viability in light of the turmoil in the markets.”

Between then and now, Delaware’s ability to finance the project seems to have changed. The state will now engage in another process to select a developer for the project. At press time it was unknown as to what that process would be.

Woman Accused of Killing Pet Poodle

DOG FOUND IN GARBAGE CAN IN MASPETH

By Conor Greene

A Maspeth woman has been charged with aggravated animal cruelty after locking her poodle in a suitcase, which she dumped in a garbage can near her home. The dog was rescued by neighbors who heard it crying, but it later died while being treated by Animal Care and Control veterinarians.

Sonia Perez, 21, of 60-49 54th Place was arraigned on March 5 in Queens Criminal Court on charges of felony aggravated cruelty to animals and misdemeanor torturing an animal. Bail was set at $1,000 and she was ordered to return to court on March 19.

Neighbor Amber Munyan was walking her dog along 54th Place on March 3 when she heard noises coming from the trash can. She looked in the garbage and found the suitcase containing the severely injured poodle, which she brought back to her home. She then contacted wildlife management expert David Quinn to see if he could offer assistance.

“I looked at it, saw it was in terrible shape and said we have to contact authorities,” said Quinn. They were forced to call 911 since ASPCA animal cruelty officers are not available after 9 p.m. According to Quinn, it took more than two hours for officers to arrive –and that was only after a neighbor called 911 to report a possible domestic situation inside the dog owner’s home, from which yelling could be heard.

“I heard her yelling, ‘I got rid of the dog’ – we both heard it,” he continued. “When police arrived, [the defendant’s] brother came out and said, ‘Oh, we threw the dog out.’” Another witness, Harry Gold, told police he recognized the poodle as belonging to Perez, and said the woman had previously told him that it was difficult taking care of both the dog and her child. According to a police source, a neighbor also told authorities that Perez had beaten the dog on several prior occasions.

Police arrested Perez at the scene, and the poodle was taken to Animal Care and Control for treatment, where it later died. A veterinarian reported that an external exam revealed that the poodle had a good body condition but had suffered from scrotal bruising and rib fractures.

“It’s unbelievable what people can do to animals, just horrible” said Quinn. “It’s heartbreaking - the dog couldn’t have been more than ten to twelve pounds.”