Thursday, May 27, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

Rego Park Four-Alarm Fire Under Investigation

Neighborhood Stores Gutted in Blaze

By Conor Greene

The cause of a huge fire in Rego Park that destroyed several small local businesses on Sunday remains under investigation this week, according to FDNY officials.

A dozen firefighters and one police officer suffered minor injuries in the four-alarm fire that broke out near 99th Street and 66th Road just after 8 p.m. All are said to be recovering, but the same can’t be said for several destroyed mom and pop stores.

The scene attracted large crowds of residents, who watched in shock and horror as 168firefighters worked to keep the fire from destroying adjacent buildings including the Tower Diner, which sustained smoke damage. While the building housing the Ohr Natan synagogue was saved, members rushed into the building as firefighters battled nearby flames to save sacred artifacts in case the fire had spread there.

Many residents said this is the largest fire they can recall in the neighborhood since a 1972 blaze near 63rd Drive and Austin Street destroyed several businesses and the local library branch. Michael Perlman of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council, who was among the residents gathered near the scene, said he has “never seen such a potent local fire.” He added that some of the “way over 100 residents” watching the scene were reduced to “tears and shock” watching the businesses burn.

“A number of long-term mom and pop businesses which are dear to the neighborhood, such as the candy/convenience store, Laundromat, barber, fruit store and dress shop, amongst others, were affected on the 99th Street side,” said Perlman. “Thankfully, nobody was killed, and the pets [in the animal clinic] were rescued.”

The cause of the fire remains under investigation as of Tuesday, and is believed to have started in the corner bodega. The majority of the injuries to firefighters occurred when an explosion brought down the ceiling of one of the businesses, which allowed the fire to grow out of control.

Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) said she spoke with fire officials and was told that all the injured firefighters are recovering from minor injuries. She said the synagogue suffered “very, very slight damage to the back” of the building and that the diner seems to only have sustained smoke damage. The animal clinic also only suffered minor damage, and all the animals were rescued, confirmed Koslowitz.

However, four stores in the area of 66th Avenue and 99th Street were “really heavily damaged,” said Koslowitz. “This was the worst that I can really remember, and I’ve been living here a lot of years,” she added. “It wipes out a lot of stores that served the community around here.” She will work with the city’s small business division in hopes of assisting the displaced business owners. “We’re going to get them together and see what we can do, possibly rebuild them and get them back.

“Thank God nobody was [seriously] hurt, but it’s very sad when you see it in your neighborhood,” said Koslowitz. “It is so depressing when you walk by – it still smells like smoke, which is a constant reminder.”

Hamilton Beach: Still Under Water

By Patricia Adams

The residents of Davenport Court in Hamilton Beach have had enough. After more than 20 years of flooding along their street, frustration rises with the dangerous and destructive tides that threaten their safety and continue to destroy their quality of life.

“I used to have a basement,” says Michael Caspare, who lives with his wife and daughter near the end of the street. A quick tour of Caspare’s home leads to a small staircase and what has now been transformed into little more than a crawl space. “I filled it in with six feet of dirt and then poured four inches of concrete over that.” Without the fill, the basement would have kept taking on water—eroding the foundation and inviting a host of complications into the family’s home.

Caspare’s wife, Margarita Bravo stands nearby holding a stack of correspondence that’s been sent to “every city official I could find.” But she says the writing, the meetings, the complaints and the outcries have not resulted in a remedy. She has been fighting — seemingly in vain — for years. Despite the deaf ears she has faced, Bravo continues to be hopeful the damaged duct pipe at the end of the street will be repaired. “It should be draining the water from the street into the adjacent canal,” Bravo explains. “The last time it was fixed was more than ten years ago.”

But on Monday night at a site meeting with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Councilman Eric Ulrich may have brought a little hope to the hearts of Hamilton Beach residents—that is until the tide rises again. The situation is extremely difficult and complicated according to Ulrich. A long term solution would involve reconstruction and repair of a faulty, inadequate drainage system, installation of a proper seawall and bulkheads and elevating and pitching streets affected by constant flooding. Problems arise in the fact that the job that would have to be handled as a collaborative effort between the DEP and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

“The long term solution is obvious,” Ulrich said.” In addition, he notes, there are environmental laws in place that regulate what is permissible construction for the area. But he says, for the people who live with this on almost a daily basis, what is far more crucial is what can be done now.

“I am determined to put a short term solution in place for now. The people who live with this deserve and have every right to demand immediate relief.” To that end, the freshman Councilmember arranged for DEP Deputy Commissioner James Roberts - who directs the city’s Bureau of Water and Sewer Operations - to attend the site meeting.

The man that runs every sewer in New York City listened to the complaints of a group designated to represent the community. One by one they reiterated what they say they have been telling city officials over and over for years.

“We had 18 inches of fill on this street but some of the neighbors decided they didn’t want that so the city came in and took it out,” said Roger Gendron, whose life on Davenport Court for the last two decades has been punctuated by a painful lack of response from the city. “If the check valve was on the pipe at the end of the block like it’s supposed to be, we’d be fine. Pointing to the pipe, Gendron uses his hands to show the diameter of the holes he says contribute to the pipe’s inability to drain water from the street. “This is more than mechanics,” Gendron says. “There are serious issues of toxicity connected to this water.”

The rain and high winds that have plagued much of the city in recent months has caused flooding on many streets in other neighborhoods, but in Hamilton Beach, the floods come year-round, rain or shine. The area’s close proximity to Jamaica Bay causes flooding in the area as often as two weeks out of every month.

Now, at the urging of Councilmember Ulrich, a meeting to address the problems between the DEP and DOT will be scheduled in the upcoming weeks. “The fact that Commissioner Roberts has come to the site himself is encouraging to me and should be to the community,” said Ulrich. “We are going to address this problem and give these people some of what they want. They have to get something to alleviate their problems. And they have to get it now.”

According to Ulrich, Roberts will return to the site — most likely during high tide -as will DEP’s citywide Commissioner Caswell Holloway, to assess the situation further and determine what measures can be put in place readily to combat the flooding problems.

Although Hamilton Beach residents can say they’ve heard that song before — from a string of Ulrich’s predecessors — there seems to be an air of confidence in the young elected official who is trying to put a plug in the situation now. “He’s pushing for us and we have faith in him,” says Margarita Bravo. “People say we should just move out—that we are like prisoners in our own homes. But we’re not going anywhere. And we want it fixed.”

Crime News: Shooting in MV, Burglary in Maspeth

By Conor Greene

Police provided details on several incidents that occurred recently within the confines of the 104th Precinct: a shooting in Middle Village, and a residential burglary in Maspeth.

Daniel Pizzuli, 18, and Daniel Pizzuli, 40, both of 52-30 65th Place in Maspeth, face charges of attempted murder, criminal possession of a weapon, reckless endangerment, assault and menacing following a dispute and shooting on May 23rd in Middle Village.

According to police sources, the pair was arrested after assaulting a 25-year-old man at about 7:35 that evening near the corner of 79th Street and 68th Avenue. The victim was first hit with a bat and then shot in the hand, police said. Both of the suspects were charged in the incident, but the Queens District Attorney’s Office didn’t have any additional details.

