Thursday, October 8, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Questions Over City's Plan for Ridgewood Reservoir

By Conor Greene

As the Parks Department prepares to begin the first phase of work at the Ridgewood Reservoir, local elected officials and community leaders have questioned aspects of the plan, and were not impressed with the response they received from the city on their input.

Parks is planning $7.7 million worth of improvements to Highland Park, which includes the Ridgewood Reservoir. Work will include replacing existing perimeter fencing around the reservoir’s three basins, upgrading the lighting and improving the pathways.

Phase one work will take place as the department and community continues to debate the overall future of the park and reservoir property. Many, including Community Board 5 members, want the city to preserve the reservoir in its natural state and upgrade existing ballfields in Highland Park, instead of filling in one of the basins and constructing fields there.

While the debate over the future of the property continues, CB 5 members and elected officials including State Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) are asking Parks to reconsider aspects of the phase one plan.

In July, CB 5 informed Queens Borough Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski in a letter that the board had unanimously adopted several recommendations concern- ing phase one, including that perimeter fencing be six feet high, instead of four feet as planned; that the electrical service conduit be installed on the reservoir side of the pathway, where the lighting fixture will be installed and that an existing stone stairway not be removed.

In an August 24 response, Lewandowski informed the board that the fence is not meant as a security barrier, since public access to the basins is planned for the future. “The four foot proposal provides a clear view into the basins which will allow the public to better appreciate the interior as well as provide easier observation by the police and parks patrols.”

Regarding the electrical setup, Lewandowski said the decision to locate the light poles on the reservoir side “was made for both ecological and aesthetic reasons.” She argued that since the electrical conduit can’t be placed between the pathway and the basins due to a lack of soft surface, Parks “decided that spending an additional $90K now to locate the conduit in the grass area [on the other side of the path] is a price worth paying to make maintenance in future less complicated and less expensive.”

Parks did agree that facing the lamp post panels away from the path to help prevent vandalism and theft “is a very good idea” that has been incorporated into the design. In addition, Parks has accepted the board’s recommendation that the northeast stairway should be restored. This can be done within phase one “barring any costly surprises revealed in our ongoing structural investigations.” Either way, the stairs will not be removed as planned.

While the board’s push for a pedestrian bridge over Vermont Avenue “is an idea worth studying in-depth,” Parks has determined that it is “cost prohibitive at least in the initial phase of work at the reservoir.” However, the department has directed consultant Mark K. Morrison and Associates to ensure that the current plan would allow for a pedestrian bridge in the future.

Board members expressed displeasure at a meeting earlier this year after receiving Parks’ response to the suggestions. “We’re not dumb – we suggest things for a reason,” said CB 5 Chairman Vincent Arcuri, vowing at the time to “fight this politically.”

In September letter to Lewandowski, Addbbo noted that he generally agreed with the board’s suggestions and said he also has “concerns” over the current plan. He agreed that the light fixtures and related electrical wiring should be on the same side of the path to save money, and also called for a six-foot high perimeter fence. “While six foot fencing might hinder some public access viewing, that issue is far outweighed by the greater issue the of public safety and security of people visiting the site,” wrote Addabbo.

“As you are aware, in these difficult fiscal times, the city needs to allocate funding efficiently,” the senator continued. “I am hopeful that prior to any work commencing on Phase I at the reservoir, your department conducts the necessary research and public input consideration to create a safe and accommodating venue.”

Crowley also wrote a letter to Lewandowski last month, calling the board’s proposals “a good set of improvements to the current plan.” She agreed with the board and Addabbo on the issues of the electrical wiring and fence height. She also noted that she continues to support “ a passive recreation option” at the site and wants a portion of the $19 million earmarked for phase two on renovations of the existing ballfields in Highland Park “before even considering the decon- struction of a basin.”

A Parks Department spokeswoman did not provide information regarding when phase one construction is slated to begin, or a response to Addabbo and Crowley’s letters.

On Wednesday, Arcuri called Parks’ response “foolish” and said that six-foot-high fences are used in other projects around the city, including the promenade along Flushing Bay without complaints of obstructed views. “I think they’re a little hard-nosed; their consultant came up with a design and they want to stick with it,” said Arcuri. “I think part of it is the ego of the designer, and the ego of the agency.”

Looking ahead to phase two, Arcuri agreed that some of the remaining $19 million should be used at the existing ballfields. “They can develop a program for the restoration of the upper ballfields and playground so the reservoir can stay a natural preserved area as every- one wants it,” he said. “There really isn’t a need for additional facilities; the need is for the facilities that exist to be restored.”

