Thursday, December 18, 2008

This Week's Forum West and South

City Approves Proposal for Cell Tower on Top of Maspeth House

Fear Case Sets Precedent Allowing Future Antennas

By Conor Greene

Despite overwhelming opposition from residents, elected officials and the local community board, the city has granted a cellular company permission to place a tower on top of a house on 72nd Place in Maspeth.

At its meeting this past Tuesday, the Board of Standards and Appeals, which rules on applications requiring a variance from the city’s building code, voted 4-0 to allow Omnipoint Communications to place the cellular tower on top of a house at 53-20 72nd Place.

The decision immediately garnered strong backlash from neighbors and community leaders who fought the proposal since it was announced late last year. Under the agreement, property owner Joseph Wroblewski - whose family owns Frank’s Deli next door to the proposed site - will receive an undisclosed amount in rent for allowing the company to place the antenna on top of the house.

Many now fear that this ruling sets a dangerous precedent that could allow cellular companies to easily obtain the necessary variances and permits. That could mean a greater number of towers within residential areas as companies seek to improve their coverage, especially inside homes as people rely more on cell phones over landlines.

The proposal originally called for a 25-foot tower on top of the house, rising a total of 54 feet above street level. As a result of community opposition, the company scaled back its proposal to a 19-foot tower that will rise 45 feet above street level. The diameter of the antenna, which will be disgusted as a flagpole with an American flag at the top, has been reduced from 36 inches to 32 inches.

Maspeth resident Manny Caruana fears that quiet residential neighborhoods such as this are being destroyed by greedy developers and companies. “Quite honestly it seems like we no longer have control over our own neighborhoods,” he said. “They can just come in and do what they want... Our quality of life doesn’t mean a damn thing and our investment in the community and in our homes doesn’t seem to matter.”

Caruana said he is concerned that the decision will mean other cellular companies will come in and offer homeowners “big bucks” to allow cellular towers on their homes. He noted that Wroblewski lives on Long Island and rents out the house where the tower will be placed. “Quite obviously, he bought this house to make money and doesn’t care about the community,” he said. “Anybody who does certainly wouldn’t do this.”

Wroblewski initially said he tried to back out of the contract after neighbors objected, but was not able to. He refused to say how much rent he will receive from Omnipoint, and has stopped speaking with the media about the matter.

For Caruana, that public hearings were held during the day in Manhattan only adds insult to injury. “Had these hearings been held in the area affected, you would have had thousands of people there and it might have been a different outcome,” he said. “It is held in Manhattan, with Manhattan people making decisions for Queens. We should have another venue to challenge this decision. It leaves absolutely no recourse.”

He is not the only resident angry over the vote. Diane DeSilvia, a 72nd Place resident who helped organize opposition to the application, called the decision “outrageous” and said it “could allow cell companies to invade residential areas everywhere with structures that do not belong where people live.”

Gary Giordano, district manager of Community Board 5 – which overwhelmingly rejected the proposal – agreed that this could set a bad precedent. “I would say there is certainly a possibility [that wireless companies will have an easier time gaining variances] but hopefully they would have to do a very good job proving there is a lack of service in that area,” he said. “I don’t like it at all.”

In a statement, Assemblywoman Marge Markey (D-Maspeth) said she is “angry” over the board’s decision.

“It is an inappropriate intrusion on a peaceful residential block and it should not have been permitted,” she said. “I want to warn... any other cellular company that seeks to use this case as a precedent: get ready for a fight! We will continue to strongly oppose any other plan that seeks to place a cell tower on any residential block in my district.”

In the meantime, residents such as Caruana are left wondering about the rational behind the board’s decision, and what the next step is. “I was very hopeful they were going to disapprove this tower,” he said. “It is in the middle of a bunch of one-and-two-family homes... I don’t know if there are any other steps we can take, but we will be looking into it.”

Gas Tanks Park Unveiled at Board Meeting

By Conor Greene

A presentation on the city’s new park at the former Elmhurst Gas Tanks property highlighted this month’s Community Board 5 meeting last Wednesday in Ridgewood.

Several other topics, including parking restrictions along Gates Avenue and the closing of a nearby firehouse during overnight hours were discussed at the board’s holiday gathering in the Greater Ridgewood Youth Council on Myrtle Avenue.

Gas Tanks Park Phase Two

Representatives from the city Parks Department provided board members and residents with an update of progress on a park being created at the site of the former Elmhurst Gas Tanks property at 79th Street and Grand Avenue.

During the project’s $8.25 million first phase, the park’s footprint was established and the landscaping was installed as hundreds of trees, several large boulders and tons of clean fill was brought to the six-acre site. The Parks Department is now looking ahead to phase two, which is currently in the design phase. A rendering created by the department calls for a playground, comfort station, lawn areas, ballfields and a Vietnam War memorial.

Construction on phase two is expected to begin next fall and be completed by winter 2010. The total project cost is expected to be about $20 million, much of which was funded by mayoral and City Council allocations, according to the Parks Department.

The site is being developed as a “passive park,” meaning it won’t have soccer or baseball fields. However, it will include an artificial turf field that can be used for informal pickup games. In addition, tons of fill have been brought in to create contours on the site, which previously was flat.

For local residents and civic leaders, the park taking shape has been a long time coming. The effort started more than a decade ago, when energy company Keyspan began dismantling the gas tanks in 1996. In 2001, it announced plans to sell the property for development of a big box retail store such as a Home Depot.

At that point, members of local groups such as the Juniper Park Civic Association worked with elected officials including former Councilman Dennis Gallagher (R-Middle Village) and Assemblywoman Marge Markey (D-Maspeth) to prevent a Home Depot from being built at the site. In 2005, Keyspan sold the property to the city for one dollar, paving the way for a much needed park to be built there.

Gates Avenue Parking Rules

Werner Klun, representing Gotscheer Hall, asked the board to consider easing overnight parking restrictions along Gates Avenue in Ridgewood to provide more parking for customers.

The hall, which has been in the neighborhood since 1924, is facing a declining customer base, said Klun, in part because it is difficult for patrons - especially seniors - to find parking. As a result, the hall, located on Fairview Avenue, is asking the board to allow parking along both sides of Gates Avenue between Seneca and Grandview avenues to help the parking situation.

“It would not interfere with rush hour [traffic] and will help alleviate” the parking situation, Klun told the board. “People will be more likely to patronize the businesses and restaurants in the area... Business has declined to a degree.”

Board Chairman Vincent Arcuri noted that the parking restrictions were put in place years ago at the request of the board due to several accidents and to accommodate buses. He said the board’s Transportation Committee will discuss the request in January. “We will probably have to look at how many buses frequent the route, and how many at night,” he said.

Firehouse Closing Overnight

Arcuri said he is concerned about the city’s plan to close the Himrod Street fire station just across the Brooklyn boundary that houses Engine Company 271.

That station is “two doors away from the Queens border” and is the first responder to Wyckoff Heights Hospital, according to Arcuri. It is one of five that will be shut during overnight hours starting January 17 to save the city $8.9 million.

Arcuri asked Gary Giordano, board district manager, to send the mayor a letter arguing that it would “not be prudent” to shut the station overnight since it would impact the area within Community Board 5.

“The statistics are there, but the logic is crazy,” said Arcuri of the motivation behind the decision. “Abandoning southwest Queens at night and a major hospital is wrong.”

Environmental Committee

Board member Brian Dooley gave an update on the Environmental Committee, which recently held its first meeting “in a long time.”

The group has three main goals and functions, said Dooley. First, it intends to “pick up where the flood mitigation task force left off” and continue to examine the problem of flooding in certain neighborhoods. Second, it will keep abreast of several environmental cleanups taking place at properties throughout CB 5. Third, it will look into ways the board can “go more green” through various projects.

“We are at the very beginning of this environmental committee... but I think we will get a lot of support on it,” said Dooley.

Dooley also provided a quick update on several roads projects. The water and sewer replacement project is underway along Maurice and 54th avenues in Maspeth, with the next phase expected to take place at night. However, the plan to reconstruct streets in south Middle Village has been “scaled back” and “pushed back a couple of years.”

Land Use Committee Projects

Walter Sanchez, chair of the board’s Land Use Committee, updated members on several local projects. He said the committee is scheduled to meet in January with Queens Director of City Planning John Young regarding the stalled down-zoning effort.

Tom Smith from city planning told the board that the department is “putting the final touches on what it’s going to present” to the committee. “We want it to be finished so we can take your input back,” he said.

Sanchez also gave a quick update on the proposal to place a cellular tower on top of a 72nd Place house in Maspeth and the city’s plan to build a 1,000-seat school at 74th Street and Grand Avenue in Maspeth (see related stories in this issue).

