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


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


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


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.”