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