Thursday, February 26, 2009

This Week's Forum South and West

Weiner Calls for Federal Help for Small Businesses

All Kidding Aside: Eric Ulrich Wins Big in 32nd Council District

Hearing on Maspeth School Proposal Postponed

Mattone Group to Manage Atlas Park Mall

Initial Contract for Ridgewood Reservoir Approved

Huge Federal Pot Bust in Middle Village

Woodhaven Man Charged with DWI Outside Astoria Nightclub

Queens Gun Buyback Nets Record Haul

Editorial: Gun Buyback is a Good First Step

Main JFK Airport Runway to be Reconstructed

Human Rights Worker Admits to Possessing Child Porn

Weiner Calls for Federal Help for Small Businesses


By Conor Greene

With small businesses throughout Queens closing “at an alarming rate” due to the staggering economy, Congressman Anthony Weiner is hoping that money included in the federal stimulus plan will help jump start the fortunes of small store owners.

“Small businesses here in Queens are really struggling,” Rep. Weiner (D-Queens) told a group of reporters at a press conference last Thursday outside a string of vacant storefronts on Austin Street in Forest Hills.

The congressman’s staff recently conducted a study of 10 main shopping districts throughout the borough, including Myrtle Avenue, Woodhaven Boulevard, Sutphin Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue, and found at least 211 vacancies. According to Weiner, that number represents a 12% vacancy rate among community stores in Queens, which he called the “lifeblood of the community.”

The current vacancy rate represents more than twice as many as last year, with each neighborhood losing an average of 20 stores, according to the study. “When the economy catches a cold, small businesses catch pneumonia,” said Weiner, who is running for mayor this year. “Too many community shops… are hit hard by this downturn. The stimulus package will help jump start Queens businesses.”

A concern for Weiner is the overall effect vacancies can have on a shopping district like Austin Street. “It can have ramifications for the entire block… It leads to the mood of the whole community being down,” he said.

Aside from the “knee-deep recession” the city is facing, Weiner chalked the small business owners’ struggles up to landlords who continue to charge sky-high rents and “the city’s relentless pursuit” of shoppers committing parking violations. “The rents are not coming down with the economy” and the city needs to create a “more tolerant environment” for merchants and shoppers, said Weiner.

To help ease the pain small business owners are facing, the federal stimulus package contains $750 million to improve existing Small Business Administration loan programs and to create more loan opportunities. It will also double the amount owners are allowed to write off for equipment and property expenses to $250,000 and increase the carry back period of net operating losses from two to five years.

“Hopefully the stimulus will provide some help,” said Weiner, who was joined at the press conference by Javier Valdes, whose family owns a chain of four Latin Cabana restaurants in the borough, including on Austin Street and in the Queens Center Mall.

“It’s been rough because the rents are high,” said Valdes, who said he pays $6,000 a month for a 400-square-foot space, a rate he called “astronomical numbers for a neighborhood that is not doing as well as it was.”

“This was our number one store when we opened two years ago. It’s a possibility that we may be shutting down,” said Valdes when asked how his business was doing. “Once they get to here, they turn back around,” he noted of shoppers who don’t make it all the way down Austin Street because of the row of vacant storefronts near the intersection of 72nd Road.

Recently, business at the Forest Hills location is down about $3,000 a week, which “for a small business is a lot,” said Valdes, and the mall location is down $10,000 since December. “They are all helping each other at the moment,” he said of the four stores.

Austin Street’s vacancy rate of about 5% (ten vacancies out of 181 storefronts) is lower than other areas such as Woodhaven Boulevard (17% or 9 vacancies out of 52 storefronts between 64th Road and the expressway) and Jamaica Avenue (23% or 80 vacancies out of 335 storefronts). Still, “there is a tipping point on streets like Austin,” stressed Weiner, at which point the area is no longer attractive to investors. “It’s about where we are at now.”