Police also reported that a home near 60th Street and 59th Drive in Maspeth was broken into on the night of May 20 while the family was home and asleep. Police say the suspects entered the home through a window, likely after cutting out the screen. They took a wallet and credit cards before fleeing the scene in the family’s vehicle after locating the car keys.

The investigation is ongoing, with no arrests made yet.

Remembering Middle Village Community Activist Robert Doocey

Middle Village resident Robert Doocey, who was active in many local causes around his neighborhood, died on Sunday morning surrounded by his family at Calvary Hospital.

Doocey, who was a longtime member of the Juniper Park Civic Association, was honored on the organization’s Website by neighbor Lorraine Sciulli. “His passing is a great loss for his family, friends and our community… Bob Doocey was a neighborhood activist in the true sense of the description,” wrote Sciulli. “There wasn’t a topic you could mention where Bob Doocey didn’t have an opinion.”

Robert was bon on Jan. 20, 1940 in New York City, the third of eight children of the late Frank and Margaret Doocey of Jamaica Estates. In 1955 the family moved to Allentown, Pa. Robert graduated from Central Catholic High School and attended Georgetown University for one year. In 1961 he joined the Army and was honorably discharged after four years of service.

Robert married Zenaida Rellosa on Dec. 30, 1967. Their children are Terence Edward Doocey of Alaska and Timothy Edward Doocey of New York. After an annulment, Robert married Linda Koh on Aug. 8, 1980 at Our Lady of Hope Church in Middle Village. Their children are Thomas Edward Doocey and Theresa Elizabeth Doocey, both of Middle Village.

In the 1960s, Robert launched a career in the then new field of computer programming. He spent over four decades in that industry, and was a gifted problem solver and a dedicated and valued member of his technology teams. As a pioneer in a constantly-changing industry, Robert was interested in both continually learning and teaching his trade. He taught computer programming classes at several universities and colleges.

After retiring in September 2001, Robert found a new passion with his deep involvement with the JPCA. He was a member of the group’s executive board and assistant editor and columnist of the Juniper Berry magazine. He often spoke proudly of his work with the Juniper Juniors, a neighborhood youth organization focused on graffiti removal, planting flowers in local parks, community cleanups and other projects including It’s My Park Day.

Unwavering in his principals of honesty, friendship, loyalty and forgiveness, Robert earned a reputation as a man able to stand his ground, especially in the face of controversy. He patented his own brand of loyalty and bestowed upon his children the gift of cultivating lifelong friendships. He always meant what he said, and while he set an example to those in his public life as both a professional and gentleman, he taught his family the simple and priceless lesson of saying “I love you” every chance he had.

Robert donated his remains to the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons for the advancement of medical science.

“Rest in peace, Bob Doocey, you made your mark on our world and while you left us far too soon, we will always remember you for your kind, giving, generous personality, and let’s not forget your very funny dry sense of humor, understanding you always had the best interests of the other guy at the top of your priority list,” wrote Sciulli.

Robert’s family will be holding a memorial mass at Resurrection Ascension Roman Catholic Church, 85-25 61st Road, Rego Park, on Saturday at 9:45 a.m.

Queens Library Rally Rocks City Hall

Faced with the prospect of closing 14 local branches, reducing hours at an additional 34 locations and laying off as many as 400 employees, Queens Library officials and City Council members rallied Tuesday outside City Hall to draw attention to the drastic budget cuts the system is facing.

The proposed city budget currently includes about $17 million in budget cuts for Queens Library, which boasts the highest circulation of any library in the nation. As a result, more than 300 employees have already received notices that their jobs might be eliminated in August, and additional cuts are possible, depending on the outcome of the overdue state budget.

In an effort to inform the public of the impending cuts, and to convince Council members to work to help restore funding, more than 400 Queens Library supporters, trustees, union members, residents and City Council members rallied on the steps of City Hall this week. The mayor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 would reduce funding to Queens Library by $16.9 million, on top of cuts sustained this past year.

In all, a total of $28.3 million in funding has been cut from Queens Library’s budget since 2008, when funding was provided to keep all libraries open on Saturdays. During this past year, funding cuts caused the closure of all community libraries on Sundays, and the library’s workforce has been reduced by 160 jobs through attrition. The proposed 2011 funding levels would be the lowest on record.

“Demand for library services continues to grow and grow,” said Queens Library CEO Thomas Galante at Tuesday’s rally. “It is an indication of how much people in Queens rely on Queens Library to be their lifeline to information, education, literacy, jobs and job readiness. We will continue to fight to save service and save jobs for the 50,000 people who use our libraries every day.”

City Council members in attendance included Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who chairs the Cultural Affairs and Libraries Committee, Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Dan Halloran (R-Bayside), Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), Julissa Ferreras (East Elmhurst), Peter Koo (R-Flushing) and others.

“Libraries are an essential part of our communities,” said Van Bramer. “These educational havens provide vital resources during such pressing times – now more than ever New Yorkers need libraries.”

As a result of the proposed cuts, some 412 employees would be laid-off early in fiscal year 2011. Fourteen branches would close completely, and 34 would be closed four of five days a week. That would mean just twelve branches would be open five days a week, one would be open six days a week, and one branch would be open seven days a week. It would also result in deep reductions in books purchased, programs, building maintenance, furniture and needed equipment.

Deadline Approaches to Enroll in Metro Ave HS

With the city Department of Education’s deadline approaching for parents and students to file appeals regarding school assignment, several local officials are urging locals to consider enrolling in the Queens Metropolitan High School this fall.

The deadline for the DOE’s appeals round is the close of business on Tuesday, June 1. In the meantime, Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi and school Principal Marci Levy Maguire are encouraging students who live within the school’s zoning boundary to apply to attend there in September. Students who wish to be considered for the Queens Metropolitan HS must file an appeal through their middle school guidance counselor, with give to families that live within the zone.

The Queens Metropolitan High School will open this September with 350 9th grade students. In a victory for students and parents, both Koslowitz and Andrew Hevesi fought to make sure the Queens Metropolitan High School would be a locally zoned school. In 2010 the school will first accept students in the designated zone, followed by students who reside in District 28 and 24. After both zones, the school will be open to all Queens and New York City residents.

“The Queens Metropolitan High School will be one of New York City’s finest public schools. Yet, in order to make the local zoning agreement a reality, we need local students and parents from the zone to participate in the appeals round exercises by making the Queens Metropolitan High School their choice,” said Council Member Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills)

"We fought very hard to ensure that the residents of our neighborhoods would be able to send their children to this new local school. It is now crucial for parents to take advantage of this opportunity and fill out an application to have their child considered for placement at the Metro School," said Hevesi (D-Forest Hills).

Study: FDNY Saves $3.1B in Property Annually

A study conducted by the FDNY and Columbia University, released this week at a press conference in front of City Hall, shows that local firehouses save $3.1 billion worth of property each year.

“This study shows that the FDNY is the best deal going when it comes to getting bang for your buck,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who chairs the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee. “As the city negotiates the budget, New Yorkers are getting a two-to-one return on their investment in the fire department.”

The study, completed in 2009 by Columbia University graduate students of the School of International and Public Affairs in close cooperation with high-ranking chiefs of the Fire Department, is intended to show how much money taxpayers will lose by closing even one of the 20 jeopardized fire companies, as proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to balance the city budget. It calculates that the FDNY saves at least $3.1billion in property damage alone, operating on a budget of $1.5 billion.