Hearing Held on Ridgewood Landmarking

Mathews Flats Provided Housing for Immigrant Workers

By Conor Greene

A push to have a small area of Ridgewood designated as a historic district cleared a hurdle this week when a public hearing was held before the Landmark Preservation Commission.

Local preservationists and elected officials are seeking to have the nearly four-block area, which features 91 buildings known as Mathews Flats, given landmark status to preserve it from major alternations. The blocks feature rows of the spacious flats, which became a nationwide model for providing housing for working-class immigrants in the early 20th century.

The three-story, six-apartment buildings were constructed between 1908 and 1911 by German developer Gustave X. Mathews, and included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The area being considered for landmark status is bounded by Forest Avenue, Woodbine Street, Fairview Avenue and Linden Street. A city report on the Mathews flats emphasizes significant details of the Renaissance and Romanesque Revival style buildings, including their brickwork and metal cornices.

Several local residents spoke at Tuesday’s Landmark Preservation Commission hearing in Manhattan, including representatives from the Historic Districts Council and Councilwoman-Elect Elizabeth Crowley.

“I think that Ridgewood has beautiful homes, side streets and business districts that need to be preserved,” said Crowley (D-Glendale), who holds a degree in city planning. “It is interesting that these buildings were built for new Americans, and still serve that purpose today... It’s a look and feel that I don’t think we can afford to lose.”

Crowley, who will begin representing the area on January 1 after defeating incumbent Anthony Como (R-Middle Village) in November, said there are other areas of Ridgewood that she would like to see considered for landmark status once this process is complete. The LPC expects to vote on this proposal once the new fiscal year starts on July 1, 2009, after which the plan moves to City Council for final approval.

In 2000, the city granted landmark status to a one-block section of Ridgewood on Stockholm Street between Onderdonk and Woodward avenues.

Among those testifying at the hearing was a representative from the Historic Districts Council, which is a citywide advocate for New York’s historic neighborhoods. In a statement, the council explained that the “history of Ridgewood is important for understanding the shape of our city.”

“The distinctive visual continuity of the Kreischer bricks and consistent scale, coupled with modest, though distinctive, architectural details creates a stable, welcoming environment well-suited for populations looking to physically establish their own enclaves,” the HDC wrote. “The humane touches and human scale further reinforce the importance of the street as a part of daily life.”

The only objection the HDC raised was the relatively small area being considered for designation, since almost 3,000 similar units were built in the area. “The remarkably intact buildings have a grace and a rhythm which only grows as you begin to understand the vast number of them,” the group argued, noting that the area constitutes one of the largest collection of National Register listed properties in New York State.”

The HDC argued that “a cherry-picked few blocks selected for preservation just doesn’t make sense [and] doesn’t reflect the importance of the
development or even its reality.”

The housing units were held in such high regard at the time of their construction that they were featured at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco as a way to provide affordable clean living conditions for immigrant workers.

Also testifying on behalf of the proposal on Tuesday were Paul Kerzner of the Greater Ridgewood Restoration Corp, Theodore Renz of the Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District and a representative from the NY Landmarks Conservancy. In addition, Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D-Williamsburg), who represents a portion of Ridgewood, sent a letter in support of the proposal. Nobody spoke in opposition.

A Special Night for Local Athletes

By Patricia Adams

This past Monday night Christmas came a little early to a group of Special Olympian athletes and their families when Santa paid an early visit to the small community of Neponsit in Rockaway.

The athletes were hosted by the president of the Brooklyn/Queens chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), Joe Mure, and his family at their home on 144th Street and Neponsit Avenue. According to Joe Featherston, founder of the Rockaway Beach Special Olympics team at St. Camillus, Mure is as much like the real Santa Claus as anyone will see.

Every year Mure holds a cocktail party before Christmas to raise funds for JDRF and also hosts a holiday lighting event at his home, complete with headline entertainment and free food for thousands of spectators who have been showing up for more than ten years to view the extravaganza.

But this year he wanted to extend the network of his generosity and so he reached out to Joe Featherston. Mure was very persistent about bringing the athletes down to see the lights, enjoy some food and get presents from Santa. “Joe came to us over the summer,” said Featherston, “we never had to ask him.”

Then Featherston says Mure kept calling. “So ya commin’”? Over and over Mure called and made sure arrangements were in order to bring the athletes out for a special Christmas treat.

“Joe Mure is phenomenal,” said Featherston, “ and if you look around you, it’s easy to see what his gestures mean to these people and their families.” The people that Featherston refers to are a group of about 50 special athletes with cognitive disabilities that range in age from 8 to 60-years-old.

Featherston started the program about 12 years ago after having coached special athletes at Cardozza High School and the Cross Island Y. He started thinking he’d like to bring a program like this nearer to his home where even more athletes could have access to programs.

Joe Featherston approached one of the members from his own Rockaway community whose son has a cognitive disability. Paul Fitzpatrick’s mom, Regina, responded to the query ,“Do you think people would come to this type of a program in Rockaway?” She answered Joe Featherston’s big question with just one word, “absolutely.”

Regina’s 25-year-old son, Paul, has been involved since the program began 12 years ago in the gymnasium at St. Camillus. They meet every Monday night September through June from 6:30-8 PM. According to his mother, Paul Fitzpatrick missed only one of those meetings in the last twelve years -- his dad took him skiing in Colorado. “He really didn’t want to go because he didn’t want to miss Monday night at the program. I don’t think he’d ever miss again,” Fitzpatrick said with a big smile.

The Rockaway Beach Special Athletes program is open to special athletes of all ages and has athletes from Howard Beach, South Ozone Park and Rockaway in addition to groups that come from Brooklyn. The program began with five athletes and has blossomed to include more than 50.

The program provides sports training and athletic competition for all children and adults with cognitive disabilities. Weekly training is provided each week in physical fitness, basketball, soccer, softball, football, track, floor hockey, volleyball and board games for 54 athletes. The group has a full volunteer staff including about 10 seniors and 30 kids who are in 8-12th grades. Funds to support the athletes are raised within the community, primarily in conjunction with the Wounded Warriors visit to Rockaway every summer, when host Flip Mullen has a block party to support the athletes.

The weekly program allows these special athletes to develop fitness, experience joy, and participate in the sharing of friendship with other special athletes within their community. In addition, the program sponsors three annual weekend trips. Over 20 athletes travel to Upstate, NY to the Adaptive Sports Foundation at Windham Mountain both in the winter and summer. Shake-A-Leg in Miami, Florida is the site of our November trip. Two NY universities host competitive sporting events for the athletes throughout the year. A track and field competition is held at St. John’s University in Queens and Fordham University in the Bronx hosts basketball. Dozens of athletes compete at the events.

But on Monday night, there were no sports and no competitions. There were just smiles, hugs, and lots of lights, Santa Claus and gifts for everyone. Oh, and then there was Joe Mure—the other Santa. “If you want to know what Christmas means,” Mure said, “just look at their faces. Now that’s a Merry Christmas.”

Juniper Civic Hosts Holiday Party

Maspeth School, Stalled Downzoning Discussed at Monthly Session

By Conor Greene

The Juniper Park Civic Association’s 70th Anniversary holiday party featured food and prizes donated by local businesses and a parade of politicians who addressed the large crowd, which braved a driving rain to attend the meeting.

The civic group’s monthly session last Thursday began with sandwiches donated by Pioneer Supermarket and soda from Community Beverage as several hundred members filed into the auditorium of Our Lady of Hope in Middle Village. “We’re not afraid to come out in a storm,” joked civic President Robert Holden.

Despite the festive atmosphere, the evening wasn’t all fun and games – the civic association’s executive board updated the audience on a host of important neighborhood issues, including the city’s proposal to build a large school at 74th Street in Maspeth and the stalled downzoning effort in Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale.

Holden started the meeting by telling the audience that he is hopeful for the future now that the area has new representation on the City Council. “The cloud has been lifted from over the neighborhood,” he said, referring to Elizabeth Crowley’s victory in November over Councilmember Anthony Como, and to the end of former Councilman Dennis Gallagher’s time in office. “Now we have new leadership with new goals,” he said.

Proposed Maspeth School

The city’s proposal to build a combined intermediate and high school serving at least 1,000 students at Grand Avenue and 74th Street in Maspeth represents a “threat” to the area’s quality of life, said Holden.

Earlier this year, the School Construction Authority (SCA) unveiled plans for a 1,650-seat school at the site of the former Restaurant Depot to serve students in grades 6-12. Despite the need for a local high school, Community Board 5 overwhelmingly rejected the proposal due to concerns over the building size, increased traffic and congestion and the amount of students pouring onto local streets after dismissal, especially since there already are two schools within several blocks of the proposed site.