Arcuri charged that recent surveys of parks users con- ducted by the city “weren’t realistic” and didn’t reflect the desires of many to preserve the reservoir. “The results of that survey were contradictory to the results of all the public meetings, so we question that... We think that if we have enough political support we could get them to go along with the idea of a nature preserve [at the reservoir] and fixing the upper ballfields. I think we need the mayor to come out and side with the people who are familiar with the area.”

Seniors Vow to Fight for Cost of Living Increase

By Conor Greene

Spurred by rumors that the Social Security Administration will not provide a cost of liv- ing increase in 2010, local officials and community leaders have launched a petition drive urging the federal government to provide seniors with this much-needed boost.

Concerns that there won’t be a cost of living increase next year stem from the presidential budget unveiled this year, which didn’t include funds to provide the annual boost meant to off-set rising prices, according to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills). An announcement is expected in the coming weeks, and this would mark the first time in three decades that an increase wasn’t pro- vided.

In response, Weiner gathered at the Howard Beach Senior Center on Monday with Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park) and Democratic District Leader Frank Gulluscio to announce the petition effort. “The price of many things has gone down, but many more [costs] are going up,” said Weiner, including health care, housing and food.

Particularly concerning, said Weiner, is that while the cost of living increase is supposed to be calculated each October using current prices, it was determined that it would remain flat months ago. Even more alarming, he said, is that next year’s increase has also been eliminated, more than a year in advance. That has led to the “notion that maybe the books are being cooked a little,” said Weiner. The focus now is “making sure this is on the up and up.”

To pressure the Social Security Administration to provide a cost of living increase, Gulluscio is spearheading the petition effort, which began in earnest at Monday’s event. He is calling for a “true COLA” that prevents seniors from having to choose between milk and medicine. “It’s a shame we have to deal with this during a recession,” he added.

While the cost of many non-necessities such as electronics have dropped as a result of the recession, Weiner noted that drops in cost haven’t applied to necessities. “The fact is, most seniors are not buying cell phones, they’re buying things they need – housing, food, medicine, [and] those things are going up,” he said. The COLA should be calculated using the “breadbasket of things seniors use” with regional differences taken into account, added the representative.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the Social Security program has a huge surplus that is currently used to bring down the national debt. In addition, any increases in Medicare will come from a senior’s social security check, despite the lack of COLA increase. “On one hand they’re saying costs aren’t going up” while at the same time claiming that Medicare costs are rising, said Weiner.

Howard Beach senior Robert Drake said the lack of increase comes at a time when the city is “nickel and diming” its residents at every turn. “They even raised the price of parking your car. How can they say there is no COLA?” he asked. “Is that considered in COLA? No. If they don’t [provide an increase] then we will just have to struggle through it.”

Another local senior, Grade DiPippa, took exception with the federal government using the Social Security fund to help close the deficit. “That’s wrong,” she said.

Gulluscio vowed to continue the fight until the federal government changes course. “We will not take zero as an answer. There are no excuses for this situation,” he said. “This is not about politics - this is about real people making decisions.”

This year’s COLA increase was 5.8 percent for the more than 50 million individuals receiving Social Security. While the recession has kept inflation in check in some areas, seniors have still been hit hard with some growing costs including a six percent increase in rent-controlled apartments, a 1.4 percent rise in food prices, a seven percent average monthly increase in premiums for the Medicare prescription drug plans and a 10 percent increase in bus and subway fare for seniors.

Controversy Erupts Over Glendale Kiwanis Funding

By Conor Greene

A $3,500 allocation to the Glendale Kiwanis by former City Councilman Anthony Como has turned into a political hot potato after he accused Elizabeth Crowley, who currently represents the area, of diverting the money to another organization.

Como (R-Middle Village), who briefly represented the 30th District after winning a special election last year, sent a letter on Tuesday to fellow Kiwanis members and local papers stating that the funding had been reallocated in January. “I found this very upsetting because I know that groups such as yours depend greatly on this money,” wrote Como.

In the letter, Como stated that he had been contacted by the group’s past president, Joe Aiello to find out why the Kiwanis never received the funds. In the e-mail containing the letter, Como included correspondence he said was from the City Council’s Finance Division confirming that Crowley had diverted the money to another group. “Since we didn’t do a transparency resolution until late January, CM Crowley’s office decided that they wanted to give that money to another [organization] as it is her prerogative to reallocate any funds that had not yet been registered with the Comptroller’s office,” the e-mail stated.