Crowley notes that the amount saved, divided among the 198 engine companies citywide, shows that each company is responsible for roughly $15.6 million in property saved each year. “If we close even one company, who will pick up the slack for the $15.6 million in property damage?” questioned Crowley. “If we close 20 fire companies, can we afford the $313 million in property damage? The message is clear: we simply cannot afford to reduce our already overstretched fire protection because fires don’t care about budgets.”

Crowley was joined on Wednesday’s press conference by Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), who chairs the Public Safety Committee, Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy and Uniformed Fire Officer Association President Alexander Hagan.

“This study clearly illustrates that in addition to New York City Firefighters most important job, saving lives,” said Cassidy. “Firefighters save the taxpayers over $3 billion in property damage annually with our ability to quickly respond to and extinguish fires."

"It is precisely in these tough times that our City needs to show what our priorities are,” said de Blasio. “The number one responsibility of government is to keep the public safe - period. The current economic environment obliges us to make tough decisions, but that should mean making sacrifices to preserve public safety, instead of jeopardizing it."

Coming to a Polling Place Near You: Electronic Ballot Marking Devices

By Patricia Adams

Voters at polling sites in NYC are slated to be introduced to the “new kid on the voting block”, the Electronic Ballot Marking Device, as early as this year’s September 14th primary election. But State Senator Joe Addabbo, Chair of the Senates Standing Committee on Elections, says he intends to petition the judge with a request to hold off replacing the machines until next year.

If the Board of Elections (BoE) funding is cut at the city level, federal money will run out, according to Addabbo, and there will not be enough funding to train BoE workers or to educate voters on the use of the new machines. “Next year is the perfect year for this,” Sen. Addabbo said. “It’s an off-year with no major elections. It’s already years late,” he contends. “I don’t see the world spinning off its axis if we do this next year.”

According to the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, a program was put in place to provide funds to states to replace punch card voting systems. According to Addabbo, the situation is further complicated by several factors including the fact that because states used HAVA funding, they were mandated to comply with regulations and forced to decide on machines they are now unhappy with.

Changing the machines during a popular election will cause mayhem at the polls according to Sen. Addabbo. “The mayor is proposing huge cuts to the Board of Elections. Training for the introduction to this system on the board end and to the voters could be upwards of thirty million dollars. The money is just not there.” And he maintains that voters need very little to be discouraged. “If you don’t want someone to vote, just give them a little reason to be frustrated—they’ll stay at home,” said Addabbo.

But in the eyes of another elected official, the arrival of the machines has been delayed for far too long. “There is no reason to delay,” says Councilman Eric Ulrich, a former employee of the BoE. “There are huge benefits to this machine,” he says, “People do not have faith in the system. That’s obvious by the decline of voter turnout.” Ulrich and other supporters of the immediate change say that infusing the new technology will encourage a younger set of voters whom statistics show are not voting.

Supporters of the machines say there are a number of highly advantageous components including instant reporting, allowing the results of an election to be known much sooner. On a more practical basis, the new machines offer voters the opportunity to correct any mistakes they may have made on their ballot and the machines also create a paper trail to verify the voter’s intent.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

State Delays Reservoir Redevelopment

Parks Explains Need to Cut Down 65 Trees for Phase One

By Conor Greene

While the city Parks Department is prepared to move forward with its phase one redevelopment of Ridgewood Reservoir, it appears that the second phase - which will determine the future use of the property - is on hold as the state decides whether the land should be designated a wetland.

As has been reported, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is currently investigating whether to classify the property on the Queens-Brooklyn border, which contains three basins, as wetlands. Doing so would complicate the Parks Department’s proposed plans for the site, which range from keeping it entirely natural to building ball fields in one of the basins.

“The determination to regulate an area is based on its characteristics and functions as a wetland,” wrote DEC spokesman Thomas Panzone. “In the years since the reservoir was decommissioned, the basins, or part of the basins, have developed some wetland characteristics such as seasonally or permanently wet areas and wetland-dependant vegetation.”

Panzone added that the agency’s investigation comes as a result of a request to map the reservoir as a wetland. That request was made by the public through local elected officials, according to activists that have been lobbying for the site to be kept in its natural state.

Those activists, including David Quintana of Ozone Park, were surprised to learn this week that Parks plans to cut down 65 trees as part of phase one. That aspect of the project, estimated at $7.6 million, includes new lighting and fencing along the perimeter of the basins and better handicap accessibility.

Parks says that, of the 65 trees, nine are dead and the remaining 56 are invasive species, have weak root systems or are compromising existing infrastructure. Three are being removed to create the ADA path. A parks spokeswoman added that “all of our plans for phase one were approved by all the appropriate agencies, and we will continue working with them as we move forward to develop this site.”

Quintana and others who attended a recent Queens Civic Congress meeting on parks say they were also surprised by comments made by borough Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski regarding the potential wetlands designation. According to several in attendance, she suggested the site might not qualify for wetland designation because the basins are not large enough individually, and would have to be connected to meet the size standards.

The DEC said that while wetland designation is normally based on size, “under certain circumstances other factors can be considered.”

There was also talk the DEC might instead classify the site a dam, which could require stripping the basins of vegetation, according to several attendees. The DEC noted that, while the Ridgewood Reservoir system contains a dam, it “can be managed in a number of reasonable ways.” Panzone added, “DEC is not aware of any proposal for stripping the basins and has not issued any such order.”

When asked about Lewandowski’s comments that the DEC is looking at it as a dam, the Parks spokeswoman responded, “That is not what the commissioner said and there is no discussion or plans of stripping the basins. As mentioned in the [prior] statement, the conditions on the site are being reviewed.”

Parks had been set to present three options for phase two to local community boards earlier this year, but that was delayed by the possible DEC intervention and wetland classification. Those pushing for the site to remain natural say they are hopeful the state’s involvement will prevent the city from building ball fields on the property.

“I think DEC is going to stall them, and that should be a long process,” said Quintana.

Steven Fiedler, who attended the meeting as a member of the Juniper Park Civic Association, said there is another complicating factor aside from the potential wetland investigation. He says there are two 46-inch pipes on Seneca Avenue and Vermont Place that the DEC wants sealed before any phase two work moves forward.

“That’s a huge undertaking that sets phase two back,” said Fiedler, who also chairs Community Board 5’s Parks Committee. “In my opinion, you are not going to see it for five years.”

Gary Giordano, district manager of CB 5, echoed the sentiment that state involvement is a good thing. “Whatever the technicalities of classification are, speaking for myself, and I think for some board members too, I’m hopeful that with the state DEC being involved, there is more of a likelihood that the reservoir basins will remain in very much a natural state,” he said.

Giordano added that he doesn’t expect to see any phase two plans in the near future. “I don’t think they are going to show anything, even to the community boards, until [the DEC investigation is complete] because one of the options may be an issue with DEC if it is to put ball fields in one of the basins,” he said. “I would think that certainly would be an issue with DEC. Sometimes more is less, and I don’t think anyone on our board wants to see those ball fields in the basins.”

A number of elected officials have thrown their support behind keeping the site dedicated for passive recreation, including Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven).

“It’s a positive thing to keep the basin as wetlands,” he said in a statement. “My colleagues and I are doing our part to prevent development of the reservoir. Here in Queens, unpaved and undeveloped land is becoming increasingly hard to find, which is why it is important to protect these beautiful areas we still have left.