The SCA recently announced that it will present scaled back plans for a 1,000-seat building to CB 5 at its January meeting. However, SCA officials suggested to resi-
dents at the November 25 Community Education Council 24 meeting that it will seek City Council approval for the plan regardless of the reaction it receives from the community board, which acts only in an advisory role.

“Obviously this area needs a public high school – but there are two other schools there and this will potentially put 5,000 students [on the streets at dismissal time] if this is built,” said Holden. “This is going to be a big problem in the neighborhood, for the commercial district and for getting around – especially if it is not only for our kids.”

The issue of who the school would be zoned for has been a key part of the debate, as many who oppose the school claim they would support it if the city would guarantee that it would only be open to local children. However, that decision is ultimately made by the city Board of Education, so the SCA has been unable to make the promise.

“This is the way it works on our sanctuary city – areas like Middle Village and Maspeth get overrun,” said Holden, referring to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to prepare for an estimated one million more city residents by 2030.

A major problem with the proposed site, said Holden, is the limited routes nearby residents have to get in and out of the neighborhood, which is surrounded by the Long Island Expressway, railroad tracks and a cemetery. “It is hard to get around if a few streets are blocked, and 74th Street is an important route,” he said. “People will give up and start moving out. There are other locations for this school. They shouldn’t be on top of each other.”

Maspeth resident Manny Caruana called the proposal a “clear-cut example of over-development” and said that school-aged children already terrorize the neighborhood each afternoon. “These kids will knock you down so fast,” he said. “This is a bad, bad move. They [the SCA] could care less about the impact it is going to have on the community and on the quality of life for people living around these schools.”

Civic Vice President Lorraine Sciulli echoed the sentiment that a lack of city planning has left the area overrun by schoolchildren. “We’re going to have wall to wall kids in this neighborhood,” she said. “We have Mayor Bloomberg to thank for this with his sanctuary city.”

The SCA’s new proposal is scheduled to be presented to Community Board 5 at its January 14 meeting.

Elected Officials Stop By

Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) opened his remarks by telling the audience, “congratulations, you all own three auto companies today,” referring to the bailout of the auto industry that was being considered at that point.

However, as Weiner was making his comments, the Senate was in the process of voting down the $14 billion legislation intended to help General Motors, Chrysler and Ford stay afloat during the economic downturn. Before that vote took place, Weiner argued that officials cannot allow those companies to fail due to the impact it would have on consumers and on the nation’s industrial sector as a whole.

“Nobody would buy a car from a bankrupt company,” he said, asking the audience members who have a warranty on an American vehicle to raise their hands. “We are left with bad choices and worse choices right now... I don’t know if it is going to work.”

Weiner noted that one third of all industrial jobs left in America are connected in some way to the auto industry. “The financial industry is somewhat stabilized” as a result of the $700 billion bailout passed to support Wall Street, said Weiner. However, “the jury is still out” regarding the auto industry’s health, he added.

On two more local topics, Weiner suggested that the SCA consider other options for the proposed Maspeth school. “Now that the market is softening... there are more options,” he said.

He also briefly discussed truck traffic, which is a major issue along Grand Avenue. He noted that one truck equals more than three cars. “The city is obsessed with everything except trucks,” he said, calling the area the “truck pass through capital of the entire city.” He suggested that portable weigh stations be used to bolster enforcement.

Councilman Tony Avella
(D-Bayside)was introduced by Holden as the area’s “adopted councilman” because of his assistance to the civic after former Councilman Dennis Gallagher resigned and the area was not represented on the City Council.

Sporting an injured hand wrapped in an Ace bandage, Avella joked that he would like to be able to say he was hurt punching out the mayor over his refusal to send out the $400 tax rebate for homeowners. “I know you are all expecting it [but] Michael Bloomberg refuses to release it,” he said.

In response, Avella and three of his colleagues have filed a complaint in Supreme Court to force the mayor to release the rebate. A hearing on that motion was postponed at the request of the city’s counsel, said Avella. “He has no legal right to hold onto the money. It’s an absolute disgrace... I’ve already said I’m not going to go for that. We pay enough property taxes,” said Avella.

Avella closed his remarks by reminding the audience that, like Weiner, he plans on challenging Bloomberg next year. He took umbrage with Weiner’s earlier claim that he led the fight against the mayor’s congestion pricing plan earlier this year, which was passed by the City Council but ultimately defeated in Albany. “A lot of us fought that fight,” said Avella. “It wasn’t just one person.”

Councilman and Senator-Elect Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach)was introduced by Holden as a “terrific guy,” despite claims made to voters about him in mailers during his successful senate race this fall against Serf Maltese. “If you believe all that stuff [stated on fliers] you would think this guy is the worst guy in the world,” said Holden.

Addabbo, who is headed to Albany after two terms representing his district on the City Council, thanked those who supported him and vowed to win over those who didn’t. “Regardless who you voted for, I’m ready to work for you,” he said, urging constituents to contact him at his district office at (718) 738-1111 with any issues.

One of the biggest issues Addabbo was asked about while campaigning was the stalled effort to downzone several hundred blocks in Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale. The effort has languished in the Department of City Planning since volunteers surveyed the area two years ago.

After being asked about it so often, Addabbo contacted DCP Commissioner Amanda Burden to inquire about the project’s status, which he called “overdue.” He reported that DCP contacted his office last week about setting up a meeting to discuss the project.

Councilwoman-Elect Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale), who defeated Como in a November rematch of this summer’s special election to replace Gallagher, was the final official to address the audience. Holden noted that it is “great to finally, after three years battling our council member, to work with our councilwoman.”

Crowley, who grew up in Maspeth and lives in Glendale, said she has a “strong bond with the community” and is “honored” to represent it in City Hall. A key initiative, she said, is “making sure every homeowner gets the $400 rebate.”

She also said she is already working with DCP to ensure that the downzoning moves forward this spring. “Everyday, we are seeing one family homes come down and three families go up,” she said. “It burdens each and every one of us... It’s going to happen and bring better results for our community,” she said of the downzoning.

MTA Votes on Doomsday Budget

Proposal Labeled “Draconian” by CEO Sander

By Patricia Adams

“Today we fulfilled our requirement to adopt a balanced budget within the constraints of existing resources, and those resources are simply not great enough,” said MTA Chairman H. Dale Hemmerdinger after the transportation agency held its vote at a hearing on Wednesday morning.

“I have called this budget draconian, severe, and extremely painful, and it is all of those things,” said Elliot G. Sander, MTA Executive Director and CEO. But the agency maintains that it is trying to inspire support at the federal, state and city levels and relieve the burden from the ridership.

The proposed rate hikes inspired virtually unanimous angst among riders and advocacy groups. “We are looking at least a $2.50 base fare for subways and buses, and $104 for a 30-day unlimited-ride MetroCard,” Gene Russianoff, a lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign of the New York Public Interest Research Group, told the board. “That’s an amount I associated with a Broadway theater ticket, not with taking subways and buses.”

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer recently faced off against the agency, joining with other elected officials and residents, concerning the proposal to remove a rebate program for residents currently exempted from what remains the only intra-borough toll in the city-- the Crossbay Veterans Memorial Bridge – it connects the zip code, post office, community board and police precinct shared by Rockaway and Broad Channel.

“Obviously we are going to continue to fight to get the stream of revenue to the MTA so that the people of this city and state will not have to face this burden. We also have time to fight to hold this rebate program in place.” Pheffer went on to say that this “doomsday” budget will only hold up if all three levels of government involved fail to deliver a fiscal infusion to the ailing agency.

Part of the deficit was made up by a 23% increase in the revenue yield from fares and tolls beginning in June 2009. This increase is projected to generate approximately $670 million in 2009. Hearings will be held beginning in January on the fare and toll increases and service cuts as required by law.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

This Week's Forum South and West

Civic: More Pedestrian Upgrades Needed Six Years After Tragic Accident

By Conor Greene

Six years ago this past week, a 17-year-old girl was struck and killed by an out-of-control driver who lost control of his vehicle at the dangerous intersection where 69th Street meets the Long Island Expressway service road at Grand Avenue in Maspeth.

The tragic death of Middle Village resident Daniela D’Angelo – who was killed while walking home from Christ the King High School – spurred a traffic study at the intersection, but local leaders say more still needs to be done to make the area safer.

“Unfortunately, little was done except adding bollards to the intersection,” said Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association. He noted that the civic association, through a $30,000 grant from Transportation Alternatives, completed a study and produced a plan to make intersections in the area safer. “They city did nothing. The area, with heavier truck traffic, is actually more dangerous today,” said Holden.

