Thursday, January 15, 2009

Marshall Focuses on Economy and Redevelopment During Annual Address

Seniors, Transit, Public Safety and Culture also Discussed

By Conor Greene

Borough President Helen Marshall covered a wide range of issues in her annual State of the Borough address on Tuesday, but not surprisingly given the current economic crisis, much of her focus was on several redevelopment projects underway across Queens.

Before a crowd of nearly 1,000 in Queens College’s Colden Center, Marshall touted projects she has funded at local libraries, parks and cultural centers, while asking residents to elect her to a third term in office.

“With your help we will build on the foundations that I have created during my tenure,” she said. “To continue the work, I will ask the good people of Queens to allow me four more years to get the job done.”

Residents Honored

While the borough’s economic woes surfaced throughout the speech, Marshall began on a positive note by honoring some of the Queens residents who made news this year for the right reasons.

Marshall congratulated Digna and Victor Carpio – a city Housing Authority employee – on the recent birth of sextuplets. She also thanked NYPD Officer Patrick Plunkett, who apprehended a bank robber in Maspeth in October while off duty.

“And talk about bravery, I think all of us have admiration for a Queens resident who represents courage and resiliency in the face of danger,” said Marshall. “Eighty-six-year-old Vivian Squires, despite having been stabbed by an intruder in her home just nine days ago, fought back, had surgery and was just released from the hospital… And, can you imagine – is here today.”

Marshall also thanked three FDNY fire marshals who arrested the man suspected of setting a Whitestone shopping center on fire several months ago. Also honored was the Francis Lewis High School girl’s volleyball team, which just won its second citywide championship. Marshall noted that Francis Lewis “is the city’s most sought-after school.”

Redevelopment Projects

With the city’s capital budget “battered and stretched by credit crunches and the losses by many of our financial institutions,” Marshall spent much of the 90-minute speech on several major redevelopment projects planned across Queens, including at Willets Point near Flushing and Hunters Point South on the East River in Long Island City.

Combined, those two projects are expected to create more than 10,000 housing units, a convention center, retail space, community facilities and two schools, according to Marshall. “It has been said that construction is the engine that drives the economy,” she said. “In this ailing economy, we can create jobs, we can build housing and we can boost businesses. Naysayers beware, we will move forward.”

New Schools and a Hometown Favorite

Marshall boasted that six new schools opened this past September, including PS 305 in Ridgewood, PS 307 in Corona, PS 244 in Flushing, PS 306 in Woodhaven, PS 303 in Forest Hills and the Elmhurst Educational Campus.

During her tenure in office, Marshall said she has “worked to create more than 27,000new seats in 48 new schools or additions.” Seven more schools with more than 2,700seats are expected to open in September, followed by the new Metropolitan Avenue campus in Forest Hills and the Gateway High School for Health Care Professionals.

In addition, Marshall said that it has “been a pleasure and thrill to work with legendary hometown hero Tony Bennett to open the new Frank Sinatra High School in Astoria, just blocks from where he grew up.” The school originally opened in 2001 and is moving into a new building this year.

With that, Marshall welcomed Bennett to the stage to introduce the Frank Sinatra High School Concert Chorus, which performed two songs for the audience. “Mr. Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but I can tell you his soul is still right here in Astoria,” said Marshall.

After traveling around the world, “I still come back to Astoria and like it more than any other place in the world,” said Bennett. “It is the most exciting place to explain the greatness of the United States of America.”

Health Care and Seniors

While recognizing that “challenge and hope is felt no more acutely than in our health care delivery system,” Marshall delivered the bad news that one Queens health facility – Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills has been forced to shut its doors, while two others, St. John’s in Elmhurst and Mary Immaculate in Jamaica are currently threatened by bankruptcy.

However, there was some good news regarding local hospitals, as Elmhurst Hospital Center opened its new Hope Pavilion, a comprehensive cancer care treatment facility in July and the borough’s largest hospital, LIJ Medical Center, broke ground on a $300 million project that will feature a women’s hospital housed in a 10-story pavilion. In addition, New York Hospital Queens is planning to build a new seven-story wing that will add 80-acute care beds when completed next year.

Marshall also took time to speak against the city’s proposed changes to the Meals on Wheels program, slated to take effect in February. Under the new plan, frozen meals would be delivered to seniors instead of a fresh, hot meal. “It is obvious to me that the new system is designed to allow a caterer to deliver frozen – not hot – meals once or twice a week,” said Marshall. “And there is no menu of options for seniors in this, America’s most diverse county. Everyone gets the same meal.”