A Change of Tide for Broad Channel

BP Marshall Provides Funds for Flood Relief

By Patricia Adams

Long frustrated by constant and dangerous flooding to their area, Broad Channel residents got some good news from Borough President Helen Marshall on Monday afternoon. State Senator Shirley Huntley and Assembly member Audrey Pheffer joined Marshall for her announcement.

“Last month at a meeting held at my office, many of you came with your spouses and your children…to discuss a problem that has plagued your community for decades,” Marshall said. The boro president went on to speak of eyewitness accounts about fire trucks and ambulances that were unable to reach residents in need of emergency services due to flooding conditions. Families had reported to Marshall that they were stricken with fear of electrocution and falling wires every time the tide rose.

A NY1 video showed dramatic images during a recent flood clearly demonstrating that residents were unable to park their cars on the street without risking hundreds of dollars in damages. The city project that addresses the problem was moved to begin in 2015.

Referring back to the prior meeting with residents at her office, Marshall continued, “I promised you on the day that you came to my office that I would not allow that to happen,” referring to the 2015 project start. “I am here today to announce that the project…has now been moved to the city’s budget for the fiscal year beginning in July.”

The $24 million area-wide project that Marshall spoke of will begin on West 12th Road and will also include additional streets that will be incorporated in order of the severity of needs. The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will both be at the seat of the project.

Work is scheduled to commence with the DOT conferring with the CB 14, elected officials and the community at large to ensure the project is fully scoped and completed in a timely fashion. Officials say the design of the project will begin in July and construction will start at the beginning of next summer.

Marshall further offered her pledge to meet with everyone that has a stake in the project to kick-off the working sessions and to keep the project on track. “I came here to announce that your voices have been heard and the tide has turned.” "The plan is to do the design over the next year and to begin construction a year from July. But I don't know how long that construction will take," said Queens Department of Transportation Commissioner Maura McCarthy.

Lifelong Broad Channel resident and community activist Ed O’Hare says that he remembers the problems with 12th Road as a child. “It was always bad on 12th Road. Now a lot of other streets that used to be ok are flooding,” said O’Hare.

The reason for the more recent flooding he says is due to the installation of storm sewers in the community that cause a back up because there is no check valve system in place. “We are all so used to the flooding and the problems and danger it brings. I hope the new plan will fix the problem but for now we remain at the mercy of the tide.”

City: Decision to Close Playschools is Final

Addabbo, Parents, Still Pushing for Answers

By Conor Greene

Worried that time is running out as the summer quickly approaches, a group of parents and young students showed up at last week’s community board meeting to seek help in their fight to keep city run playschools, including Dry Harbor in Glendale, open.

However, while the parents said they were relieved to hear that the Parks Department, which runs the playschools, has finally agreed to meet with state Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) about possible solutions, a Parks spokeswoman said Wednesday that the decision has been finalized.

“These five Parks programs in Queens, serving a total of approximately 75 children, are permanently discontinued and will not be reopened,” said the spokeswoman. “The services are duplicated by other facilities in the same area, and parents affected by the measure have the option of enrolling their children at these public and private high-quality centers.” She didn’t say how much will be saved.

Last week Community Board 5 member Brian Dooley, who is also president of the Glendale Property Owners Association, asked his fellow residents to join the effort to save the program, which provides an educational program for children ages three and four in a building at the Dry Harbor Playground, and other locations across the city.

“We all need to group together as a community to try to keep this school open,” said Dooley, who attended the program as youngster. “It was a great place to go when I was a kid, and it’s still a great place to go. It’s hitting us at a hard time.”

After Dooley spoke, several parents – joined by several dozen children who attend the program – stressed that the program is invaluable.

“It’s a wonderful program and it’s an important program,” said Charles Suffel, who has been leading the charge to gain the support of elected officials and convince Parks to reverse course. “This is about education, about kids having a place to go that’s safe, clean and progressive.”

Suffel said the parents have tried to work with Parks officials, to no avail. “We’re trying to find a middle ground with Parks,” he told the audience at last week’s CB 5 meeting. “We’ve asked for options, but we’ve gotten none. We don’t want to be the crazy people on the steps [of City Hall], but what more can we do? They won’t talk to us about how to keep it open.”

Tara Norvez has had six children attend the school, which costs $1,300 for a four-day week and is slated to close this summer, but fears her youngest child won’t have that same chance. “I really feel like the middle class in this city is really getting squeezed out,” she said. “This program has been doing more with less for 30 years... This is an academic program that surpasses Universal Pre-K in many areas” and costs roughly half as much as private programs, she added.

One of the Norvez children to graduate, Aiden, spoke about the impact it had on him nine years ago. “One of the things [our teacher] taught us is that we have to stand up when we see something wrong,” he said. “We know closing Dry Harbor is wrong. It would be a real shame if next year’s kids were deprived of this opportunity.”

Addabbo said Wednesday that his initial meeting with Parks has been postponed, but he plans to continue the fight to keep the school open at Dry Harbor in some form, despite Parks’ latest statement on the decision.

“It is still my intention to have a meeting just to go over what the options are for the parents, possibly under a different structure if we’ve exhausted all the possibilities for Dry Harbor Playschool as we know it,” he said. “I’m working on this meeting so parents are afforded the opportunity to know what their options are for the preschool as it exists now or in the future under a different form.”

Fire Company Cuts on Hold Pending State Budget

By Conor Greene

Residents will have to wait a little longer to find out if fire companies in their neighborhood will be forced to close as part of the city’s effort to close its budget gap.

Mayor Bloomberg has proposed closing 20 companies across the five boroughs in order to save $5.6 million to help reduce the $1.5 billion budget gap in the upcoming city budget. The closures were set to coincide with start of the new fiscal year on July 1. Since the law requires 45 days notice before any closures, the mayor was set to release the list of companies on the chopping block this past Monday.

However, he instead announced that he is waiting until the state completes its budget, which is already seven weeks late. “We don’t have a budget yet, and until then, there’s no reason to do anything,” he said. “There is a requirement of 45 days notice before you close a company or firehouse and we will comply with the last.”

Mayor Bloomberg is hopeful that the financial situation will improve over the coming weeks, reducing the need for budget cuts. “I’d like to have another five or six weeks of tax revenues information, see how tax revenues are coming in,” he said. Still, he warned that some drastic cuts are inevitable. “The economy is doing somewhat better, but nobody thinks it’s going better fast enough to bail us out. We’re going to have to make some serious cuts.”

Last year, the mayor proposed closing 16 fire companies, but the cuts were avoided when City Council members used discretionary funds to restore the funding. Over the past few months, local officials led by Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) - who chairs the Fire and Public Safety Committee – have rallied against the cuts at fire companies believed to be on the chopping block, including Engine 271on Himrod Street and Engine 294 in Richmond Hill.

Following the mayor’s postponement on Monday, Crowley expressed hope that the cuts will be avoided again this year. “We cannot relax until our fire protection is secured. Our city’s taxpayers have spoken and they want our fire companies to remain open,” the councilwoman said. “We need to keep up the pressure and continue to let Mayor Bloomberg know that we have no room to compromise our safety.”

The mayor said the decisions will be based on the budgets crafted in City Hall and Albany. “We have to come and negotiate a budget with the City Council, which we will do. I’m confident that we will have an on time budget, and based on what that allows us to do, we will do and comply with the laws we have to comply with in order to do that.”