At least one other small business owner said Austin Street’s struggles have more to do with high rents than the economy. “This guy is just greedy. The street’s not in great shape but I don’t think it’s this bad,” said Marla Cornego, referring to the three vacant stores in front of which Weiner held the press conference.

“He’s greedy – that’s why it’s empty,” continued Cornego, who owns 5 Burro CafĂ© on Austin Street. “If the landlord weren’t so greedy and allowed you to make a living… This is not indicative of the rest of the street.”

According to Cornego, the owner of the hair salon that formerly occupied one of the empty spaces paid $10,000 a month at that location. She has since moved down the block to a larger space that costs her $6,000 a month, said Cornego.

A call to Sutton Garrett Real Estate, which is seeking tenants for its Austin Street property, was not returned.

While Grand Avenue in Maspeth wasn’t included in the congressman’s survey, local business owner Tony Nunziato said it appears that newer stores are struggling the most. “The larger, newer stores that came in within the last year or two, some of them are closing,” said Nunziato, owner of Enchanted Florist. “I would think they’re the ones hit the hardest because they didn’t have time to acclimate.”

Nunziato expects the next six months or so to be make-or-break for many small businesses.“October was when everything really started to go bad, so everyone will hold on for six months. By the summer, that’s when you will see who can hold on. Up to June I believe is the most crucial.”

“The beauty of Maspeth is that most of the stores have been here a while and they serve the town,” added Nunziato. “When residents support [the local businesses], then Main Street thrives. It is rough definitely, every business is down, but they’re holding on.”

Weiner warned that this is a problem that will continue to get worse without help from the federal government. “This is not just a passing fad. It is a trend we’re seeing all over Queens,” he said.

All Kidding Aside: Ulrich Wins Big

By Patricia Adams

An electrified crowd of hundreds of supporters greeted City Councilman–elect Eric Ulrich, winner of the much talked-about special election in the 32nd Council district, as he made his way through the entrance of his victory party at Villa Russo on Tuesday evening. “When I walked through the door, I just couldn’t believe all those people had shown up.”

“I don’t know who is paying for all this food, but this is some party,” Ulrich joked with the exuberant audience. But there was something beside humor and happiness that contributed to the infectious mood throughout the room. It was an unmistakable sense of pride and accomplishment shared by all those in the room.

Before he actually took to the podium, Ulrich made several stops in the crowd to thank some special people. But one in particular got the biggest greeting from the second youngest member ever to be elected to the New York City Council—his grandmother Rosemary. “I was born to a single mother and my grandmother has been a major part of my upbringing. I thank her for her constant support and love. I would not be here without her or the rest of my family.”

Ulrich, who is well known for singing the praises of grandma's baking skills, couldn’t resist the opportunity to tell the crowd that Rosemary had personally baked cookies for all the polling sites.

Ulrich spent the special Election Day visiting poll sites from Rockaway to Ozone Park. On Tuesday afternoon he told The Forum, “I think we’re going to win it. I think there is tremendous support for my candidacy on the peninsula as well as the mainland. It’s a great feeling to have many of the Rockaway seniors whispering in my ear, ‘Hey Eric, we’re voting for you.’ When asked how he would best describe his feelings about the day, Ulrich thought a moment and said, “I am truly humbled.” And the humility carried through to the first statements Ulrich made to his soon-to-beconstituency.

“We all got to this victory together,” Ulrich began. “It’s been hard because of everything that happened in this election. People write you off and they say a lot of things. They talked about my inexperience and they said I was a kid. Well tonight I am the comeback kid.” After a thunderous round of applause, Ulrich added one more promise to his loyalists. “I have my foot in the door and they’re gonna have to pry me out of it.”

Before concluding his remarks the new Councilman to be thanked one more special person, his fiancĂ© Yadira. The couple met at St. Francis College and plan to be married in November. “I promised her that if I won I would go get measured for a tuxedo.”