In response, Crowley (D-Middle Village) said she is “very surprised [Como] would stoop this low” and contended that Como never came through on his promise to fund the Kiwanis. “He is making accusations that are not true, just because he failed to meet the community’s concerns as a councilman.” She maintained that the money was never included in last year’s budget and was never diverted to another group.

“He’s being dishonest,” added Crowley. “This is an example of mudslinging that is really based on lies. I’m disappointed in Anthony Como because honestly I thought more of him as an individual than to put together a letter which is not truthful.” Crowley noted that she provided the Kiwanis with $5,000 in this year’s budget. "If you look at the truth, you will know that Anthony Como didn't put a dime aside for the Kiwanis last year as he promised,” she said.

Caught in the middle is Aiello, who said Wednesday that the whole situation is much ado about nothing. He chalked it up to a simple mistake and says he lays no blame with either Como or Crowley. “At first I said ‘gee, we could have used this money,’” he recalled. “Anthony Como called apologizing and I told him there is no foul here. I had a meeting with Elizabeth two weeks ago, she said she would see what she can do about retrieving the money and I said again it was no foul and not to worry about it.”

Como said the letter wasn’t intended to be a political attack against Crowley, despite his relationship with fellow Republican Tom Ognibene, who is challenging her in November. “This is not a political thing, it’s coming from me. If anyone is to blame here, it is Councilmember Crowley – she’s the only one who put me up to this by pulling their funding.”

Ognibene said he had “zero” involvement in the letter and noted that the whole issue arose when Aiello contacted Como. “She’s trying to deflect the fact that she pulled the funding for the Glendale Kiwanis, that’s what the city of New York said, not Tom Ognibene. They asked Anthony why they weren’t getting funding so he made the inquiry and that’s the answer that came back... Let her say it’s not true instead of blaming me. Of course if she did she would be lying again.”

While he doesn’t blame either side, Aiello said he wasn’t thrilled that the club, which is ded- icated to helping those in need, was thrust into the middle of a political fight. “I’m caught in between here and I don’t like it,” he said. “I appreciate what they try to do for the club and I have the utmost respect for Anthony Como and Elizabeth Crowley. What happened here was just a mistake, something that happened. Our club could have used the money, no doubt, but we didn’t lose any sleep over it. There is no harm or foul here... I’m a little bit disappointed. This didn’t have to go to the papers.”

The City Council Finance Division did not return a call by press time seeking clarification as to whether the money was ever allocated.

Crowley Funds Bocce Court Upgrades and Courts Italian-American Votes

By Conor Greene

The popular bocce courts at Juniper Valley Park were refurbished just in time for the annual tournament held there last weekend, thanks to funding provided by Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who gathered there with supporters on Monday.

Crowley (D-Middle Village) allocated $352,000 of City Council funding for upgrades to the two bocce courts located in the Middle Village park. Home of the annual tournament, the courts are also frequently used by local residents throughout the week, as was the case on Monday afternoon. Thanks to the money, the courts were resurfaced and canopies will be installed, along with other capital upgrades, according to Crowley’s office.

After gathering next to the courts with dozens of members of the local Italian-American community in support of her re- election bid this November, Crowley and Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Glendale) tried their hand at a couple of rolls on the newly-smoothed courts. Among those supporting her in her bid for a four-year City Council term were Peter Cardella of theItalian-American Federation of Greater New York and Mario Malerba, chair of the Italian-American Federation of Brooklyn and Queens.

Crowley noted that Italian-American heritage is celebrated in New York City throughout October, and said that the 30th Council district – which includes Middle Village, Maspeth, Ridgewood, Glendale and parts of Woodhaven and Richmond Hill - has one of the highest concentrations of Italian-American residents in the city. “We have a very solid community with a lot of culture,” she told her supporters.

Initiatives Crowley has spearheaded during her nine months in office include raising more than $20,000 for the victims of the earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, who Crowley said are “very close to our hearts” and provided New York with assistance after 9/11. She also allocated discretionary funding for the local Italian-American federations and served as Grand Marshall at the 16th annual Fresh Pond Road street festival in honor of Madonna Santa Maria de Trapano, the patron saint of Sicily.

Many in attendance, including Cardella, spoke in favor of reelecting Crowley next month, when she faces former Councilman Tom Ognibene (R-Middle Village) for a full four-year term in City Hall. “As councilmember for only a short time, she has done a terrific job to improve the quality of life and to protect our seniors,” said Cardella. “I encourage people to vote for her so she can continue the work she has started for the next four years.”