Queens Put to the Taste Test

By Patricia Adams

For a change there were no disappointed Mets fans at Citi Field this Tuesday night. In the absence of the home team, the Queens Economic Development Corp. hosted their annual fundraiser, “Queens…A Taste of the World.”

About a thousand “tasters” paid $100 per head to attend the event held at the Caesar Club in the stadium. “It’s just a great event to bring a friend or client to, great food, lots of choices, great conversation topics and you get to walk around and interact with the crowd,” said Deborah Trebel who has been coming to the taste for the last six years. Indeed, since its inception eight years ago, it has fast become one of the most anticipated sampling events in the city.

More than 40 restaurants and fine eateries served up generous portions of foods as diverse as the borough itself. There was something for every imaginable palette in the three hour eating extravaganza.

Lovers of German food were delighted with mini potato dumplings, Sauerbraten and Schnitzel from Zum Stammtisch of Glendale, while seafood lovers were rewarded with multiple helpings of shrimp, crab claws, oysters and clams from the raw bar at London Lennie’s. Crowds stood on line to sample the Miniature Pork Osso Bucco, lauded by the Food Network’s Dave Lieberman, and baked striped bass from Howard Beach caterers and restaurateurs Russo’s on the Bay and Vetro.

For lovers of the more exotic there was cerviche, Thai spring rolls and dumplings, and chicken Poblano with mole sauce. Sweet lovers were treated to a variety of confections including cakes, cookies, cupcakes, pastries and hand-dipped chocolates. And for the beverage connoisseur there were both original non-alcoholic and alcoholic choices for sampling.

Borough President Helen Marshall was on hand to commend QEDC on the tremendous success of the event and to introduce the panel of Taste Masters including celebrity chef Dave Lieberman of the Food Network and Anahad O’Conor, New York Times Reporter and cookbook author.

Among the awards handed down for the evening were the iconic Restaurant Awards set up to honor restaurants still in business after 50 years. Well known seafood restaurant, London Lennies of Rego Park and Mama’s of Corona both celebrated their 50 year mark in the business and received Golden Plate Awards.

Cracking Down on Bicycle Thefts

70,000 Bikes Stolen Annually in NYC

By Conor Greene

With an average of 70,000 bikes stolen each year in New York City – or 191 each day –Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi is pushing legislation that would allow for felony charges in cases of multiple thefts by one person.

Currently, most bike thefts are classified as misdemeanors, even if the perpetrator is caught with multiple bikes. That’s because the thefts only rise to felony level if the person has taken multiple bikes from one person, which happens much less frequently.

To help combat bike thefts, Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) is pushing three pieces of legislation through the state Assembly. The first would make it a class E felony to possess four or more stolen bikes at once, even if they were taken from four different victims. Under existing law, the suspect would only be charged with multiple misdemeanor charges.

The second bill would require the Consumer Protection Board to develop an educational Website about bike theft prevention that offers suggestions on how to avoid becoming a victim. The third would require bike retailers across the state to post information informing consumers about the Website.

The three bills are currently working their way through Assembly and Senate committees. The idea is to crack down on bike theft while encouraging consumers to be more aware of the problem, as it has become an organized and profitable crime that is much harder to crackdown on than car theft, according to Hevesi.

“This legislation provides a necessary prosecutorial tool to crack down on bicycle theft. Under current law, the only way for possession of multiple stolen bicycles to be prosecuted with a charge above a misdemeanor is for the prosecution to prove that the aggregate value of the bicycles is more than $1000,” said Hevesi

Trashing the Sanitation Department

The Department of Sanitation (DSNY), says an article in a community newspaper in Brooklyn has sparked a rash of calls after it printed an article headlined “Sanitation Reduces Street Trash Collection.”

The article concerns the discontinuation of service dedicated solely to picking up public trash from corner baskets. But DSNY spokesman Matthew Lipani says all the article did was to alarm people about a measure that has been in effect since last year.

“The Department absorbed an $80 million budget cut last year. At that time, we had to stop dedicated pick-ups for corner baskets,” Lipani said, explaining that the choice was between cutting back on basket pick-ups or household pickups. Dedicated trucks for pick-ups at the corner baskets ended on July 1, 2009. The trash in these receptacles is now collected by household refuse trucks, but with much less frequency.

Lipani says cuts to the dedicated service were well established at public hearings. “It’s not something that was ever hidden,” he said. As a result of the cuts last year, the number of pick ups at the public trash receptacles has been reduced from as many as 20 times a week to just once or twice.

“The problem with the pails,” said one Woodhaven store owner, “is that they are used by businesses and residents who overload the pails leaving them to spill out onto the street.” President of the Greater Woodhaven Development Corp., Maria Thomsen says there is no problem with overflowing trash in her community thanks to the BID.

And elsewhere in Ozone Park, a basket near the office of Councilman Eric Ulrich was called into 311 and resulted in summonses being issued to five people who illegally dumped trash found in the basket at the corner of 93rd Street and 101st Avenue.

There are 25,000 corner litter baskets citywide in total, out of those, 4,040 are in Queens.

Lola's Back Home!

A happy ending to the story of a young woman and her 5-month-old French bulldog who went missing almost two weeks ago. Lola was returned to her owner last Thursday, after a woman called to say she had the dog and wanted to bring her back.

Lola escaped from the house through the front door and was taken to a pet store in Forest Hills, Metro Puppy. An employee at the store took in the dog and gave her away for adoption without taking any identification.

Lilliana Intrabartolo, Lola’s owner, says that although she was angry over the fact that someone gave her dog away initially, she was just relieved to have Lola home. “I couldn’t deal with it at all,” said Intrabartolo. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.”

Now she says she just want to put everything behind her for right now and concentrate on getting Lola through extensive eye surgery to remove a hair cell in her eye threatening her sight. “It feels like a thousand pound weight was lifted off my shoulders. I just couldn’t be happier.” Lilliana said the woman who returned Lola was given a $500 reward.

Animal activist and founder of Four Paws Sake, Phyllis Taiano says she’s very glad about Lola’s return but says she will continue investigating the improprieties of the situation concerning Lola’s being given up for “adoption” at Metro Puppy. “We can’t allow irresponsible behavior. Lilliana is very lucky to have gotten Lola back, but there are a lot of pet owners who would not be so lucky. It is for the sake of those animals that we must adhere to tight control.”

Thursday, May 13, 2010

This Week's Forum South and West

Tentative Deal Saves Kew Gardens Post Office

By Conor Greene

Residents in Kew Gardens are relieved to hear a tentative deal has been struck to keep the neighborhood post office branch open, but they won’t be comfortable until details of the new lease agreement are officially announced.

“We’ve been concerned for the last four years, ever since we discovered the property didn’t belong to the government, and the developer who bought the property intended to put up an apartment house,” said Murray Berger of the Kew Gardens Civic Association.

In 2006, the property owner and United States Postal Service agreed on a five-year lease that included three guaranteed years and an option to extend the lease an additional two years to 2011. But, after hearing the option was picked up, residents didn’t hear any additional updates on the situation in the past few years.

Last week, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) announced that a tentative deal had been reached that will allow the post office to remain open. “This is a huge victory for Kew Gardens. No community should be forced to live without such a vital service, and I’m pleased that everyone involved in the process understood that,” he said.