After receiving a call from Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Eric will spend his first day at City Hall on Thursday. According to campaign sources, the election commissioners will meet next week and the date for a swearing in ceremony will be announced.

Hearing on Maspeth School Postponed

Crowley Vows to Fight for Local Priority

By Conor Greene

The debate over whether the city should build an 1,100-seat high school on the former Restaurant Depot property in Maspeth will rage on for at least another month.

This week, a City Council land use subcommittee agreed to delay a hearing on the proposal for thirty days at the urging of Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley. That gives the community more time to iron out several issues before the city seeks approval to build the facility on land at 57th Avenue and 74th Street.

Meanwhile, the city’s attempt to buy the property is moving forward on a parallel track, according to William Havemann, spokesman for the Department of Education. As reported in last week’s Forum West, a meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. today (Thursday, February 26) in PS 58 on Grand Avenue regarding the city’s possible use of eminent domain to acquire the land from owner Lucky Star Elmhurst LLC.

“The process for getting the school site and the proposal approved by the City Council is slightly different than the actual process of acquiring the site,” explained Havemann. “So far, we have not been able to reach an agreement with the property owner, so we’re laying the groundwork to use eminent domain to acquire the site if needed.”

He said the department has had “ongoing communications” with Lucky Star Elmhurst, which purchased the industrially-zoned property for $12.6 million in 2006, but declined to characterize the discussions.

However, Councilwoman Crowley said her support for the project hinges on whether the DOE will guarantee that it will serve local children. “My stance on the school has never changed,” she said during an interview on Monday. “We need to make sure it is primarily for locals.”

Crowley said that a recent meeting with the office of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein “did not go very well” due to her stance that she will not support the project “if [DOE] can’t guarantee those seats are for our community.”

While it is rare that a councilmember wouldn’t support a school project in their district, Crowley vowed to take that step if the project isn’t going to serve local children. “We have to come to some kind of consensus if it is built. I hope we do because I think there is a need for more seats.”

The DOE, however, has a citywide policy against giving high schools local zoning, and instead prefers to leave them open to students around the city – especially as many are themed schools that have a specific focus.

“We believe very strongly on choice at the high school level,” said Havemann. “I don’t want to take anything off the table, but I do want to say that we’ve never done it in the past and it is bad policy.”

However, the DOE also has “not taken off the table the idea of giving priority to students within the district,” said Havemann, adding that there is a “subtle but important difference” between the two classifications. Under the current plan, priority would be given to all Queens students, with any remaining open seats being offered to students citywide. However, the DOE will consider giving that priority to District 24 students first, said Havemann.

The new school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2012. The original proposal – which was overwhelmingly rejected by Community Board 5 – called for 1,650 seats serving both intermediate and high school students. The DOE later came back to the community with the current proposal, which includes 1,000 high school seats divided into two smaller schools along with an additional 100 seats for special education students.

Even if priority is given to District 24 students, there remains a segment of residents who argue that this site is not appropriate for a school. Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, noted that there already are two schools within three blocks of the proposed site and fears the area will become oversaturated with youngsters. He also is weary of any promises the DOE makes in order to win community support for the school.

“The danger is they can promise you anything, but once it is built, what are you going to do when they change that,” argued Holden. “It’s a slippery slope. They can promise you stuff, but delivering is something else. They don’t want to make exceptions, but to get it built these people will promise you anything. But to deliver is another – they’ll come up with anything.”

Holden has also expressed concern at public meetings that the amount of seats will actually be closer to the 1,650 originally planned for once the building is completed. He pointed out that the city’s public notice advertising public meetings on the issue refer to the project as having “approximately” 1,100 seats.

According to Havemann, the proposal will go back before the City Council land use subcommittee in about thirty days. If it is approved at that point, it will go to the full City Council membership for final approval. “If it is approved we then move ahead, either with eminent domain or if we can reach an agreement with the property owner.”

