By Conor Greene
This month’s Juniper Park Civic Association Meeting included news that a settlement has been reached to prevent trains hauling garbage from idling in residential areas and an update on the battle against the city’s plan to build a high school in Maspeth.
In addition, the civic group held a moment of silence for a longtime member who recently passed away, and honored another resident who is still going strong at 107 years old during the session last Thursday. Reports on other items discussed at the meeting can be found elsewhere in this issue, including funding for the reconstruction of St. Saviour’s Church, an update on crime and a ceremony honoring the neighborhood’s outgoing monsignor.
Garbage Trains and Truck Traffic
Civic President Robert Holden informed the large crowd at Our Lady of Hope about a new problem the civic is dealing with: a plan by Waste Management to haul trash by truck from its transfer station on Review Avenue in Long Island City to the rail yard in West Maspeth. While this is part of the city’s plan to reduce the amount of trucks making long-distance trips to out-of-state dumps, it will lead to an increase in local traffic.
The garbage will be loaded onto rail cars near the intersection of Maspeth Avenue and Rust Street, near the former St. Saviour’s property. This has led Holden to surmise that the reason Mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to fund a purchase of the land for a public park is because this plan was in the works.
“The real reason the mayor didn’t want a park there was because he had a bigger plan,” said Holden. The city’s solid waste plan “is being forced upon us here in this district.” Under the plan, all trash from neighborhoods in community boards one through six would be trucked to the Review Avenue transfer station, which Waste Management will expand to accommodate the increase. While that facility is located along the Newtown Creek, it doesn’t have barge or rail access, meaning the trash must be driven a mile and a half to Maspeth before it is shipped by rail to dump sites in Virginia.
“It would be a decent plan if they would barge the garbage out or rail the garbage out,” said Holden. “This was their master plan – who would want a park near this transfer station?” He noted that the trains, filled with garbage, will then travel through Middle Village and Glendale before leaving the region. Last year, there was a problem with foul odors emanating from trains idling in one location, especially near Christ the King High School on Metropolitan Avenue. “Now they’re going to add more,” he said. “They city didn’t insist they barge it or do it by rail the right way.”
Holden reminded the large crowd that the civic can no longer even get a response to letters sent to Mayor Bloomberg about this issue, a far cry from when the mayor stopped by JPCA meetings on several occasions before his reelection. “We couldn’t keep this guy away. Now we can’t get answers to our letters anymore.”
While West Maspeth will likely bear the brunt of increased truck traffic, Middle Village attorney and City Council candidate Thomas Ognibene had some good news regarding the issue of odors from the trains stinking up the neighborhood. He said that the fumes caused issues last year at Christ the King, including making a pregnant teacher ill. After negotiations between the school and railways proved futile, Ognibene revealed publicly for the first that a lawsuit against New York and Atlantic Railway and CSX was needed to resolve the problem.
The outcome, according to Ognibene, is a settlement in federal court that allows CSX to take possession of idling trains sooner. The agreement, which was effective as of Wednesday, should eliminate the need for trains to sit in residential areas. Instead, trains will be picked up by CSX in the morning and stored at a rail yard away from residential areas untilthey’re ready to leave the area.
“We believe that starting July 1, we’ve solved the problem with the existing trains,” said Ognibene. “Hopefully that’s going to help… but it took a lawsuit. There may be glitches but at least we got something going in that direction because we’ve suffered long enough.”
Maspeth School Lawsuit
Ognibene also updated residents on a lawsuit the JPCA and Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together (COMET) have jointly filed against the city regarding the proposed Maspeth high school.
The issue, according to Holden and Ognibene, is that information regarding toxic materials found on the site was withheld before the City Council voted earlier this year to approve the Department of Education’s plan to build the 1,100-seat school on the former Restaurant Depot site at 74th Street and 57th Avenue. Despite objections from the area’s local member, Elizabeth Crowley, the City Council voted 38-10 in April in favor of the plan.
“We feel it is going to overburden the neighborhood,” said Holden. “The city really didn’t tell the elected officials or us how toxic it is… Information was withheld and the School Construction Authority rushed this through.”
Ognibene noted that one problem is that the city “is not diligent as an ordinary buyer would be” in terms of investigating the site. He added that 19 schools around the city were built on toxic sites, which has forced the city to go back and remediate the property after construction was completed. “Obviously it’s going to be very expensive” to remediate after construction.
“Unfortunately, the City Council I believe didn’t get the full information,” said Ognibene. “This is a dangerous location to build a school… It presents significant problems for the community.”
The civics are named plaintiffs in the lawsuit because they have legal standing to file the lawsuit. Ognibene is now waiting to for a return date and hopes a judge will issue a restraining order preventing the city from moving ahead with work at the site until a phase three environmental impact statement is conducted to show exactly what remediation is needed. In May, the city paid $16,250,000 for the 54,000-square foot property. The current plan is to install a protective barrier between the contaminated soil and the building foundation.
“We feel we have a strong case,” said Ognibene. “Certainly the health, safety and welfare of our children in schools should be paramount. I think it’s important that the city in this type of situation steps up and does the right thing.
Civic Members Honored
At the beginning of the meeting, Holden asked for a moment of silence in honor of civic member Ed Nubel, who recently passed away.
“We lost him too soon,” said Holden, recalling that that the long time volunteer always made sure there was coffee at every meeting. “He really exemplified the spirit of this neighborhood… I know Ed is looking down on us. If you have a cup of coffee, toast Ed tonight.”
Next, another longtime civic member – 107-year-old Carl Berner – was presented the volunteer of the year award for his continued dedication to the neighborhood. “How many people see this man in the neighborhood?” asked Holden, noting that Berner walks several miles a day in the area of Caldwell Avenue and chalks his longevity up to oatmeal.
Berner is still recovering from two hip operations and a short nursing home stay, but is eager to return to civic matters such as cleaning up along the railroad tracks, said Holden. “Don’t be surprised if you see him over there in a couple months with a rake. We’re never surprised by Carl Berner.”