However, the congressman’s statement only said that “both the USPS and building owner appear to have come to an agreement that will save the post office.” His office did not respond to a message seeking additional details on this agreement, including how many years the new lease covers.

Weiner and Senator Charles Schumer wrote letters to the Postmaster General in March 2009 asking that postal officials ensure that the Kew Gardens branch, located at 83-30 Austin Street, would stay open. The USPS has not included Kew Gardens on recent lists of branches being considered for closure as part of the agency’s cost-cutting measures.

On Tuesday, Berger said the civic association has only heard that a verbal agreement had been reached on a new lease, but hadn’t learned of the specific details. “We’re trying to be flexible, but there is no other place in the neighborhood for a post office,” he said, adding that it has been “part of the infrastructure of Kew Gardens” for 60 years.

One complicating factor is that the USPS has been paying $167,000 annually to property owner Tulip Management to lease the building, which is the highest rate paid among area post office branches. While the property was downzoned in 2005, residents still worry the owner will seek a variance allowing an apartment building to be constructed on the site, said Berger.

Losing the post office would be detrimental to the community, which includes many senior citizens and many foreign-born residents who need access to passport services. Residents would be forced to trek to Main Street in Briarwood or Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills for postal services, likely leading to longer lines in those neighboring branches. “None are within easy ambling distance for the young and old,” said Berger.

“We’re waiting to hear what the details are,” said Berger, who serves as the civic association’s executive director. “Having lived 86 years, I’m an optimist so I have to assume it will go through, but I would feel a lot better if I knew it was signed... As I’ve been saying, other communities have ‘Save our firehouses’ and we have ‘Save our post office.’”

Challenger to Hevesi Quits Assembly Race

By Conor Greene

Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi’s bid for re-election got much easier last week with the announcement that one of his Democratic challengers has abruptly ended her campaign.

Lilianna Zulunova, a 27-year-old adjunct professor at LaGuardia Community College, said in a statement that she is prematurely ending her bid to unseat Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) in the 28th Assembly district due to her May 3 marriage.

When announcing her campaign earlier this year, Zulunova touted prior experience running city Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley’s volunteer effort, working on former Senator John Sabini’s re-election campaigns and running Albert Cohen’s City Council bid last year. A native of Uzbekistan whose family emigrated when she was nine years old, Zulunova had made garnering support from central Queen's large Bukharian Jewish community a main focus of her campaign.

“As some of you know, on May 3 I got married to Rabbi Emanuel Yelizarov. This is an exciting time for my family and me,” said Zulunova in a statement released last Thursday. “It’s with this in mind that I have decided to put my family first and end my campaign. My obligations as a wife, and eventually as a mother, give me certainty that this is the right decision for me at this time.

When she announced her intentions to run for the Assembly earlier this year, Zulunova was critical of Hevesi due to his family’s political connections. “My opponent has had everything handed to him on a silver platter,” she wrote in a February e-mail to supporters. “He’s never had to work for anything in his life. Well, he’s going to have to work this summer.”

She added, “While my opponent has rubbed elbows with Albany elites and padded his campaign coffers with pension fund monies, I helped seniors get tax exemptions. I helped families stay in their homes and helped immigrants get the services they need to succeed as Americans.”

Zulunova vowed to stay involved in local issues moving forward, despite abandoning her campaign. “I still have a passion for public service. I still yearn to serve my neighbors and my community. And I will devote my time to giving back to Queens and the neighborhoods that have given me so much,” she said.

Hevesi was first elected through a special election in 2005 after former Assemblyman Michael Cohen resigned from office. Since then, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has launched an investigation into corruption involving the state pension fund during the time Andrew's father, Alan Hevesi, was state Comptroller. Former Liberal Party chairman Raymond Harding has admitted to ensuring that the Assembly seat became vacant in exchange for $800,000 in illegal payments.

Andrew Hevesi, who Cuomo has said was unaware of the political maneuvering that took place on his behalf, will still have at least one Democratic challenger to contend with. Joe Fox, an attorney who has lived in Forest Hills for 30 years, announced his intention to run last month.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

Outrage Over City’s Decision to Cut Dry Harbor Playschool

By Conor Greene

Parents are upset about the city Parks Department’s sudden decision to eliminate its five playschool programs in Queens with little warning, including one based in Dry Harbor Playground for nearly four decades.

According to Charles Suffel, whose daughter attends the Glendale-based pre-kindergarten program, the city did not provide any advance notice that the program is in its last year. He only found out by making numerous phone calls to the department after becoming concerned when no registration date was set for next year’s enrollment.

While the city is blaming budget cuts, Suffel isn’t convinced that is the main reason behind the decision, considering parents pay $1,300 for their child to attend the program four days a week, and have offered to pay more if needed. “It’s a wonderful program that is academic-based, and the kids love it,” he told The Forum. “I called Parks, got bounced around, and finally got an unnamed person who tells me the program is cancelled.”

Suffel, whose daughter was to attend the school next year as a four-year-old, says it was only through that phone call that parents and teacher Roberta Maureau found out the program is slated to be cut after June. After contacting Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) and state Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), Suffel is convinced that the true reason behind the deci- sion is that Parks wants out of the education business.

“We looked into having another department take it over, but nobody wants to touch it, and now they’re stalling Elizabeth Crowley” said Suffel. “I really feel that they know if they wait long enough, we’ll have to enroll our children elsewhere.” Despite offers to pay up to $2,000 per student, Parks hasn’t even agreed to sit down with the officials and parents to try to reach an agreement to keep the valued neighborhood program open.

It is the lack of information, and Parks’ refusal to discuss the matter, that has parents upset, added Suffel. “We weren’t notified about any of this and ended up scrambling to get on the waiting list” for the universal pre-kindergarten program. “We’re not getting any information back, and the elected officials aren’t getting any calls back. It’s on purpose, because if they told us we would have had time to fight it.”

In a statement, Parks pinned the decision solely on the need for budget cuts. “Because of the financial crisis, every agency has to make budget cuts, and one of the steps Parks has put into place is the closing of programs where equal or better options are available... With the rise of universal preschool, we felt this phase out is a responsible and necessary cost-savings measure for New Yorkers as we all try to do more with less.”

The five playschools in Queens, which offer morning and evening two-hour sessions for three-and-four-year-olds, are attended by 75 children, according to Parks. The five full- time playschool staff members will be reassigned to Parks recreation centers. The department didn’t respond to claims that the decision isn’t financially driven or say how much will be saved by eliminating the five playschools.

Crowley has been on the phone with Parks officials on a nearly daily basis since word spread of the decision, trying to come up with ways to keep the program open, according to her spokeswoman. An effort to find a new provider, such as the Greater Ridgewood Youth Center, ultimately proved unsuccessful due to too many hurdles.

Parks wouldn’t consider turning the program into a parent’s co-op, so Crowley is pushing to keep the program open for at least one more year. “We need to find an alternative agency to take over the operation of the school, and I will continue to do everything I can to keep this school open for our kids,” said Crowley in a statement.

Addabbo said he is also still fighting to keep the program running, but realizes the parents need to know one way or the other soon. “I’m working on keeping those parents with a viable option for their children,” said Addabbo. “We’re trying to arrange a meeting, so the door isn’t shut yet, but it’s closing quickly because parents have to make other arrangements for their children, and we don’t want these parents shut out.”