The December 6, 2002 accident occurred when Dennis Fiechter, 30, lost control of his Mazda while driving north on 69th Street, causing it to crash into several vehicles before hitting D’Angelo and a 50-year-old man who was also standing on the sidewalk at the time. Fiechter told investigators that he suffered a seizure before losing control, but police later determined that the seizure occurred after the accident.

Fiechter eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated unlicensed operation of a car in exchange for a 1 1/3-to-4-year prison sentence. Prior to the accident, Fiechter’s license had been suspended 28 times. In addition, he was subsequently sentenced to prison time for an attempted robbery in Queens and a burglary in New Jersey.

In Holden’s opinion, the safety improvements are vital, but an even bigger issue is why Fiechter was still free to get behind the wheel of a car. “This guy should have been in jail years ago if the government did its job and protected the public from career criminals like Fiechter,” he said.

The traffic study completed by the JPCA and Transportation Alternatives produced a number of recommendations to improve safety at that and other intersections. Among the suggestions were: installing bollards at the traffic island at 69th Street and Grand Avenue; posting a “No Left Turn” sign at northbound 69th Street and Grand Avenue; upgrading pedestrian crosswalks to make them more visible; and repositioning several traffic signals to make them easier to see and reduce confusion for drivers.

According to a DOT spokeswoman, “all of the proposed improvements were implemented in October 2003.”

However, Holden and other community leaders including Community Board 5 District Manager Gary Giordano say the intersection warrants additional attention from the city. Giordano noted that the board still has a capital budget request filed with the city “for them to accomplish the physical portions of these safety improvements.”

He said the intersection is especially dangerous because two busy streets – both truck routes - and the expressway meet there. In addition, many drivers rely on 69th Street because there are not many parallel routes in the area, he noted. “That area could always use attention,” said Giordano. “There is much going on there between pedestrians and motorists.”

Photos: A memorial was placed at the intersection of Grand Avenue and 69th Street in Maspeth six years ago after Christ the King High School student Daniela D'Angelo was killed by an out-of-control driver. While some safety improvements were made to the intersection, local community leaders say the area is still unsafe for pedestrians.

MTA Might Eliminate Cross Bay Bridge Toll Rebate

By Patricia Adams

The MTA’s decision to eliminate the Rebate Program for residents of Broad Channel and the Rockaway’s from the toll on the Cross Bay Veterans' Memorial Bridge has revived a fight originally begun in the late 1990’s.

Elected officials and residents maintain that a toll on the bridge which connects a single zip code, one Queens' neighborhood to another Queens neighborhood, is outrageously unfair and could possibly be unconstitutional. It is the only intra-borough toll in New York City.

Now the MTA plans to remove the rebate which allows Broad Channel and Rockaway residents to travel across the bridge at no charge because the agency says they have to fill in a budget gap.

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall organized a rally for protestors and elected officials at the toll plaza of the bridge on Tuesday morning. “This toll will hamper the ongoing economic development of the entire Rockaway Peninsula and put an unfair burden on the residents of Broad Channel,” stated Marshall.

Pointing out that many Broad Channel residents send their children to school across the bridge, shop at local stores and patronize Rockaway restaurants, the borough president stressed the choking effect the toll will place on families already burdened financially. “The MTA should know that they have made this a bridge over troubled water.”

Joining Marshall at the rally were Councilmember Joe Addabbo, Assemblymember Audrey Pheffer, , Community Board 14 Chairperson Delores Orr and District Manager Jonathan Gaska, Community Board 10 Chairperson Betty Braton, Democratic District Leader Frank Gulluscio and a host of residents and civic/community activists.

“I am confident that we will be able to impress upon them [MTA] that it is not only unfair and unjust but possibly illegal to charge anyone living in Queens with this toll,” said Audrey Pheffer.

The assemblywoman went on to say that it is absurd to think that residents of Broad Channel would have to pay a toll in order to go to their police precinct to file a report, or to their community board. “This part of Queens is no different than any other. What would people do if they had to pay a toll on Queens Boulevard?”

A key point introduced at the rally by Pheffer was the fact that after requesting reports of figures from the MTA on the costs and profits from the operation of the bridge, it appears that the bridge is a wash for the financially troubled agency. “They’re not making any money off this bridge. It’s a wash, so what’s the point.”

Addressing the crowd, Councilmember Joe Addabbo supported the opposition to the toll and to the removal of the rebate. “Just like the toll on this bridge behind us, we shouldn’t be here. The MTA can’t handle the money they already have and we shouldn’t be giving them another penny.”

Addabbo explained there are many problems with the Ravitch report released on the MTA, because it fails to address what he considers to be a key factor. “The report does not talk about restructuring or a plan of how the MTA would better handle money.”

Addabbo’s comments served to charge the angry and frustrated protestors. “The MTA needs to look in the mirror and point a finger at themselves for their own failure. They cannot be allowed to ride the backs of the people to get out of their own mess.” The senator-elect went on to encourage the residents to stand as a united community, and speak loud enough for all to hear. “You can stop this.”

The community of Broad Channel has collected more than 1400 signatures on its website, to stop the reinstatement of the toll. Community concerns in Broad Channel stem from frustration among residents who know that the added expense of the toll could drastically effect an influx of new families moving into the community.

“Look at the common sense behind the numbers here,” said Democratic District leader Frank Gulluscio, “a parent could conceivably have to pay $5.00 just for tolls to pick up a sick child from school. That is simply absurd. These people fought as one big community to get this rebate program implemented and there is no way it should be taken from them now.”

As of press time the MTA was scheduled to hold public hearings at their headquarters Wednesday December 10th at 10:30 a.m. in downtown Brooklyn, regarding the reinstitution of the toll for residents of Broad Channel and the Rockaways.

The Check is Not in the Mail


By Patricia Adams

For more than thirty years, Tony Granchelli has been the mail carrier for South Ozone Park residents Martin and Irene Weiss. “In the beginning,” says Irene, “he was like the merry mailman.” Now, according to Irene Weiss, Granchelli is the nightmare of 117th street. “He’s not the same man.”

Martin and his wife have lived on 117th Street for 23 years after moving from another house nearby. Granchelli was the mail carrier for both houses. Weiss was a tow truck driver for almost 30 years until his company was forced to lay off much of the staff. “I wasn’t ready to retire,” said the 64-year-old Weiss, “so I took a job with Home Depot.” But while working at the store he was assigned a 74-year-old helper who dropped a cast iron sink on Weiss. “I tried to pick it up and threw my back out.” Now he collects permanent disability.

The trouble between the Weiss family and Granchelli began several years ago according to Martin Weiss when he stopped Granchelli near the corner of his house and asked if the postman could give him his mail. He was on his way to the bank and didn’t want to have to make two trips. “He told me he wasn’t giving me my mail and that I should wait for it at my house,” said Weiss. “So I went about my business, but from that day on my troubles started.”

Weiss’ “troubles” as he calls them, lie in the fact that his disability checks, scheduled to arrive twice a month on Mondays hardly ever get to him. And important bills from credit card companies and utilities have been disappearing. “Ever since I had the altercation with Tony, my checks come late, don’t come at all or are delivered to the wrong address.”

And Weiss adds, further complications arose after the mailman refused to give Weiss his mail away from his house. “It was right before Christmas a couple of years ago. Tony came to me and handed me an empty envelope that said Merry Christmas. He was looking for a Christmas gift, but I just took the envelope and tore it up.”

Weiss said that in prior years he had never given the postal carrier less than twenty dollars for the holidays, but after what happened he decided to stop tipping him. Since then the Weiss’ say they have been living in “mail hell.”

As his wife describes, Martin Weiss is arguably one of the most organized people you could ever find. “My husband knows the dates that every bill and check arrives. If anything is late he calls immediately.”

And a look at the Weiss kitchen calendar is all the proof anyone needs to verify Irene’s testimony about her husband’s capacity for organization. Listed clearly on the calendar is the date that each bill arrives regularly and a schedule of dates that checks are expected. A look through the Weiss check register details payments that are issued on the day they are received.

Upstairs in another room are boxes of impeccably organized files of records that Martin Weiss has kept for decades. Weiss has a good case in defending what some may call obsessive behavior with the mail and the bills—his over 800 credit score has not been marred by lateness in an over forty year credit history. But the issue goes much further than Weiss’ credit and his personal drive to keep things organized.

“I have reported these problems to the United States Post Office Inspectors and been assigned a case number,” said Weiss. “I have worked with the supervisors at the branch, three of them so far, and still no action has been taken. I don’t know what to do.” Weiss says he is so frustrated that he didn’t know what else to do and so at the suggestion of a friend he decided to try and get the local newspaper to help him.

A call to Sedgwick Claims Management, the company that issues Weiss’ disability checks, verified his reports about his checks. Claims Supervisor Diane Triolo told The Forum she was happy that someone was finally stepping in to help her client. “Our company policy is that we do not direct deposit, nor do we certify or register mail. So he seemed to be at the mercy of the Post Office.”