However, the focus of the day was the revamped bocce courts, which are the daily site of some serious matches among a group of local residents. “People who know Italian-American culture know how im portant that sport is” said Crowley, adding that improvements will include canopies over each end of the court, an idea which was met with enthusiasm from the crowd of supporters and bocce plays in attendance.

Council Might Strengthen City’s Graffiti Removal Law

The City Council is considering an amendment to the current graffiti removal law that would make it faster and easier for officials to have commercial and residential eyesores repainted without approval from the building owner.

Council members voted overwhelmingly last month to introduce the bill, which strengthens the powers of the decade-old Graffiti Free NYC program by reducing the amount of red tape required before the city can remove the graffiti. The bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Gale Brewer, has the backing of local members Eric Ulrich (R- Ozone Park) and Elizabeth Crowley (D- Middle Village).

Under the new law, a building owner will receive a notice of removal from the city once the structure has been identified for cleanup. The owner then has thirty five days to inform the city that they will have the graffiti removed themselves or that they want it to remain on the building. If the owner doesn’t respond, the city is allowed to remove the graffiti. In addition, the bill also subjects owners to fines of up to $300 if they don’t respond to the notice and provide the city with the necessary access to the property.

“We need to use every tool possible to fight graffiti vandalism. This bill is a step in the right direction,” said Ulrich, who has also allocated discretionary funds for a separate graffiti cleanup program in trouble spots within the 32nd District. “Now, this bill lets the city remove graffiti without the waiver requirement, and will greatly increase the efficiency of the Graffiti Free NYC program going forward.”

Crowley, who has joined with Brewer, Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) and Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) as a sponsor of the legislation, said the key now is getting word out about the removal program to local property owners. “In the past getting graffiti removed has been a difficult process hindered by too many obstacles,” said Crowley. “This legislation gets rid of those obstacles and will allow for much of the city’s graffiti to be cleared from our build- ings.”

Since it was launched in 1999, the Graffiti Free NYC program has cleaned graffiti from more than 27,000 sites, and officials hope that number will increase due to the amend- ment. Residents can submit requests for cleanups by calling 311 or online at

The majority of the repainted properties are in Manhattan, and Crowley is hoping to increase the program’s effectiveness in Queens. “So far, the city’s graffiti removal program has been weighted to projects in Manhattan. I look forward to working with community members and building owners in the neighborhoods I represent to take advantage of Graffiti Free NYC,” she said.

Addabbo Seeks Elimination of Runoff Elections

Last Week’s Contest Cost $15 Million; Attracted Just Seven Percent

On the heels of last month’s runoff elections for city comptroller and public advocate, in which just seven percent of registered Democrats cast ballots, State Senator Joseph Addabbo has announced that he will seek to eliminate these costly rematches, which occur when none of the candidates receive at least 40 percent of the vote.

In last week’s runoff election, Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) won the party’s nominee for comptroller, defeating Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky, while Councilman Bill de Blasio defeated Mark Green for the party’s nominee for public advocate. Those results mirrored the results of the September 15 primary, leading critics to wonder if it was worth the $15 million price tag to hold the runoff contest.

With it costing about $72 per vote, Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) announced a new law on Monday that would eliminate the runoff system. “As chairman of the Senate Committee on Elections, I plan to research the process by which runoff elections can be eliminated entirely,” said Addabbo. After researching the means necessary to abolish runoffs, he will draft legislation or seek a city Charter change.

The current runoff system was created after the 1969 mayoral primary in which conservative Democrat Mario Procaccino won with just 32.8 percent of the vote in a five- way race. He eventually lost the general election to incumbent John V. Lindsay, who ran on the Liberal-Fusion line. In response, legislators determined that citywide candidates must receive at least 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff beginning in 1973.

“This is an old and antiquated process that needs to be reexamined,” said Addabbo. “Although it seems impossible that voter turnout could drop below the record low turnout of the September 15 primary of 11 percent, less than roughly eight percent of registered voters voted in the runoff election.”

As chair of the Elections Committee, Addabbo says his goal is to increase voter turnout while making the voting process more accessible and efficient. He also expressed concern for military personnel overseas who are disenfranchised under the current system because there is not enough time for ballots to make their way through the mail and to the Board of Elections in a runoff election.

“Spending $15 million to hold an elec- tion the voters do not wish to participate in is a waste of taxpayer dollars in a time of economic difficulty,” said Addabbo. “That money could have instead been spent more wisely, like on our seniors or school children.”

