Thursday, March 5, 2009

Maspeth School Debate Rages On

Emotional Hearing on City Proposal and Use of Eminent Domain

By Conor Greene

The debate over the city’s plan to build a high school in Maspeth continued during an emotional public hearing pitting residents opposed to another school in the crowded neighborhood against parents and teachers who support the proposal.

The hearing last Thursday in PS 58 centered on the city’s possible use of eminent domain to acquire the former Restaurant Depot site on 74th Street and 57th Avenue to build a 1,100-seat high school. However, the hearing continually reverted into a debate over whether the site is appropriate, since there already are two schools within a two block radius of the proposed site.

While the meeting at times got heated, those on both sides of the fence were able to agree on one thing, as many speakers expressed outrage that the city held the meeting at 4 p.m. on a weekday. As a result, the small auditorium was not even half filled for the meeting, while prior meetings on the hot button issue held in the evening attracted large crowds.

Dorie Figliola called the meeting’s timing a “disgrace,” drawing loud applause, and Manny Caruana said it was an “outrage” it was held while so many residents with a stake in the issue were at work. “You virtually silenced the voice of the homeowners in the area,” he told the School Construction Authority official running the meeting. “This is the way SCA works.”

A department spokesman was unable to explain the rationale behind holding the meeting in the afternoon by press time Wednesday. However, SCA attorney Gregory Shaw previously told The Forum that the meeting was not held at night because “most people are not interested” about whether eminent domain should be used.

The meeting was solely a public hearing, with no formal action taken. Residents took the opportunity to debate the plan, with the majority arguing that the area is already over-saturated with schools, bringing thousands of students onto the streets in the morning and afternoon. Those in favor of the plan argued the area desperately needs additional high school seats and that children should have the chance to continue their education close to home.

Lorraine Sciulli, a member of the Juniper Park Civic Association’s executive board, said she is “totally opposed to this school at this site” and questioned the Department of Education’s claim that it will serve just 1,100 students, as the plan initially called for 1,650 seats. “Yes, they all deserve an education, but they don’t have to have it in Maspeth,” she said. “Why does Maspeth have to be the school campus of District 24?”

Tony Nunziato said the DOE and SCA should have notified Community Board 5 of the hearing, which was not advertised in local papers. “We’re talking about overdevelopment, over-saturation,” he said, adding that eminent domain should come as a last resort for projects that benefit the public at large.

Many, including Anthony Moreno of 56th Avenue, made it clear they support education, but don’t think this location is appropriate. “I’m in favor of education – no doubt about it,” he said. “I’m here to oppose this site and to oppose eminent domain.” The CB 4 member suggested that the DOE instead look into property on 57th Avenue near the Queens Center Mall, which is close to many public transit lines.

Dermot Smith, a teacher at IS 73 and Maspeth resident, said he supports the plan and claimed that opponents of the plan were using the eminent domain issue to “manipulate your thoughts.” The reality, he said, is that “Queens high schools are bursting at the seams… We cannot give kids a quality education unless they have seats… Don’t be mislead, schools are a good thing.”

Marge Kolb, who heads the CEC 24 PTA Presidents’ Council, said there is a “lot of support among parents” for the project. “We can fill this school with kids who live in this immediate area,” she said, adding that while there “are not a lot of houses” around the site, “these people bought houses across from a big commercial enterprise.”

Rosemary Parker said she felt like she was in an “alternate reality” listening to critics of the proposal. “I’m really sorry I had to be here tonight to take this abuse and be in Archie Bunker’s house,” she said, drawing yells and groans from many in the audience.

Despite requests that the school be zoned for local students, the DOE has refused to do so because it is against department policy. Department spokesman William Havemann said the DOE will consider giving priority zoning to local students before opening enrollment to citywide residents. The current plan gives priority to students throughout Queens.

Several residents criticized the city’s potential use of eminent domain to acquire the site, which the DOE says might be necessary because the property owner hasn’t responded to inquiries about the property. Rosemarie Daraio, president of Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, said she is disappointed that the DOE is “once again coming in to eminent domain another piece of property,” adding that the school would be “devastating for the community.”

At one point, the hearing – conducted by a sole SCA official – melted down into a shouting match at the back of the auditorium. Tempers also flared when several speakers referred to the students as “monsters” and complained that teachers block driveways and throw garbage out their car windows. With the SCA official seemingly unable or unwilling to bring the meeting under control, CB 5 District Manager Gary Giordano stepped up to the microphone and eventually brought the meeting under control.

With just the one official in attendance, some including JPCA President Robert Holden questioned if the hearing would have any impact on whether the DOE will move forward with the plan, calling the meeting a “sham.”

Havemann said the purpose of the hearing was “to get public feedback before we make a decision as whether or not to use eminent domain, as required by law.” Since it is “just not feasible to have every member of the SCA at every meeting,” the lone official later “relays the feedback to other members.” If they need more information, members can then review a transcript of the hearing.

A City Council Land Use subcommittee hearing on the proposal was postponed earlier this month and will likely take place within 30 days. It would then go to the full City Council for approval, and local member Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) said she won’t support the plan unless priority is given to local children.

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