Triolo said that out of the last 26 checks sent out to Weiss for the last year, there were problems with more than half of them being received. “Our checks are automatically generated in the computer so there is no problem with the address and we have confirmed that the checks have been mailed out by several that have been returned with the correct address and date on the checks.”

Although it is not policy, Triolo said she has made several exceptions and sent Martin Weiss’ check by overnight mail. “People have to understand that people receiving disability checks, especially the elderly, need that money to come in on time.” In Weiss’ case what he receives in those checks helps to cover thousands of dollars in yearly prescription costs for him and his wife each year.

Two return phone calls from the United States Postal Services (USPS)- one from Corporate Communications and another from the regional Postmaster, Jim Burns -suggest there may be some light at the end of the Weiss’ tunnel. According to Bob Trombley of USPS Corporate Communications, all reports by postal clients that are reported through proper channels are taken very seriously and investigated to the fullest. Trombley also said that any impropriety with regard to delivering checks would be tampering with the mail, a federal felony offense.

Several names and numbers for Weiss to contact were supplied. In a call to The Forum, Postmaster Jim Burns said he knew of the ongoing situation between Mr. Weiss and mail carrier Tony Granchelli. Mr. Burns said it was his intention to “meet with Mr. Granchelli and call Mr. Weiss. We will work this situation out. It’s very simple, he [Granchelli] has to do his job properly.”

According to the president of the South Ozone Park Civic Association West (SOPCAW), Anthony Gellineau, there have been many problems with the Post Office located off Rockaway Blvd. at 126-15 Foch Blvd., out of which Granchelli is based. “In the past we have had problems with understaffing at the branch. Lines have been out the door and the facility was really dirty,” said Gellineau, who also acknowledged there have also been situations with discourteous mail carriers.

“The members of the civic have not reported problems to me as of late and the situation is definitely better after we had several meetings with the Post Office including the Postmaster, Jim Burns. Mr. Burns is a very frank person and helped us to deal with our problems. He has seen to it that we got more staff in the location and things have cleaned up a bit under the new branch supervisor, Ms. Coleman. I am confident that with problems that arise we will get help from the Post Office officials when we need it”.

For now, Martin Weiss will wait and see if he gets a Christmas gift from the USPS -his mail.

Girl Struck and Killed by School Bus

Hit in Elmhurst on Way to Francis Lewis HS

By Conor Greene

A 14-year-old girl was killed last week while on her way to school when a school bus struck her at a busy Elmhurst intersection.

Jasmine Paragas, an honors student at Francis Lewis High School who excelled in foreign languages, was hit at 8:10 a.m. last Thursday as she crossed 57th Avenue near the Queens Center Mall. She was pronounced dead less than an hour later at Elmhurst Hospital Center.

George Severino, 62, was driving the yellow minibus north on 90th Street when he turned left onto 57th Avenue, striking the girl in the crosswalk. The driver, who works for JEA Bus Company, stayed at the scene and was issued summonses for failure to yield to a pedestrian and for equipment violations.

There were four adult passengers in the minibus at the time of the accident, which occurred while Severino was transporting them to an education center for adults with special needs. He told the Daily News that he was too distraught to comment as he stood at the scene, weeping. “I’m sorry. I can’t talk right now,” he said. According to that report, Severino told police that he heard a thump, looked in the rearview mirror and say the girl lying in the intersection.

The driver has been involved in at least two prior accidents, according to state motor vehicle records. He was found guilty of an unsafe lane change in June 2007, and in 2006 was involved in a Brooklyn accident in which another person was injured.

Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Education, told the New York Times that Jasmine was a freshman who excelled in foreign languages and English. “She applied for and was accepted into the school’s University Scholars Program, which is an accelerated program for high school students at Francis Lewis,” said Feinberg.

The accident occurred just minutes after Jasmine’s mother had walked with her across Queens Boulevard, which is known as one of the city’s most dangerous roads for pedestrians to cross. Her mother had entered a subway station before the accident happened.

“She made it safe, but still this happened,” the girl’s cousin, Mac Tecson, told the Daily News. “It’s horrible. It happened so quickly. Nobody can believe it.” A picture of Jasmine was placed in a front window of the family’s house, which is just blocks from the tragic scene. A crisis team was brought into Francis Lewis to counsel students and staff as they mourned the loss.

According to reports, the family moved to Queens from the Philippines about six years ago and live on the top floor of a three-story house in Elmhurst.

Neighbor Showkat Kazi told reporters that the girl’s mother walked Jasmine across Queens Boulevard to the Q88 bus stop every morning. “It’s very hard for me… to take it,” he told CBS-TV. “She’s just like my daughter. She was playing at my house all the time.”

Traffic Nightmare Continues on Grand Avenue

By Conor Greene

Frustrated that their calls for safety upgrades at the intersection of Grand Avenue and 64th Street in Maspeth have fallen on deaf ears, members of the Juniper Park Civic Association recently met with reporters at the site to draw attention to the problem.

The issue, according to the civic, is that the city Department of Transportation has prematurely moved forward with a project that will combine two small traffic triangles at the intersection into one large one.

While the civic association supports that project, its members say that the city should have first implemented the Maspeth Truck Bypass Plan, which would have rerouted truck traffic off the neighborhood’s commercial area.

However, the DOT is still performing studies on the Truck Bypass Plan, according to a spokeswoman. As a result, large trucks and buses are unable to navigate a tight “S” curve at the construction site to continue on Grand Avenue. Since there is not enough room for large vehicles to turn, they are forced to drive over the sidewalk, posing a danger to pedestrians, along with causing thousands of dollars of property damage.

“We feel that we’re now seeing the effects of them… not listening to the people in the community who know how the traffic flows and how dangerous the intersection is,” said Christina Wilkinson, JPCA secretary.

“This new plan… is a total disaster, and DOT is asleep at the wheel once again,” added JPCA President Robert Holden.

According to the DOT, the construction project should be completed by the end of the week. However, the civic association is now threatening to block traffic at the intersection if truck traffic isn’t rerouted in the near future.

Drunken Driver Injures Traffic Agents

By Conor Greene

Two NYPD traffic agents were rushed to a local hospital last weekend after a drunken driver crashed his car into their marked vehicle on Myrtle Avenue in Glendale.

Aaron Webb, 27, of the East Village, was charged with drunken and reckless driving following the two-car accident near 74th Street after 4 a.m. Saturday, according to a criminal complaint. He was arraigned later that day before Judge Suzanne Melendez, who released him on his own recognizance until his next court date.

Webb was allegedly driving his 2008 Honda westbound when he crossed into oncoming traffic and hit a marked Chevy patrol car carrying traffic agents Shirly Smallwood, who was driving, and Dallhia Hyltion, who was in the passenger seat, according to a complaint filed by Officer Mark Bublin of the 104th Precinct.

The two agents were taken to Jamaica Hospital, where they were listed in stable condition. Smallwood was treated for a concussion, while Hyltion sustained a dislocated hip in the accident.

According to the complaint, Webb had watery, bloodshed eyes, and the officer smelled an odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath. Webb told the officers, “I had two beers, a while ago.”

However, he was taken to the 112th Precinct stationhouse in Forest Hills, where he was determined to have a blood-alcohol level of .106, well above the state’s legal limit of .08.

Man Charged with Lying About HIV Status

Allegedly Faked Document to Trick Girlfriend

By Conor Greene

A Queens man who is HIV positive has been charged with using a fake document he claimed was issued by a local health care facility to convince a woman to have unprotected sex with him.

Duane Lang, 47, of Richmond Hill was arrested last week and charged with first-degree reckless endangerment and criminal possession of a forged document, according to the city Department of Investigation. If convicted, he faces up to seven years on the felony charge and a year in prison on the misdemeanor count.

According to the charges, his unnamed girlfriend refused to have unprotected sex with Lang unless he could provide medical proof that he had recently tested negative for HIV/AIDS. Lang, who has been HIV-positive since 2002, allegedly provided her with a fake document from the AIDS Center of Queens County showing that he had been tested in December 2007 and was not infected.

As a result, the woman engaged in unprotected sex with Lang between eight and ten times from December 2007 to March 2008, according to authorities. In March, the woman became suspicious and questioned him about the authenticity of the document. At that point, Lang admitted that it was forged and that he is HIV positive. The medical director at ACQC reviewed the document and confirmed that he had not signed it and that his name was misspelled on it.

“With deceit and depravity, the defendant repeatedly endangered the life of a person he supposedly cared for,” said Rose Gill Hearn, commissioner of the Department of Investigation. “Rarely have we seen a forged document used in way that is so directly and personally destructive to another human being. The consequences for that kind of conduct include arrest, criminal prosecution and possibly a prison sentence.”

