Thursday, July 3, 2008

This Week's Forum West and South:

Comptroller Rejects Ridgewood Reservoir Contract

Residents Frustrated by Stalled Downzoning Effort

Truck Overturns on Grand Avenue in Maspeth

Neighborhood Crime Discussed at COP 104 Meeting

Mayor, Council Agree on $59 Billion City Budget

Comptroller Rejects Reservoir Contract

Parks Wants to Clear Basin and Build Sports Fields on 50-Acre Nature Site

By Conor Greene
The city’s push to develop a portion of the Ridgewood Reservoir into sports fields took a major hit last week when Comptroller William Thompson’s office rejected a contract the Parks Department offered a landscape design consultant.

In a June 23 letter, Thompson’s office informed the Parks Department that the $3.3 million contract with Mark K. Morrison Associates is being returned “to allow additional time for your agency to respond to our concerns.”

It goes on to say that Parks “should not have solicited proposals without a full understanding of all the issues pertaining to any new development of the park.”

Due to the “sensitive ecological nature of the location,” the project’s environmental review process is of heightened importance and “must have maximum transparency.” As a result, the comptroller’s office is concerned that under the proposed contract, the vendor responsible for the environmental study would be a subcontractor working for the architect, “who has a vested interest in pursuing construction of a $38 million project.”

The 50-acre site of the defunct reservoir is next to Highland Park at the Queens-Brooklyn boundary and was turned over from the city Department of Environmental Protection to the Parks Department in 2004. The department has since presented several proposals for the site, including clearing one basin of shrubs and growth to make way for ballfields.

Since then, a number of local activists and elected officials have fought any proposals that would require clearing the site. Last month, Thompson, a likely mayoral candidate last year, co-wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The column, which laments the fact that Parks “could wind up destroying” the property, describes it as an “accidental wilderness.”

In a press release coinciding with his office’s letter to Parks, Thompson notes he has “consistently urged the city to rethink its plans to develop the 50-acre site.” He points out that Mark K. Morrison’s proposal would require that between 11,700 and 27,500 large truckloads of fill are transported through local streets.

“Either of these options would have significant negative impacts to the areas surrounding the park, which will have to bear the brunt of the noise, emissions and traffic disruptions for many years,” the letter stated. “For comparison purposes, it took six years to bring 1.7 million cubic yards of fill to Ferry Point Park in the Bronx.”

In a statement reportedly released last week, the Parks Department appears ready to continue with the project. “We plan to review the comptroller’s concerns and meet with the comptroller so that the design contract and the planning can move ahead on this great park,” the agency wrote.

On June 19, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall told the City Council Committee on Parks and Recreation during a hearing on the future of Ridgewood Reservoir and Highland Park that she is opposed to “plans to convert the historic landmark into ballfields.”

Instead, she is a “strong advocate to preserve the unique and important ecosystems that have developed in the Ridgewood Reservoir,” according to a transcript of her comments posted on She called the reservoir an “important area for resident, migratory and nesting birds” and a great place for residents to “enjoy the wonderful fruits that mother nature has to offer.”

Noting that the reservoir was named one of the eight “Underdeveloped Destination Parks” to be targeted by Mayor Bloomberg, Marshall instead proposed a plan that calls for retaining its “historic natural areas and ensuring that they receive the same treatment as historical landmarks.” She suggested that a ecology research center and museum be created and that existing sports facilities in Highland Park be maintained.

Residents Frustrated Over Stalled Downzoning Effort

Members of a local civic group are ready to take to the streets and force action after waiting years for the city to downzone 350 blocks of Middle Village, Maspeth and Glendale.

During its monthly meeting at Our Lady of Hope auditorium in Middle Village last Thursday, the group’s president, Robert Holden, and other residents ripped into the Department of City Planning for dragging its feet on the effort, which is intended to protect the area characterized by one-and-two-family houses from out of scale development.

The effort started four years ago, when volunteers from Maspeth and Middle Village went door-to-door, surveying thousands of properties. This process was finished in October 2005, at which point Queens Director of City Planning John Young asked Holden to wait for city certification until Glendale volunteers completed that area’s survey. “He said it would speed things up,” said Holden. “Here we are, in the summer of 2008, and nothing has happened.”

The rezoning now includes a total of 350 blocks, including Maspeth south of the Long Island Expressway, Middle Village south of Juniper Park and parts of Glendale. Much of the resident’s frustration was directed at Joy Chen, who represented the Department of City Planning at the meeting.

“The mayor is not giving the department enough staff members,” said Holden. “There should be 20 Joy Chens in Queens… This man [Mayor Bloomberg] says to hold off because he is trying to create one million units he needs for his sanctuary city, and Middle Village is on his list. He said in ’04 that he supports the downzoning, but after he was reelected, he stalled the whole taskforce.”