According to Suffel, the community is in danger of losing one of the programs that makes the neighborhood a great place for families. “It’s a real shame. A middle class, well-kept neighborhood is losing a program, and we’re willing to pay for it” he said, adding that the program is great because of Maureau. “She is a great teacher... I felt horrible because I had to tell her the program was cancelled – they never notified her.”

Addabbo agrees that the program is clearly of value to the neighborhood. “Parents have told me how well it’s run and the service it provides to the working parents of the area,” he said. “Preschools are certainly needed throughout our communities, and the thought of closing any is of concern to me.”

No matter what Parks says, Suffel isn’t buying Parks’ claims that the decision is strictly financial. “It’s not a budget situation, and if it was, offer us the chance to make up the shortfall, and don’t change the story every time. We’ve requested meetings with Commissioner [Adrian] Benepe but don’t get anything. They just don’t want to hear it.”

Ridgewood Church Listed for Sale

By Conor Greene

The 103-year-old United Presbyterian Church of Ridgewood was recently placed on the market, leaving preservationists and residents are concerned about its future.

Adjacent properties at 62-54 and 62-56 60th Place is currently listed with Massey Knakal for $1.8 million. According to the company, the combined properties include a 12,868-square foot church building and a two-story single-family home. The site has about 127 feet of frontage on 60th Place and “could be utilized ei- ther as part of the community facility or re-developed as a residential rental or condo/co-op project.”

The two combined lots have about 23,721 feet of buildable square feet for residential uses and approximately 35,142 buildable square feet for community use. “The entire property may be delivered vacant upon closing, making it ideal for a user, investor or developer,” the listing notes.

According to the Lost City blog, which posted an entry on the listing, the congregation dates back to 1862, when the First Presbyterian Church of East Willibamsburgh met in a little wooden church on the property. The existing building is in the Renaissance-style and features stained glass windows made in France. It was dedicated on May 22, 1910, with a congregation of 500 plus 750 Sunday school pupils.

The United Presbyterian Church of Ridgewood was formed after merging in October 1993 with the St. James United Presbyterian Church.

Word of the real estate listing led to a flurry of e-mails between resident Christina Wilkinson and Community Board 5. Some light was shed on the situation when Ridgewood civic leader and CB 5 member Paul Kerzner wrote that he has been aware of this listing for the past month or so.

“I have been working with the pastor since early last fall to put together a plan to build senior housing on the site, while preserving the edifice and an interior chapel for this church,” wrote Kerzner. “I’ll know by the end of May whether we were successful.”

Homeless Woman Found Murdered in Park

Residents Shocked at Discovery near 106th Precinct

By Conor Greene

An unidentified homeless woman who was a fixture in the playground adjacent to the 106th Precinct was found dead Monday morning on a park bench, apparently bludgeoned to death.

A homeless man made the gruesome discovery at about 9:30 a.m. inside Ozone Park’s Officer Nicholas DeMutiss Playground on Liberty Avenue at 102nd Street. Police and a team from the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office spent several hours going through the crime scene as neighbors looked on. The woman’s belongings, including a shopping cart, were strewn around the bench where the body was found.

The violent murder shocked and horrified residents, some of whom would bring the woman food and clothes from time to time. That the incident occurred next door to the precinct headquarters, inside a park fre- quented by neighborhood children, only added to their concerns.

Neighbor Charlotte Chavis said that she had brought the woman food and clothes several times since noticing her sleeping there this past winter. “She was a very nice old lady,” said Chavis, adding that the park is generally quiet, in part due to its proximity to the stationhouse.

Another resident echoed the feeling that the park is considered safe for children to play in. She said she saw the woman there last week, and said the victim kept to herself. “Somebody had to drop that there last night,” she said of the body. “This park is loaded with children during the day. This is insane. The precinct is right there – why wouldn’t you feel safe. This is a total shock.”

Paul Ramroop said he believed the woman was in her 60’s and was often seen in a nearby Laundromat. “People gave her food... she felt comfortable in the park,” he recalled.

Neighbor Simoa Santiago said it is unusual to hear about violence in the popular neighborhood playground. “It’s scary. We live a few houses down, and there are a lot of children in this area,” she said. “Nothing like this has happened before. She minded her own business and didn’t bother anybody.”

As of press time Wednesday, police hadn’t released any additional details on the incident

Three Nabbed on Attempted Theft

Three individuals from Elmhurst were arrested in Maspeth on Tuesday afternoon after a resident spotted them in the rear yard of a neighbor who was at work. Police say the suspects were attempting to steal an all-terrain vehicle.

Officers responded to a home at 73-23 53rd Avenue at about 3 p.m. and arrested Gabriel Mercedes, 19, of Lamont Avenue in Elmhurst, Demetrio Rivera, 21, of Ithaca Avenue in Elmhurst and a 16-year-old from Elmhurst, who police declined to name, according to the 104th Precinct.

Police determined the three were attempting to steal a quad from the yard, and charged them with criminal trespass and petit larceny., the civic group Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together are warning residents to keep their eyes open for suspicious behavior in the area. While the suspects are not believed to have attempted to break into the home, there have been number of burglaries in the neighborhood in recent months.

Three-Alarm Blaze Guts Church in Richmond Hill

By Patricia Adams

A fast-moving fire spread through the Deeper Life Christian Fellowship Church on Thursday afternoon at 91-44 111th Street in Richmond Hill, destroying the church and severely damaging two neighboring homes.

More than 135 firefighters were called to the scene, where it took over six hours to put down the three-alarm blaze. Fire officials said the fire started at the around 2:24 p.m. after crews were called out to investigate downed wires from an electrical pole across the street.

Witnesses at the scene say that a large tree splintered in the strong wind, crashing into the pole and sending a tangled mass of wire down into the street. Firemen investigating the fallen tree and wires noticed smoke com- ing from the church and immediately sprung into action. But a short along the electrical lines in the wooden church led to a rapidly spreading blaze and firemen were forced to evacuate.

Rev. Charles Sadaphal, whose father is the founder of the People Life Christian Fellowship Church, was at the scene as the fire raged. “I think it’s the grace of God that this happened at a time when there was no activity in the church,” he said. Sadaphal told reportersthat the Pentecostal church was home to more than 500 congregants.

Dep. Asst. Chief John Sudnik explained the dangerous conditions at the scene, “Fires in churches are very difficult to fight because of all the concealed spaces. “We had to pull all the units out of the building due to the fire conditions. It got too dangerous to continue with an interior operation so we went to an exterior operation.” Five firefighters suffered minor injuries trying to bring the fire under control.

Representatives from the Department of Buildings (DOB) were on hand to examine all structures involved for stability while ConEd crews worked to sort out the downed lines and restore lost power to the area.

The Parks Department was at the scene and returned the next morning to remove the remainder of the downed tree and also to check other trees on the block for any stress weakness that may have been caused by recent strong pattern winds. Neighbors say they had previously complained to the Parks Department about the tree being dead but a spokesperson from the agency, Trish Bertuccio, told The Forum, “The tree was alive and was properly attended to by Parks.”

Fire marshals are investigating the fire but officials say it was likely the strong winds that caused the tree limbs to snap and spark the blaze.

