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.”