Recognizing that the area’s councilmember is currently not on board with the project, Havemann conceded, “I think it would be fair to say that usually a proposal will go forward only with approval of the local councilperson… Our priority is to make sure this district gets another high school, as District 24 is one of the most overcrowded in the city. We hope we can work with the councilwoman to get this done.”

Mattone Group to Manage Atlas Park

By Conor Greene

College-based Mattone Group is taking over the management duties at the Shops at Atlas Park, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions. The decision comes about a month after the Hemmerdinger family, which built the mall on family-owned property, was removed as management team after defaulting on its loan.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) said she welcomed the news that a local firm would be taking reins at the upscale outdoor shopping center, which has struggled since opening in April 2006. She said she had a brief conversation with Michael Mattone after learning that his firm secured the contract.

“I said to him, ‘Bring us a Target.’ I shop at Target, and my neighbors shop there,” said Crowley, alluding to complaints that the mall doesn’t have stores that appeal to the general population. While the mall might not have a large enough space to accommodate a large big box store, Crowley said she is hopeful that Mattone will bring a new vision to the mall’s management.

“They have practical stores that people in Queens can use,” she said of other area Mattone Group projects. “We can trust that they will work with our community to see that Atlas serves both their concerns and the needs of residents,” she said.

News that Mattone Group is taking control of Atlas Park came after Damon Hemmerdinger, whose family-owned company ATCO Properties developed the mall, announced on January 21 that its French lenders would be appointing a new management team.

French-based lenders Calyon and Societe Generale have declined to comment on the appointment of Mattone Group since word of the deal spread early this week. Calls to the Mattone Group were not returned.

In his January 21 letter to tenants and community leaders, Hemmerdinger, whose father is chairman of the MTA, wrote that, “despite the sluggish economy, traffic on the property was up 30% in 2008, and even held during December, as more people discovered Atlas Park, liked it and returned.” He added that 12 new stores opened last year, and “a number of new stores are forecasted to open in the next six months.”

“ATCO is a solid business, and will continue to operate its other assets, including Atlas Terminals, within the tradition of excellence that we have long upheld,” wrote Hemmerdinger. “ATCO will seek growth opportunities as the economy turns around. Once of these opportunities will be the redevelopment of our remaining properties in Glendale… Our belief in the community remains strong.”

Hemmerdinger noted that the company has “no firm plans for how and when we will proceed” with development of land surrounding the mall, near the intersection of 80th Street and Cooper Avenue. The family still owns about 12 acres there, and some residents have expressed concern over the past year that the family would build a hotel and office space on the land, which is zoned for manufacturing.

Crowley expressed hope that the new firm would eliminate the parking fee, which many residents have complained about. She noted that mall traffic seemed to increase during the weeks last summer when the Hemmerdingers temporarily suspended the fee.

She also said that rents “absolutely” are too high. “The Hemmerdingers know how to run Manhattan high-rise properties,” she said. “They had a lot of bad luck,” including nationwide bankruptcies of tenants including Bombay and Blue Tulip, and the decision by Starbucks to close its Atlas Park location in the coming months. “They don’t have enough diversity and selection, so they don’t have the volume of shoppers,” said Crowley.

She pointed out that stores in a nearby shopping complex along Woodhaven Boulevard near Metropolitan Avenue are doing well, including recently-opened Panera Bread. “They’re opening in the same economy, but they’re opening the right stores,” she said.

Crowley also criticized the MTA for “wasting money” while it has a huge budget gap in order to reroute the Q45 bus to the mall last year, at the urging of the Hemmerdinger family. Many residents opposed the move and said that Dale Hemmerdinger’s involvement with both the MTA and the family-owned mall constituted a conflict of interest.

“It’s a beautiful space, and I would like for it to be developed in the future with the community’s continued input,” said Crowley.

The Mattone Group owns and leases more than 1.5 million square feet of commercial real estate, including the Pathmark Plaza in Springfield Gardens, Jamaica Center, