Thursday, January 15, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Howard Beach Site Eyed for Senior Housing

By Conor Greene

Affordable housing for senior citizens could be built on the Howard Beach site which now houses the Bernard Fineson Developmental Center as part of Governor David Paterson’s effort to convert under-utilized state-owned properties to residential uses.

The state Housing Finance Agency (HFA) recently issued a request for proposals regarding the 3.4-acre site at 155-55 Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach. The site, which has two buildings totaling 111,000 square feet, is currently operated by the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD) but is scheduled to close on June 30.

On Monday, the HFA issued a request for proposals to developers interested in purchasing the property, which originally opened as a private hospital in the 1960s. It was converted into a residential facility by OMRDD in 1975 with a certified capacity of 160. Today, the facility provides residential and program services for 46individuals, including those diagnosed with autism.

Under the proposal, the chosen developer would convert the facility into 100 housing units. At least 80 of the units would be studio or one-bedroom apartments for low-to-moderate seniors 60-years-old and older. The remaining 20 units would be reserved for individuals supported by OMRDD. In addition, the developer is asked to set aside space for senior services for residents of the 80 units, such as a community center.

When the OMRDD ceases operations at the facility in June, some of the residents currently living there will be “transferred into the community and into a home of their choice,” according to agency Commissioner Diana Jones Ritter. Other residents living there would be transferred to the main Hillside Campus in Queens Village.

“My administration is dedicated to converting nonessential state property to private use and it makes tremendous sense to turn Howard Park into affordable senior housing,” said Gov. Paterson. “In these difficult fiscal times, we need to be as creative as possible in generating additional resources and providing affordable housing for our neediest citizens.”

The proposal has the support of local officials including Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, State Senator Joseph Addabbo and Betty Braton, chairwoman of Community Board 10.

Pheffer said it is especially important “during these fiscally troubling times” to watch out for “especially vulnerable” citizens such as seniors. “The creation of quality, affordable senior citizen apartments will provide a currently unmet need in our community,” she said.

State Senator Joseph Addabbo vowed to “promote community involvement and input on all aspects of planning and discussions of the proposed use” of the property.

Braton said the project is welcomed due to the “sizable segment” of the CB 10 population that is over the age of 65. “There is a real need for enhanced services,” she said. “We look forward to working with state officials to ensure active community involvement as development proceeds.”

The request for proposal is due to HFA by February 27.

Aqueduct Racino Plans Presented at CB 10

By Patricia Adams

Representatives from the Delaware North Companies made their awaited presentation on the proposed gaming package for Aqueduct Racetrack on Thursday. Ron Sultemeier, Vice President of Strategic Development for Delaware North led the discussion and used a Powerpoint presentation to give board members and residents a clear picture of what the company intends to do at Aqueduct.

Sultemeier was joined at the Community Board 10 meeting by Dan Gerrity, President, Saratoga Gaming and Raceway and Saratoga Harness Racing at the meeting. Also on hand was Joanne K. Adams, the Community Relations manager from NYRA. For the project, Delaware North will team with Saratoga Harness Racing and other partners including the Peebles Corporation and McKissack & McKissack to form the Aqueduct Gaming LLC Operating Entity.

Sultemeier began his discussion by emphasizing strong community involvement in the project to be accompanied by job and economic development. He also stressed the company’s commitment to focus on important aesthetic characteristics and very careful planning related to transportation, traffic and security. “The community has been waiting a long time for new development—our commitment is to build something you will be proud of,” Sultemeier said.

In addressing plans to deal with transportation and traffic issues related to the new facility, Sultemeier was very firm on the fact that every consideration will be taken to make sure that the utmost attention is paid to these components of the plan to avoid traffic congestion and all safety and security issues concerning transportation in and out of the facility. In total, Delaware North is intent on making a dynamic impact on the successful thoroughbred racing program and bringing great benefits to the community as a whole and the State of New York as a whole.

One point well made by the Delaware North representatives was that in the past, when record crowds lined the stands at Aqueduct, the facility saw many crowds numbering 50,000 or more. “This operation,” Sultemeier explained, “will see an estimated daily crowd of between 10,000 and 23,000, but those crowds will be spaced out through the day and night.

The focus of Aqueduct Gaming is to deliver world-class gaming and entertainment to Aqueduct Racetrack. In hopes of realizing the potential of the project quickly, all efforts are centered on beginning the generation of substantial revenue for the state as soon as possible through the use of the existing SEQR permit.

While the project would start out including the much talked about Video Lottery terminals, or slot machines, the overall vision is for expansion to a world class regional destination with hotel and conference facilities, restaurants, retail and entertainment options.

Development plans for such a facility would be integrated with transportation to provide seamless access to larger metro population and minimal impact to local traffic patterns. Specific features of the proposed Gaming and Entertainment would include a state-ofthe-art gaming floor with amenities expected as part of a regional casino destination, 185,000 square feet of gaming floor, approximately 4,500VLT’s, a 2,000-space parking garage and world class hospitality amenities.

Restaurant offerings would include a lobby feature bar, stage lounge, comprehensive branded food court featuring a grill, Italian, and bakery/coffee. Dining choices would feature a New York style-deli and a 25,000 square foot signature buffet with seating for 600.

Of primary concern to the Board and residents is the creation of jobs and revenue for the local community. Sultemeier offered a thorough explanation as to how the project will generate substantial revenue, jobs and overall economic development to benefit education while also supporting the thoroughbred racing industry.

“This project will create as many as 1,100 construction jobs and an additional 1,000 jobs at the gaming and entertainment facility. It is a $250 million project up front with a 30-year-franchise agreement,” said Sultemeier. “Over $170 million will be allocated to the facility alone.”

In addition to the creation of thousands of employment opportunities, Aqueduct Gaming will establish an employment and small Business Development Center which will host job fairs in coordination with local media outlets and community organizations.

Projections by Aqueduct Gaming are for total statutory payments to education and New York State Lottery of $10.3 billion during the 30-year term agreement and total payments to support New York State thoroughbred racing will be approximately $3.4 billion through the 30-year term.

While the primary focus of Aqueduct Gaming presently is to get things rolling with the state, there was also discussion about potential future operations that serve as naturally complementary to gaming operations including a resort hotel with 350-500 luxury rooms and a 3,000 to 5,000 square foot destination spa, a 15,000-30,000 square foot retail mall, additional restaurants, a 3,000 seat events center and a 60,000 square foot conference center.

To conclude the presentation, Ron Sultemeier outlined the next steps for an anxious audience. He said that immediate plans were to finish the final steps in the Memorandum of Understanding, begin the execution of a detailed development and construction timeline, establish the office/employment/small business center and very importantly to continue to build community partnerships. Once these remaining details have been settled it is expected that the actual construction phase will take 14 months to complete.

A mechanism is in place that will allow for community input as the project moves forward. Community Board 10 has designated nine community leaders to serve along with three representatives each from NYRA and Delaware North on the State Franchise Oversight Board’s Community Advisory panel for Aqueduct. In addition, Delaware North will be communicating with local groups on specific issues relating to the project as it proceeds.

“Delaware North has been forthcoming with information since their selection,” said Community Board 10 Chairperson Betty Braton following the meeting. “We look forward to the signing of the MOU with the State by Delaware North, and working with it to see Aqueduct become a much-needed economic engine for the region that enhances our local community at the same time."

South Ozone Park Teen Charged in Shooting

First Homicide in Queens in 2009

By Patricia Adams

Last Thursday, police from the 106th Precinct responded to a 10-34, an assault in progress, at 103rd Street near Rockaway Boulevard. Police Officers Competello and Nolie were traveling to the location when they were stopped by Building Department Inspector Gregory Heath who informed the officers that he was following a black male whom he had just witnessed shoot another male.

The officers then came upon the male, identified as 18-year-old Cameron Wade of South Ozone Park, and made the arrest of the alleged shooter. Sgt. Marcos Pichardo then arrived at the scene and was met by Jaqnanan Shamindra who told Sgt. Pichardo that he and his brother-in-law, Jagdesh Beni, had gotten into an argument with the suspect when Beni, who was driving, refused to let the teen pass in front of the car entering the driveway.

Witnesses at the scene said that Beni entered the driveway with no regard for the pedestrian and that if the teen did not jump to move out of the way he would have been struck by the vehicle. A surveillance video from a neighbor’s house shows that Wade banged on the side Beni’s car with his fist because he had not been allowed to pass.

Beni, his brother-in-law and another relative then got out of the gray BMW and after some heated words were exchanged, Beni and the two men pursued the 18-year-old, who fled across the street, and cornered the teen. The argument escalated and Wade pulled out a silver revolver and fired once hitting Beni in the chest. The illegal handgun was recovered at the scene.

Wade Cameron was arraigned in Queens Criminal Court on Friday on charges of second-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. He was ordered held on $150,000 bail and could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted. Cameron’s next court appearance is scheduled for January 23. The 18-year-old has no prior arrest record.

Jagdesh Beni, 33 was taken to Jamaica Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The father of three was a welder by profession and has a string of arrests for violent crime including attempted murder, assault and criminal possession of a weapon dating back to 1995.

The Forum Newsgroup/photo by ROBERT STRIDIRON

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