The case is now being prosecuted by the office of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

“This is a tragic situation and serves as a reminder that things may not always be as they seem,” said City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden. “Even if you have talked to your partner about HIV status, the best way to protect yourself from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections is to use a condom every time you have sex."

Mayor Releases Results of Customer Survey

Residents Typically Approve of City Services

By Conor Greene

The results of the first ever New York customer survey show that the majority of residents think the city is doing a decent job in providing basic services.

The New York City Feedback Citywide Customer Survey marks the largest municipal survey in a U.S city. It breaks down responses by borough, and then by local community board, providing a glimpse of how residents feel about services in their specific neighborhoods. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum unveiled the survey results last week at the Forest Hills Library.

“In the private sector, I learned you can never acquire too much pertinent data to help improve your business,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “With the economy causing tax revenues to fall, it’s more important than ever for city agencies to be effective, efficient and responsive.”

The survey was sent in June to about 135,000 randomly-selected residents, with 24,339 people responding. It included 34 questions about city services and quality of life issues, with residents responding excellent, good, fair or poor to each.

In Queens, 13 percent of residents rated their neighborhood as excellent, with 50 percent ranking it as good, 28 as fair, and 8 percent as poor. Citywide, 15 percent of respondents rated their neighborhood as excellent, 44 percent as good, 29 percent as fair and 12 percent as poor.

Overall, the survey found that 44 percent of residents rated city services as fair, 28 percent as good and 4 percent rated them as excellent. In addition, 75 percent rated the city public school system as fair, good or excellent. Senior services and community centers, which might be overhauled as part of a program the mayor is pushing, received the highest score, with 64 percent rating them as good or excellent.

The five most important issues for New Yorkers are housing, education, mass transit, crime and cost of living, in that order. The top ranked neighborhood was Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the area with the lowest ranking was Morrisania in the Bronx.

Locally, the majority of residents in Forest Hills and Rego Park (Community Board 6) rated their neighborhood as excellent(26 percent) or good (57 percent), with just 1 percent describing it as poor. The 326 respondents rated mass transit, housing and education as the most important issues facing the city, and fire protection, emergency medical services and crime control ranked among the highest rated services. Among the lowest rated services were availability of cultural activities, control of street noise, sewer maintenance, pedestrian safety and street maintenance.

In the areas served by Community Board 5, including Ridgewood, Maspeth, Glendale and Middle Village, 338 residents ranked education, taxes and housing as the three most important issues facing the city. Fire protection, recycling, garbage pickup, emergency medical services and crime control were among the highest rated services, while street maintenance, cultural activities, sewer maintenance, street noise and graffiti control ranked among the lowest rated services.

The Mayor’s Office of Operations will further analyze the results and work with city agencies to improve the delivery of services. “We will be using these results, along with our other performance measurements, to hold city agencies accountable for the quality of the service they are responsible for delivering,” said Jeff Kay, director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations.

To view detailed results listed by community board, check

Man Shot Following Ridgewood Street Robbery

Chased Perps Who Robbed Sister

By Conor Greene

A 25-year-old man was shot several times after chasing down four men who robbed his sister minutes earlier in Ridgewood.

Anthony Alvarez, of 71st Avenue, suffered gunshot wounds to his left foot and leg at the corner of Grove Street and Seneca Avenue just after midnight last Sunday. According to police, the victim had left the McDonalds restaurant on Myrtle Avenue with his sister and uncle when they were approached by four Hispanic men.

The men got into a verbal dispute, at which time one of the suspects grabbed 25-year-old Emily Alvarez’s handbag. As the perp turned to flee, Emily Alvarez ripped a gold chain off his neck. As the men ran from the scene, the Alvarez siblings and their 50-year-old uncle, Claudio Alvarez chased them.

The victims caught up with the four men near 589 Seneca Avenue, at which point one of the suspects pulled out a 9mm handgun and fired several rounds, hitting Anthony Alvarez. He then chased Emily Alvarez into the building to retrieve his gold chain, said police, before fleeing on foot.

Officers from the 104th Precinct and the NYPD Emergency Services Unit responded to set up a crime scene and search the area. Despite recovering several spent 9mm shells and a black jacket possibly belonging to the suspect, no arrests have been made.

Anthony Alvarez, who was found lying in the street by responding officers, was taken to a local hospital and treated for his injuries, which were considered non life-threatening.

Maspeth Girl Admits to LI Craigslist Scam

Unsuspecting Buyers Were Lured, Robbed

By Conor Greene

An 18-year-old Maspeth woman who advertised luxury cars online and then robbed the potential buyers is facing up to five years in prison after pleading guilty to masterminding the scam.

Agnes Banach pleaded guilty last week to a host of charges including five counts of robbery, two counts of grand larceny and conspiracy in connection with robberies in Freeport and Baldwin in November and December 2007. She is expected to be sentenced to five years in prison when she returns to court on January 22.

“Ms. Banach’s violent actions have left her no other option but to serve time in prison,” said Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice. “We were prepared to take this case to trial before she took responsibility for her actions.”

Banach began scamming potential car buyers when she placed an ad on Craigslist on November 26, 2007 offering a Porsche for sale at a bargain-basement price. A person responding to the ad was told to bring a $4,800 down payment when he and his wife went to Freeport to look at the vehicle.

Banach, known to the victims as “Linda,” met them at the Long Island address and then dropped her keys, which was the signal for her co-conspirators to attack the buyers. At that point, four men jumped out and attacked the couple, stealing their down payment and Blackberry.

The scam targeted an unsuspecting buyer again on December 6, when a father and son answered an ad for a 2002 Porsche that Banach placed on Craigslist under the name “Lucy.” The men were told to bring a $22,000 down payment with them to an address in Baldwin.

As the son knocked on the door, a man, identified as 18-year-old Chad Greaves, punched him multiple times. The attacker pulled out what appeared to be a gun and robbed the father of $100, according to authorities. Banach and seven co-conspirators were arrested less than two weeks after the second heist.

Also charged in the scam were Khaliek Owens, 17, of Brooklyn, who pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery; and Christopher Blanco, 19, of the Bronx, who pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree robbery.

In addition, Lavainna Seaton, 17, Chad Greaves, 18, Ronique Simpson, 19, all of Brooklyn; Wally Arias, 19, of the Bronx, and George Obanyoun, 20, of Inwood, pleaded guilty to robbery, attempted robbery, grand larceny and conspiracy. They will be sentenced on December 18.

This marks at least the second recent local scam involving Craigslist to result in robberies. Earlier this year, videographer Tom Morgan was robbed at gunpoint of his wallet and $4,000 worth of equipment after responding to a posting seeking somebody to tape a two-hour bachelorette party in Brooklyn.

To avoid such scams, Craigslist urges people to “deal locally with people you can meet in person… Follow this one simple rule and you will avoid 99% of scam attempts on Craigslist,” the website warns.

A Restaurant Row Rebound in Forest Hills?

Oh, what four lowercase letters and a period can do. On Forest Hills' newly rejuvenated Restaurant Row—aka 70th Road—the vacant, boarded-up former location of Rouge sprouted an enticing promotional sign recently. It advertises a new bar and grill that will be opening up in that prime location. It will be known as aged. No, my shift key is not broken, and that full stop acts as both the end of the sentence and the final character in the four-character name of the restaurant. There are no capital letters in the name of this restaurant. There is, on the other hand, punctuation. The name is one syllable, as if to indicate that the owners are too busy and important to add another. And it is — oh, could this possibly be happening? — an adjective.

You can imagine my excitement. Forest Hills, after all, is filled with the kind of Italian restaurants that proudly read “Ristorante Italiano” on their awnings, and one imagines the owners pronounce those words with short, nasal vowels, as Bugs Bunny might—”Riss-ta-RANN-tay Ih-TAIL-i-ANN-o.” You will note that Italian superchef Mario Batali does not open Ristorante Italianos—or is it Ristorantes Italiano? Ristorantes Italianos? Forest Hills alumna Lidia Bastianich would never dream of it, either. Just “Ristorante,” maybe, for a touch of the old country, but the Italiano seems a bit desperate, perhaps indicating that the restaurateur lacks confidence in his or her Italianness.

But I digress. The point is that aged. is a great name for a restaurant. Why? Just because it's the kind of thing that people who know what they're doing name their restaurants, that's why.

I have no evidence whatsoever that aged., which, it must be noted, does not yet exist, will not be terrible. For all I know, Sizzler will grill up a better steak—I presume from the name that steak will be a significant part of the menu. Judging by its location, it will almost assuredly be overpriced, as is its neighbor, fancy new MoCA, a place that offers nearly identical cuisine to a number of local restaurants approaching double digits, its main innovations being a more sparkly exterior and significantly higher prices. But I do know one solitary thing about aged., and that's its name. So far, it's batting 1.000.