Officials and AARP Team Up for Safer Streets

By Conor Greene

Crossing many local streets can be treacherous – and often deadly – for residents, especially senior citizens and children. With that in mind, state Senator Joseph Addabbo is teaming up with the AARP to survey crosswalks and intersections so that steps can be taken to make them safer for pedestrians.

Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) gathered at the intersection of Woodhaven Boulevard and 89th Avenue last Thursday with Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven), Community Board 9 District Manager Mary Ann Carey, Forest Park Senior Citizen President Donna Caltabiano and a group of senior citizens to highlight the need for safer streets.

This location was chosen by Addabbo because the two- block area around the busy intersection includes the senior center and two schools with nearly 1,500 students. Both seniors and students have to cross 10 lanes of traffic on the busy boulevard to reach their destinations.

The effort is part of a broader statewide campaign involving the AARP called “Complete Streets Week: Making New York Walkable for All Generations,” which will survey hundreds of dangerous roads and intersections across the state. Factors taken into account include whether there are adequate traffic and crossing signals, if crosswalks are properly marked and if there is enough time to cross the street – a major complaint along Woodhaven Boulevard. The results will be used to make improvements and develop legislation to make the streets safer for all ages.

“This location highlights a dangerous intersection in the district. If a senior or student needs to cross Woodhaven Boulevard, they have to cross 10 lanes of traffic in a very short time,” said Addabbo. “Additionally, the islands separating the lanes are very narrow, where there is no space for a wheelchair, walker or baby stroller to fit without putting a pedestrian in danger.”

Watching as pedestrians rushed to cross the boulevard, Addabbo added, “Nobody should have to be an Olympic athlete to cross Woodhaven Boulevard.” He noted that the state had the third most pedestrian fatalities among senior citizens last year. Addabbo is co-sponsor of legislation that would require the state to consider factors such as nearby schools and senior centers when planning road projects.

Miller noted that there needs to be better sharing of the roadways amongst drivers and pedestrians. “The roads belong to everybody. We need to make sure [pedestrians] are able to cross these streets.” He added that walkways must be kept free of cracks and potholes and the amount of crossing time must be increased.

An AARP report found that two in five Americans age 50 or over say their neighborhood sidewalks are inadequate, and nearly half cannot cross main roads close to their home safely, preventing many from walking, cycling or taking the bus. From 2006 through 2008, there were 15 fatalities in Senate District 15, including seven involving an individual above 50 years old.

The Complete Streets legislation introduced in the Senate and Assembly will ensure that all new roads constructed provide the same consistent level of safe travel for all motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation users, regardless of age. “We need this legislation to ensure that our streets that we construct in the future provide the same level of safety for all residents of New York State regardless of age. Our streets should not be ones that seniors or any pedestrians are afraid to cross,” said Addabbo.

The AARP hopes their campaign will highlight the need for serious steps to increase pedestrian safety. “We’re not afraid to speak up and make a difference,” said William Stoner, Associate State Director for Livable Communities, referring to the seniors gathered at the intersection. “Too often, our roads are built for cars moving as fast as possible with little regard for pedestrians,” he said as cars sped by. “It will continue until we address this issue through local level improvements and state legislation.”

Fight to Save Fire Companies Continues

With at least 20 fire companies - and as many as 62 - under threat of closure due to the city and state budget woes, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who chairs City Council's Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, is continuing to speak at rallies throughout the five boroughs in opposition to the planned cuts.

“Back in October, Mayor Bloomberg stated to the media that he had no plans to close any fire companies. Today, only a few short months later, we are looking at the potential closure of 20 fire companies and as many as an additional 42 companies outlined in the State’s doomsday budget," said Crowley at a rally in Brooklyn, where she was joined by Councilman Vincent Gentile (D-Bay Ridge).

"Just yesterday, President Barack Obama praised the FDNY for their response to the potential bombing in Times Square. In times like this, when America and especially New York City, is vulnerable to a terrorist attack, we cannot even consider reducing the size of our fire department. We understand that we’re in tough budget times but the message is that fires don’t care about budgets,” added Crowley.

"Fewer fire companies means higher response times to fires, and just a couple minutes added on to how quickly engines respond means lost lives," said Gentile. "Neighborhood pockets of homes, businesses and residents will be unprotected if fire companies close – and sacrificing those things, even in the face of a tight City budget, is something we’re not going to accept.”

Gentile and Crowley were joined a host of other officials, civic leaders and fire union members to demand that Mayor Bloomberg rethink his planned cuts.

Ribbon Cutting at Locust Grove Triangle

Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski joined City Council Member Eric Ulrich and members of the Locust Grove Civic Association on Monday morning to cut the ribbon on the newly renovated Locust Grove Civic Triangle in South Ozone Park. The project to redo the triangle, located at Lefferts Boulevard and North Conduit Avenue, has been on the books for years.

Thanks to $200,000 in capital funding allocated during the term of former Councilmember Joe Addabbo, the project has finally been seen through to fruition. The renovation includes a new guard rail, electrical service, the rebuilding of planters, repair of the existing fountain, as well as the planting of a new lawn and shrubs. A new sidewalk, timber barriers and a concrete barrier planter have been installed to improve the overall quality of the triangle.

Councilman Eric Ulrich told a crowd of spectators that he was thrilled to be part of the long awaited completion of the project. “Since I took office last February this project has been a priority. Looking at what’s been done, it was worth the wait.”

Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski praised civic President, Donna Gilmartin, for her personal dedication to seeing the job through and also commended civic members for their attention to the triangle. As for the freshman councilman, Lewandowski said, “You’ll be seeing many parks projects come to pass in this area. Councilmember Ulrich has committed money to many of these projects in his district. He is young and vibrant and has a long future ahead.”

“Everyone said not to even try to get this done,” said Gilmartin, “but thanks to Doris Peterson and her vision, we kept this plan alive. Today represents a great achievement and we are all so proud of what’s been done.” Gilmartin also said that the triangle represents the first of such civic undertakings but that it has been implemented throughout the community by other civics that have followed suit and taken on triangle projects. “They add a lot to the community,” she said, “the triangles have a great positive influence.”

The Locust Grove Triangle has dramatically improved through the unrelenting efforts of the Locust Grove Civic Association,” said Lewandowski. “Parks applauds the dedication of the association and is pleased to have coordinated with them on this improvement project.”

Photo: Doris Peterson- Vice president of the Locust Civic Association; Helen Ogrinz- Park Designer; Mr. M. Shah- CMC Construction,Contractor; Donna Gilmartin- President of the Locust Civic Association; Eric Ulrich- Council Member; Dorothy Lewandowski- Queens Parks Commissioner; Karyn Peterson- District manager, CB 10; Peter Delucia- Aide to Senator Addabbo

Paint the Town Purple

Howard Beach got their first dose of purple power leading up to the Second Annual Howard Beach Relay for Life on Sunday evening. The day’s festivities for “Paint the Town Purple” were capped off with a candle relay held in Fr. Dooley Hall at St. Helen’s School.

All day long, residents wore purple clothing and homes and businesses were decorated with purple ribbons and flags. There were children’s activities throughout the day and a ceremonial “Candle Relay” was held to celebrate cancer survivors and remember loved ones lost.

The Second Annual Relay for Life will be held on Saturday and Sunday, June 26th and 27th. For more information about the Relay and how you can help checkl