Newtown Pippin Apple Trees Planted Around Town

The Newtown Historical Society, in conjunction with The Newtown Pippin Project, identified 3 locations at which to plant his- toric Newtown Pippin apple trees, bringing the fruit back to its place of origin. The fruit trees were planted today at Maspeth Federal Savings, the Middle Village 75th Street Block Association’s community garden and at Ridgewood’s Onderdonk House.

The Newtown Pippin variety of apple was named after the western area of Queens, once known as Newtown Township. The original apple tree was located on the Gershom Moore farm along a tributary of Newtown Creek in the 1700s. From it, cuttings were taken and planted in orchards throughout the world. The apples were cultivated by some of our country’s founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

As part of a history and environmental project, the Newtown Pippin Project is offering free Pippin trees for planting throughout the city, with added emphasis on locations in western Queens, where the Pippin once grew and was first discovered by colonial Americans. Thanks to a sponsorship from Green Apple Cleaners, care and guidance from the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, and pioneering local orchard replenishment by Slow Food NYC, a distributed orchard is being created among the city’s open spaces.

The Newtown Historical Society scouted out locations suitable for the trees and volunteers planted them in Maspeth and Middle Village on Monday, October 5th. The planting consists of a Newtown Pippin tree and a pollinator tree. The Onderdonk House received an Elstar apple tree as a pollinator, which is a Dutch variety, planted by the Ridgewood Historical Society. The other two locations received St. Edmund's Russet trees.

“The Newtown Pippin represents an important part of our agricultural history which is often overlooked,” said Christina Wilkinson, President of the Newtown Historical Society. “We hope by bringing a little bit of it back, we can use it as a teaching tool to help people understand the rural past of this area and the once-pristine condition of Newtown Creek.”

Erik Baard, Outreach Coordinator for the Newtown Pippin Project, said, “Let the abundance of these trees, and those to come, remind us of how lush and fertile the Newtown Creek and the surrounding city once were, and inspire our actions.”

"I commend Christina Wilkinson for her leadership in bringing back Maspeth's own Newtown Pippin tree," said Council Member Elizabeth Crowley. "As a member of the Environmental Protection committee, I am working with my colleagues to restore the growth of these beautiful trees through New York City and to declare the Newtown Pippin the official apple of the Big Apple!"

The trees may bear their first fruits by 2011. For the next planting in Spring 2010, Newtown Historical Society will focus on bringing the trees to area schools, houses of worship and cemeteries. For more information about the Newtown Pippin Project, please visit newtown- or

Arrest in Fatal Shooting of 13-Year-Old Bystander

Police have announced an arrest in the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old on Linden Boulevard near a Queens high school.

Nnonso Ekwegbalu, 16, of 183rd Street in Springfield Gardens has been charged with second-degree murder, assault, criminal possession of a weapon and tampering with evidence in connection with the shooting last Friday. He was arraigned on the charges Monday in Queens Criminal Court and ordered held without bail. If convicted, he faces up to 25 years to life in prison and is due back in court on October 19.

Ekwegbalu is accused of shooting his weapon in front of 208-15 Linden Boulevard at about 3:15 p.m. in the direction of three unarmed teens with whom he had just been fighting. The three teens, who are known to the district attorney’s office, were running from the scene with the defendant opened fire. One of the bullets struck innocent bystander Kevin Miller in the head, killing him, and a second bullet struck an employee of a nearby car wash in the left thigh. Authorities say neither Miller nor the second victim were involved in the altercation. Ekwegbalu was arrested the following day by officers from the 105th Precinct.

“This case is another example of the mindless gun-related violence that too often takes innocent lives and recklessly endangers public safety,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. “It is alleged that the 16-year-old defendant had an altercation with some other teenagers and fired a handgun, cutting short the life of an innocent 13-year-old child and injuring a second teenager.”

Both teenagers were students at Humanities and the Arts Magnet High School in Cambria Heights. Surveillance video showed that Miller, who just entered his freshman year, was struck while walking towards a nearby McDonalds restaurant. Ekwegbalu had no prior criminal record.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has pushed for stiffer gun control laws, weighed in on the incident to reporters. “I don’t know when we’re going just as a society finally say enough is enough... I don’t know what we have to do to get people to understand guns shouldn’t be in the hands of children,” he said.

Miller died at Long Island Jewish Medical Center several hours after the shooting. The other victim, a 17-year-old, was treated and released from North Shore Hospital.

The Forum Newsgoup/photo by ROBERT STRIDIRON