Public Safety and Fire Response

"Our city could not sleep restfully or get up every morning and function were it not for the commitment and dedication of our uniformed forces,” Marshall said, noting she is “deeply concerned that the average response time to structural fires in Queens is longer than in any other borough.”

She also said she is concerned about the “lack of Fire Department resources in western Queens, where almost 10,000 units of new housing are under construction, recently completed or planned.” As a result, she made reopening of Engine 261 a condition for her support of the Hunters Point South plan.

The borough’s crime rate dropped almost four percent in 2008, but the homicide rate in Queens South jumped a “staggering” sixty-five percent. “Despite reductions in the latest police class and pending budget cuts, we cannot accept the increase in murders from 43 to 71 lost lives,” said Marshall, adding that gunshot victims rose by twenty-six percent compared with 2007.

In addition, despite a more than seven percent increase in subway crime, the NYPD Transit Task Force was dismantled earlier this month, noted Marshall. “Because crime traditionally increases in times of economic pressures, it is clear to me that the police department cannot sustain any additional cuts,” she said.

Libraries and Culture

During her time in office, Marshall has provided more than $81 million in funding for local libraries and has worked on at least 18 library capital projects, but is “not finished yet.”

Recent efforts include an expanded children’s room in Ridgewood, and new branches in Corona, Long Island City and Cambria Heights. Moving forward, expansions are envisioned in Kew Gardens Hills, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Glen Oaks, Rego Park, Jackson Heights, Queens West and Far Rockaway. In addition, ground was recently broken for a project Marshall described as one of her favorites – a new children’s discovery center in Jamaica.

Culturally, Marshall bragged that Queens Botanical Garden’s new visitor and administration center was rated high by the U.S Green Building Council for its use of environmentally-friendly materials. She also called her allocation of more than $16 million to the New York Hall of Science for an expansion “a good investment,” especially considering the facility attracted a record half-million visitors last year. In what was one of her “largest capital investments” since taking office, Marshall looks forward to this summer’s groundbreaking for the Queens Museum of Art expansion, which will double its size and add new galleries, classrooms and event space.

Mass Transit

Marshall argued that “on the mass transit front, MTA must do more,” especially in eastern Queens, which needs “new bus routes, increased service and more express bus services.” She also called for the reopening of the Long Island Railroad stations in Queens neighborhoods such as Elmhurst to relieve subway overcrowding, something she has “been asking for since I became borough president.”

She opposes “any plan to toll East River bridges” since “too many of us here in Queens are victims of government’s failure to provide viable mass transit options.” She also called it “simply unfair to raise the fares while reducing services” and said she opposes the MTA’s doomsday budget.

Marshall also mentioned a recent fight to prevent the MTA from eliminating the residential rebate program on the Cross Bay Bridge linking Broad Channel and Rockaway. Pointing out that it is the only intra-borough toll in the city, Marshall noted that “shoppers on Fifth Avenue don’t pay a toll to drive to Madison Avenue.”

There was some good news in the past year on the transit front, as subway cars on the E line dating back to the 1960’s are being replaced with new cars. Working with several other local officials, also Marshall helped push for the installation of an elevator at the Union Turnpike/Kew Gardens station on the E and F lines, making it accessible to all riders.

Looking Ahead

While her speech touched on a wide range of topics, it constantly reverted back to themes of job creation and economic development. She pointed to examples such as Aqueduct racetrack in Ozone Park, where a developer plans construction of a gaming hall featuring 4,500 video lottery terminals, and the construction of a huge shopping center in Rego Park that will include the borough’s first Century 21 department stores.

“Almost everything I spoke about today is related jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Marshall. “I have talked about job loss, job creation, difficult economic times and transforming adversity into opportunity and hope… Though the stock market may resemble a roller coaster ride in an amusement park, and Wall Street has caused tremors on Main Street, every family and every level of government is finding new ways to maximize.”

Marshall ended her speech on a positive note, expressing hope that President Elect Barack Obama, who spent five years in New York and credits a local librarian with helping him to get a job as a community organizer in Chicago, “knows our problems.”

“In one week, we will inaugurate a new president who has also inspired us with amessage of change and a promise that help is on the way with millions of jobs, improved health care and an improved America,” said Marshall. “He has told us that the road ahead may be long and steep;

The Forum Newsgroup/photos by CONOR GREENE

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