Somehow, in this astoundingly nightmarish economy, Forest Hills is classing up a bit. Exhibit B: öko, a new yogurt-coffee-and-dessert place on Austin Street, whose name, while nonsense, is one letter shorter than aged. and also contains an umlaut. Listen to how awesome öko is: It peddles sour yogurt and fair-trade coffee, bakes homemade cookies and pies throughout the day, and its two other locations are in the East Village and Park Slope. Its website boasts that it “is a proud member of Businesses donating 1% of Sales to the Natural Environment,” whatever that means.

I paid a visit to öko last weekend, on exactly the kind of unseasonably frigid day that calls for a cup of fair-trade coffee, and business was booming. The people working behind the counter were chatty and concerned, and my chocolate-walnut blondie was delicious. Is this really the same one-square-block area where Twin Donut (motto: “When Dunkin Donuts has too much dignity to move in”) is set to open?

The business that öko was doing validates what I've been saying about Forest Hills for years. Businesspeople are finally starting to notice the obvious reality: When a worthwhile, well-thought-out, reasonably with-it business opens around here, it succeeds, every single time. I don't know how aged. will do, but if it looks nice, the service could be worse, and the food is halfway decent, people will show up — I promise.

Twin Donut is still coming, dollar stores and chintzy discounters abound, and the high-end retailers the luxury Windsor condo clearly was holding out for never quite made it—developers Cord Meyer eventually gave up and submitted to a veterinary clinic and the inevitable tanning salon. But the next time you see a disappointing new business open up here in town—and there will be a next time, and it will be soon—just remember: It's not because we can't support better. It's just for lack of trying.

The writer, Steve Tiszenkel is the host of the Website, Log on to read more about Forest Hills and surrounding neighborhoods.

Three Stabbed in Pool Hall Brawl

By Conor Greene

Three men ended up in local hospitals with stab wounds following a “large fight” outside a Ridgewood pool hall, according to police.

Officers from the 104th Precinct responded to the report of a fight in front of Arena Billiards and Café at 341 St. Nicholas Avenue at 2:19 a.m. on December 7. A security guard advised the officers that the individuals involved in the fight had fled the scene.

About 45 minutes later, the precinct received a report from Wyckoff Hospital of two men being treated for stab wounds. An officer responded to the hospital and found that Samuel Garcia, 21, and Hector Santiago, 22, both of Madison Avenue, were being treated. Garcia was admitted to the hospital with an abdomen wound, while Santiago was treated for a laceration on his right arm and released.

Meanwhile, the precinct was also notified that a third victim was in Kings County Hospital with a stab wound. An officer from the 71st Precinct in Brooklyn responded and met Victor Agosto, 45, of Grove Street. He was admitted to the hospital for treatment of several stab wounds to his lower back, said police.

A crime scene was established at the billiards hall while detectives interviewed the victims. Police say the three men were uncooperative and the cause of the fight is not known. All were expected to survive. As of press time, there was no information available on any arrests.

Arrest Made in Sidekick Theft

A 17-year-old girl was arrested and charged with stealing a Sidekick cell phone from another girl as she was walking on St. Felix Avenue in Ridgewood, said police.

Police from the 104th Precinct took Deonte Haynes, of Eldert Street in Brooklyn, into custody after responding to a report of a robbery near St. Felix Avenue and 60th Street at 1:55 p.m. on Tuesday.

According to police, the victim, a 17-year-old girl from Cooper Avenue was talking on her Sidekick when Haynes approached her and pushed her to the ground. Two witnesses chased Haynes along Felix Avenue to Seneca Avenue before catching her in front of 1717 Norman Street. They held here there until Officer Anthony Burzotta arrived and arrested her.

A Hispanic male wearing a black jacket and blue jeans fled from the scene and remains at large, according to police.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

This Week's Forum West and South

Katz Sends Residents Letter Explaining Her Term Limit Stance

Supported Mayor’s Bill Allowing Third Term

By Conor Greene

In an effort to explain one of the most controversial votes City Council members have cast this year, Melinda Katz recently sent a letter to constituents outlining her support for a bill allowing officials to serve a third consecutive term in office.

Katz (D-Forest Hills), who is running for the city comptroller position and would have been forced out of her current position on the City Council next year due to term limits, supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s bill extending term limits, when it passed by a vote of 29 to 22 in October.

The decision by City Council members to provide themselves with the opportunity to serve a third four year term came after residents previously voted twice to maintain term limits. It was seen by some as a conflict of interest, with the mayor reportedly lobbying hard to gain the necessary support of council members.

The vote threw a wrench into many local races, including next year’s battle for city comptroller. Incumbent William Thompson has said publicly that he is continuing his mayoral bid, despite now having the option of seeking another term as comptroller. He has until July to decide which office he will seek.

That leaves the other comptroller candidates, including Katz, Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), Councilman David Yassky (D-Brooklyn) and Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, also a Democrat, in a tough position. Due to the differences in the amounts candidates can raise and spend for the comptroller race versus a city council run, the candidates who are now council members must decide by January 10 if they will seek reelection to their current position.

Katz, who has already spent about $775,000 on her comptroller bid, voted in favor of the mayor’s bill amending the term limit law, and also voted against a bill introduced earlier that same day that would have forced a public vote on the council’s decision. At the time, her comptroller campaign manager, Erik Joerss, maintained that Katz is moving ahead with her comptroller bid.

“Bill Thompson has been very clear that he is running for mayor and we are running for comptroller,” said Joerss on October 29 when asked whether the term limit amendment, or the possibility that Thompson seeks reelection as comptroller, would cause her to instead seek reelection to her council seat. “Other than that, we are not going to get into hypotheticals,” he said.

In a statement, Katz said that she has “long been against term limits” and saw the mayor’s bill as a chance to “create more stability” in local government.” She said that a referendum “would create more confusion for New Yorkers and for candidates about just what offices they are eligible to run for.” When asked whether Katz was concerned about going against the will of residents who twice voted for term limits, Joerss said the statement addresses that issue and refused to provide additional comment.

Katz recently expanded on the reasoning behind her vote in a letter to constituents. She argued that “from a practical point of view, a longer time in office affects… the ability to see capital improvements through completion.” In addition, she notes that the earliest a referendum could be held would be March or April meaning the vote wouldn’t take effect until May, a timeframe that would “hold the future of our City government in limbo at a time when it is in most need of stability.” Katz also argued in the letter that the City Council’s job “is to pass laws whether they change laws enacted by referendum or legislation.”

She maintains that she has been against term limits since the start of her career in public service, writing letters in opposition to the two public referendums as a member of the state Assembly in 1993 and 1996. “My position then as well as now has been clear and has not changed,” she wrote.

So far, a handful of candidates have already emerged to succeed Katz in the 29th council district, which represents Forest Hills and Rego Park, including Deputy Borough President Karen Koslowitz, former assemblyman Michael Cohen, community board member Lynn Schulman, Heidi Chain, president of the 112th Precinct Community Council, Mel Gagarin and Bob Delay.

City to Unveil New Plans for Proposed Maspeth School

SCA to Present at January CB5 Meeting

By Conor Greene

After the first plan to build a large combined intermediate and high school in Maspeth was rejected by the local community board, the School Construction Authority will present revised plans to next month.

Despite the negative reaction the plan garnered when it was first presented earlier this year, a SCA officials told the audience at the November 25 Community Education Council 24 meeting that it will bring the revised plans to the City Council for approval, regardless of the reaction it receives from Community Board 5 in January.

The city first proposed building a 1,650-seat school at the former Restaurant Depot site at 74th Street and Grand Avenue to serve students in grades 6-12. In May, CB 5rejected the plan, which called for a 45,000-square-foot, four-story building. Concerns included the size of the building, whether it would be zoned exclusively for local children, and adding traffic to the already congested area.

At the November CEC 24 meeting in PS 58, Lorraine Grillo, executive director and chief of staff of the SCA said that “because of concerns we heard voiced very loudly from the community board, we went back to the drawing board.” The result is a scaled down version that would include seats for 1,000 students, she said. “We tried to come up with an idea that is both useful for the district and palatable for the community… Hopefully this time around, we get a different reaction.”

Grillo explained that the process for building a new school begins when the SCA proposes a potential site. The proposal goes to the community board, which votes on it within its role as an advisory body. “Their vote is just a recommendation, however it very often influences the way the City Council vote,” she said. “We want to be good neighbors… so we go back and see if we can come up with something that will really be accepted.”