Chen was unable to tell residents when the rezoning might finally receive city certification and be put in place. “Zoning is a very complicated issue,” she said. “We are aware of the over-development issues… Yes, it has been two years. Things always take longer than you wish… Planning is a long process and there are many steps.” Including three different neighborhoods in the study has complicated the process because “each has challenges and specific conditions unique to that area,” she said.

The next step, according to Chen, is for an environmental assessment to be completed, and for City Planning Chairwoman Amanda Burden to tour the area and sign off on the downzoning. She told residents she could provide a “better timeframe” in September. In the meantime, she invited residents to call her office at (718) 286-3170 to complain that the process is moving too slowly.

Civic Vice President Lorraine Sciulli asked Chen if the delay is due to inaction on the part of Burden. Said Chen, “I think that is one of the many bureaucratic processes that have to happen before the next step is taken.” In response, Sciulli said, “While she is delaying the walk, developers are raping every street.”

Michael Cohen, a former state assemblyman and current candidate to represent Rego Park and Forest Hills on City Council, questioned the need for an environmental assessment. “We’re talking about downzoning – making things smaller,” he pointed out. “The environmental impact is going to be less. It escapes me, if we’re doing less, why we’re delayed by an environmental study.”

Chen responded that the study is “required for all” re-zonings, and is less involved than a “full blown [environmental] impact statement. It sounds ominous, but it’s a very targeted environmental statement,” she said. “It’s standard for each and every one of our re-zonings.”

Holden wondered if this effort got “bumped” after “months and months of going door-to- door” while upzoning efforts in areas such as Jamaica were given top priority. “Your boss’s priority is to up-zone, not downzone,” he told Chen. “We’re the backbone of this city. If we move out, the city is going to be trash.” He noted that any projects begun before the new zoning is approved are grandfathered under the old laws. “Everyday, another construction fence goes up. The mayor has said ‘To hell with Queens.’”

Chen said that the city has determined that the downzoning is needed and that the process has been slowed in part because “there’s a lot of re-zonings going on” around the city. “We’re all in agreement that there is a strong consensus in this community for the downzoning,” she said. “We’re on the same page in terms of trying to protect this.”

However, Holden vowed to do “whatever it takes” to get the process moving forward, and suggested the residents will have to “take to the streets” in order to be heard. “We’ll block the streets, we’ll block their entrances,” he said. “We did all the work, and we were lied to. John Young said one thing, and we got another thing.”

In a statement, a DCP spokeswoman insisted that the Bloomberg administration’s “commitment to preserving neighborhood character is underway throughout Queens.” Since April, the department has begun public review on four re-zoning proposals totaling more than 580 blocks “to curb overdevelopment in the borough,” according to Jennifer Torres. She noted that the current proposal to rezone 350 blocks comes after the rezoning of parts of Middle Village and Glendale was approved in 2006.

“The current and larger 350 block phase two study of Middle Village, Maspeth and Glendale started in 2006 at the conclusion of earlier efforts and we are making expected progress with our block-by-block analysis to ensure a close match between our zoning recommendations and the built character.”

The department expects to “resume consensus building on this extensive rezoning in the fall, when the community board resumes it regular meeting schedule,” said Torres. “From there the department will need to finalize the proposal and environmental review.” She said that Burden “examines every rezoning area with careful scrutiny and thorough site visits.”

Truck Overturns on Grand Ave in Maspeth


By Conor Greene

MASPETH – In light of an accident last week that could have turned deadly, local officials are renewing their demands that the city take steps to reduce the amount of truck traffic along Grand Avenue.

A truck hauling sand overturned as it was turning from the westbound Long Island Expressway service road onto Grand Avenue at about 8 a.m. last Thursday, according to witnesses. The truck overturned on the Grand Avenue bridge, spilling sand onto the expressway below. The accident forced the closure of the highway’s westbound lanes and caused major traffic backups on local roads.

The truck was removed from the roadway by and the driver was taken to a local hospital and is believed to be the only person injured in the accident. Firefighters used long poles to search through the sand, which was piled six feet high on the sidewalk, to make sure nobody was trapped.

“If somebody had been walking [on the sidewalk], they would have been killed,” said Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association. “Every day, we have trucks barreling through Grand Avenue.”

For years, residents and local groups including the JPCA have urged the city Department of Transportation to reduce the amount of truck drivers cutting through the neighborhood’s main commercial area as they head east to the Long Island Expressway. In 2004, Tony Nunziato, then chairman of Community Board 5’s Environmental Committee, and the late Frank Principe, then CB 5’s chairman, devised the Grand Avenue Truck Bypass Plan.

The plan called for rerouting tens of thousands of trucks away from the heart of Maspeth and through the neighborhood’s industrial sections. Trucks traveling east from Brooklyn would be forced to turn onto Rust Street from Grand Avenue and drive north,entering the eastbound Long Island Expressway at Maurice and Borden avenues. Trucks traveling west on the LIE to Brooklyn would not be allowed to exit the highway at 69th Street and Grand Avenue, expect for local deliveries. Those vehicles would instead exit at Maurice Avenue.

The plan was approved in 2005 by then DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall, but has yet to be put in place because the DOT determined that the intersection of Maurice and Maspeth avenues must first be reconfigured. “We did all the homework, and the city just had to give the nod,” said Nunziato, who owns a business along Grand Avenue.

Nunziato and others are now calling for the DOT to take immediate action. “They need to get moving and make this a priority before something devastating occurs,” he said. “If the Grand Avenue Truck Bypass Plan had been in place, this accident very likely would not have happened. This could have been very tragic [and] should serve as a wakeup

Local civic leaders are not the only ones calling for the city to address the issue of trucks on Grand Avenue. In a May 12 letter to Community Board 5, Sister Rose Torma, principal of St. Stanislaus Kosta School argued that “truck traffic moving both east and west on Grand Avenue between 64th and 61st streets must be rerouted.”

Her letter, which was in response to a separate DOT initiative designed to make the walk to school safer for students, said that “trucks and buses starting up after the light turns green causes an increase of both noise and air pollution, which goes into the opened classroom windows located directly opposite the traffic.”

On Wednesday, a DOT spokesman said that the department is currently “pursuing an engineering study to determine what kind of work would be necessary to support redirecting trucks of Grand Avenue.” The spokesman declined to provide a timeline for the project. “We’re looking at where else the trucks would go, and what type of infrastructure work would be need on those streets,” the spokesman said.

Neighborhood Crime Discussed at COP 104 Meeting

By Conor Greene

The 104th Precinct’s newest lieutenant led this month’s meeting, which took place at Our Lady of Hope Auditorium as part of last Thursday’s Juniper Park Civic Association.

Lt. Jerry Lester told the audience that he recently joined the Ridgewood-based precinct after serving for years in various Brooklyn neighborhoods. He was raised in Woodside and spent lots of time as a child hanging out around 83rd Street and Eliot Avenue in Middle Village, where his mother lived. “I still have memories of hanging out in the common driveways,” he said. “It’s a great neighborhood and is a special part of my heart.”

Monthly Crime Report
The lieutenant reported that 19 major crimes occurred in the sector covering Juniper Park and the surrounding area between May 26 and June 26. Those incidents included eight reports of grand larceny, mainly involving credit card theft, which he called a “major problem” that is “increasing every year.” There were also three reports of auto thefts. Lt. Lester noted that Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers have become common targets. There were also three homicides during that time stemming from the Father’s Day fire in a Metropolitan Avenue apartment, said Lt. Lester.

Between May 26 and June 26, there were 52 arrests within the area surrounding the park, according to Lt. Lester. “They’re doing a great job out there and a lot of good work,” he said of the precinct’s beat officers.

Don’t Become a Target
Lt. Lester reminded residents to double check that all windows and doors are locked when leaving the house. “You won’t believe the amount of people who forget to lock everything up, go away, and then come back to find their house ransacked,” he said. He also urged parents to remind teenagers to be careful when talking on their cell phones on the streets, as it can make them an easy target. “They’re not paying attention to their surroundings, and the perps come up and steal the phones,” he said. Six suspects from Brooklyn were recently arrested for stealing a cell phone in Ridgewood, he added.

There have also been several recent incidents of car break-ins, especially vehicles that have marks on the windshield from suction cups, which tells the perps that there might be a GPS system or radar detector inside. “The suction cups on the window show the perps it’s inside,” said Lt. Lester. “Take it in and lock it up.”

Cop of the Month
Two of the precinct’s officers were honored by the civic association for helping take into custody a suspect in a home invasion in Middle Village last month. At 11:05 p.m. on June 17 police received a 911 call reporting a robbery in progress at 84-42 63rd Road. Two black men pulled out a gun, forced three family members into the house and ordered the victims to hand over their valuables, according to police.

Officers arrived at the scene as the two men were fleeing the scene, one on foot and other in a white Jeep. A patrol car spotted the vehicle on Dry Harbor Road near Juniper Valley Park a short while later, just as the suspect lost control and crashed into a utility pole at 64th Road. The suspect ran from the vehicle as officers Collin Wynter and Robert Sowden gave chase, and was eventually arrested after officers found him hiding in a common driveway at 79th Street and Furmanville Avenue.

In recognition of their efforts, Wynter and Sowden received the JPCA’s Community Recognition Award. “We don’t give many of these out,” said Robert Holden, civic president. “Home invasions rarely happen, but when they do it is nice to know that the precinct responds. They weren’t thinking of themselves.”

“It was a great response, and they put their life in danger,” added Lt. Lester. “It’s a tough job, but it’s a great job.”

The incident marked the second home invasion to occur in Middle Village in the past two months, prompting some questions from concerned residents. In April, a man renting an apartment on 70th Street shot and killed a man who robbed him at gun-point. The tenant was arrested and is still in jail because the gun used in the shooting is illegal, according to police, who found a small amount of drugs inside the apartment.

Lt. Lester told the residents that the most recent incident appears to be random, while the victims April home invasion were likely targeted. “The so-called victim and the guy shot were both up to no good,” he said. The precinct’s detective squad is still investigating both incidents, as two men got away after the April robbery, and one is still at large from last month’s incident.

Unanswered Phone Calls
Resident Augie Trinchese said he has encountered several incidents of phone calls to the precinct going unanswered. “There are a lot of thing that happen that are not 911 situations that you call the precinct for,” he said. “My personal experience is that the phone doesn’t get answered. I know you’re busy, but my recent experience is that no one is there to answer.” Lt. Lester responded that there is somebody on duty around the clock to answer the phone. There are times when that person gets tied up on another call, but he agreed that “endless ringing is ridiculous.”

The JPCA honors Officers Robert Sowden and Collin Wynter for arresting a suspect in a June 17 home invasion. At right is Lt. Jerry Lester and in the background (center) is Community Affairs Officer Tommy Bell.

Mayor, Council Agree on $59 Billion City Budget


By Conor Greene

After taking office two weeks before budgetary decisions were finalized, Councilman Anthony Como has included money in the city’s $59 billion budget to support a number of district-based organizations.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council agreed on the budget last Thursday, just in time for the 2009 fiscal year, which began on Tuesday. The spending plan maintains the seven percent property tax rate cut for the second year and continues the $400 property tax rebate program for homeowners for the fifth year.

For Como (R-Middle Village), the days after being sworn into office last month were hectic, given the timing in relation to the city budget. However, a number of local civic groups, senior centers and youth organizations have received funding they rely on to operate.

During the two-months of campaigning for the special election, in which he narrowly defeated Glendale Democrat Elizabeth Crowley, Como made funding senior centers and programs a top priority. Throughout the budget process, many residents and community leaders were worried that senior centers would bear the brunt of the reductions. The final budget features a 39 percent reduction in discretionary spending, from $352 million last year to $232 million this year, and the city’s Housing Authority, which helps fund senior centers, is receiving $18 million, much less than the $30 million it requested.

The budget includes the following amounts for local senior organizations: $8,750 for the Forest Park Senior Center; $36,000 for Glendridge Senior Citizen Center; $21,000 for the Middle Village Senior Citizens Center; $32,000 for the Peter Cardella Senior Citizen Center; $25,000 for the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council; $14,000 for the Ridgewood Older Adult Center and $12,000 for Selfhelp Community Services.

Among youth programs, Maspeth Town Hall will receive $28,705; the Federazione Italo-Americana di Brooklyn and Queens will get $20,500; the Greater Woodhaven Development Corp. will receive $16,500; the Greater Ridgewood Youth Council will get $26,500 and the Ridgewood/ Glendale/ Middle Village /Maspeth Little League will get $9,009.

Other general discretionary funding includes $2,500 for the Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, which will also received an additional $8,000 from other Council members. The Glendale Civic Association gets $3,000 from Como and $3,500 from the Queens Delegation, the Glendale Civilian Observation Patrol will receive $2,500, the Glendale Volunteer Ambulance Corps. gets $2,500 and the Middle Village Property Owners and Residents Association will receive $2,500.

Overall, the city’s spending remained virtually flat for 2009 compared with last year, with the budget’s spending increase of 1.6 percent remaining below the 2.7 percent annual rate of inflation. City schools will receive $129 million more than was proposed in last month’s Executive Budget presented by the mayor, which was a huge source of concern to many officials and residents.

“The news about the economy, and its effects on the city’s finances, continues to be very sobering, and this budget reflects the uncertain economic outlook we face,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “I want to thank Speaker [Christine] Quinn and the Council members for working with us to create a budget that is fiscally responsible and balanced. And in the weeks and months ahead, we will take whatever steps are necessary to keep our budget in balance and keep our city moving forward.”