However, she indicated that the SCA is committed to moving this proposal forward regardless of the outcome of the January CB 5 meeting. “At that point, if we get a good recommendation – or even if we don’t – we will take this to the City Council Land Use Committee,” she said.

A big consideration for local residents, many who say the area is saturated with schools, is whether it would be zoned only for local children. However, Grillo made it clear that “zoning is not a conversation the SCA has.” That decision will ultimately be made by the city Department of Education.

James McClelland, chief of staff for Councilman Anthony Como, noted that he was involved in the efforts to ensure that the new school being built on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills was zoned locally. “It’s going to be a long fight to get it locally zoned,” he said. “It took us a long time to get those words, ‘locally zoned.’”

Councilwoman Elect Elizabeth Crowley, who will represent the area starting in January, said she is meeting with officials in hopes of securing local zoning. “I think it should be for our community,” she said. “We haven’t had high school seats [in Maspeth] going back to when I went to high school… I would be afraid to send my kids to Grover Cleveland."

NYPD Officer Charged in Brutal Road Rage Attack

Beat Man After Nearly Hitting Him on Queens Blvd, Says Cops

By Conor Greene

An NYPD officer is facing assault charges after allegedly knocking out a pedestrian who was angry that the off-duty cop nearly ran him over on Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills.

Officer Jamel Dennis, 32, assigned to the Brooklyn North Narcotics unit, was arraigned on Monday night in Queens Criminal Court on second-degree assault charges, according to District Attorney Richard Brown. He is accused of violently beating 41-year-old Geoffrey Hollinden near the intersection of 109th Street two weeks ago.

According to police, Dennis was driving his 2006 Infiniti on Queens Boulevard on the afternoon of November 17 when he almost struck Hollinden. Enraged at nearly being struck, Hollinden hit the rear of the Infiniti as it passed him. Moments later, the six foot six inch officer got out of his car, grabbed Hollinden around the waste and pulled him across the boulevard.

When they reached the eastbound service lane, Dennis allegedly lifted Hollinden to shoulder height before slamming him into the pavement, knocking him unconscious. As a result of the attack, Hollinden sustained a head laceration that required five staples to close, along with cranial bleeding, a herniated disc in the neck and substantial pain that caused him to be hospitalized for three days.

Two days after the incident, Dennis arrived at the 112th Precinct, identified himself as an NYPD officer and said he had been in a traffic dispute with another man who pushed him, and wanted to know if anyone had filed a complaint in connection with the accident. The same day, Dennis allegedly pointed out a scuff mark on the rear of his Infiniti to an officer with the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau and said that was where the other man had hit the back of his car.

However, his involvement in the incident came to light because a witness wrote down Dennis’ license plate number after the alleged attack, said Brown. “As a motorist -and more so, as a police officer – the defendant should have known better than to allegedly take matters into his own hands and elevate a minor traffic dispute into a felonious assault,” he said.

If convicted, Dennis faces up to seven years in prison on the charges. He was released on his own recognizance and ordered back in court on January 15.

Animal Rescue Group Needs New Home


By Conor Greene

For nearly a decade, a local animal rescue group has used rented space in a non- descript building at JFK Airport to house some of the larger dogs it rescues. Now, after finding out their lease won’t be renewed at the end of the year, the group is desperately seeking the public’s help to raise money for a new building.

Bobbi and the Strays, a Queens-based no kill shelter that rescues dogs and cats, has used the space in JFK’s Vetport for about nine years, paying a modest monthly rent, according to founder Bobbi Giordano. For the past few years, the owners of the Shops at Atlas Park in Glendale have donated space where cats and smaller breeds of dogs are kept.

Earlier this year, the group received the devastating news that the Port Authority plans to raze a series of buildings at the airport, including the one used to house two dozen pit bulls, rottweilers and other large dogs saved from the streets, city Animal Care and Control shelters and owners who no longer can care for them. Bobbi and the Strays has since kicked off a fundraising effort in hopes of garnering enough support to buy a building in the area.

“Everything we’ve looked at, we can’t afford,” said Giordano. “We’re at a standstill. The lease is up on December 31st, and I don’t know what is going to happen. We heard rumors there might be an extension, but we haven’t seen anything in writing.”

So far, donations large and small have been coming in from friends and other supporters of the group. A Halloween party at a local bar also proved successful, said Giordano.

If the group finds itself without a home for the larger dogs come January 1, they will be placed with local vets and with foster families. “I’m not giving them to another shelter,” said Giordano. “You get close to them, we spend time with them, and we have very good volunteers that put a lot into them.”

“We’re an absolute no kill shelter,” said Giordano. “We do home checks, take them off the streets, from nursing homes, from people who die, and look for homes for them, do their medical, spay, neuter, shots. We really go the extra miles.” Of course, even in their current situation, space is always an issue. “As soon as one goes out, another two come in, that’s just the way it is,” she said.

In their quest to raise enough money for a new building, Giordano said that any donation, no matter how small, is welcomed. “You can send a dollar, five dollars, that would really help. It’s a long way off, but if everybody in Queens sent in a dollar or two, we would have the money.”

In the meantime, volunteers and staff members have tried to keep the possibility they will be scrambling to find space for the rescued dogs out of their minds. “We rely heavily on that building – without it we would not be able to take in those animals,” said Laura Miller, who manages the shelter at the Vetport. “We save a lot [of dogs] by having that space there.”

Without that space, the group would have to immediately find a foster family for any dog it rescues, explained Miller. “Here, we can take them in right away… We need to raise the money. There is no other option in my mind. We’re on a mission and are going to raise the money.”

Anybody who wishes to contribute to the building foundation can mail a check directly to Bobbi and the Strays at PO Box 170129, Ozone Park, NY, 11417. For more information, check their website at bobbiandthestrays.

Broad Channel Volunteers Caught in Red Tape

DOT Inaction Delays Building Project

By Patricia Adams

For 103 years the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department (BCVFD) has served its immediate community and those surrounding it. Every year the department responds to an average of 550 calls for fire and ambulance emergencies. They average about 45 volunteers at any given time and for the last ten years they have been marching toward the future of their department– a new firehouse which will be constructed adjacent to the Broad Channel Athletic Club field on Cross Bay Boulevard.

Plans and action first taken to build this facility started ten years ago, and since, the Broad Channel volunteer corps and the entire community have done everything they can to ensure the success of the plan. The department acquired $2 million in support at the federal level from Congressman Anthony Weiner and Senator Hillary Clinton from a 2005 federal transportation bill. Although the BCVFD had their work cut out for them to raise 20 percent of the funds needed– $440,000- they put their noses to the grindstone and raised the funds.

“It’s sort of like applying for a mortgage,” organization President Ed O’Hare explained. “When we applied for the funding for the project we were told that we would need to raise 20 percent on our own. And we did.” In addition Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and state Senator Shirley Huntley both kicked in $100,000 each.

“Every 't' has been crossed and every 'i' has been dotted and at this stage of the plan,” said O’Hare. But at the very last step — getting the city Department of Transportation(DOT) to sign off on the deal — the department has run into the toughest obstacle in their decade long path—the red tape of bureaucracy.

Call, letters and e-mails have gone unanswered for months. Further communications with the mayor’s office have also gone without reply. (Please see letters to the editor “BCVFD Calls on Bloomberg for Answers”) “All we want is an answer,” stated O’Hare, “as to what’s holding up the application. We have met every requirement and there is no reason to stall us like this. Instead our efforts to better serve this community are being stymied by a city agency.”

O’Hare said he would understand if this was a question of money, but that is not the case. “This project is not going to cost the city one dime.”

There are many important factors about the new building, BCVFD volunteers contend, that make it so much more than just a firehouse. The new firehouse does not only offer a modern and safe storage and operational center for the department, it is a multi-use building which could conceivably incorporate a meeting hall for seniors, youth groups and other community organizations.

In addition the building will be completely green following an ecofriendly design plan and following a proposal to use solar power to operate. The original design plans for the 10,000-square-foot building have been modified to raise the building by 3 ½ feet making it a qualifier for the 500-year floodplain FEMA designation.

This building could act as a triage center, OEM operational headquarters and an evacuation center for hundreds of people under catastrophic circumstances. If necessary a helicopter could be landed on the adjacent athletic field since it is a private field. But all the perks for the communities served by the BCVFD now hang in the balance as a total breakdown in communication between the department and the city seem to define the present situation.

The volleys say they will continue to pressure the city and solicit the help of local officials who they say, are also baffled by the city’s lack of response. “We need answers,” said Ed O’Hare, “we need them now and we plan to get them.”

Above is a rendering of the proposed 10,000-square-foot multi-purpose firehouse and community center. The facility will include four bays for emergency vehicles, an office, state of the art dispatch center directly tied to city emergency calling systems, and a large community meeting facility.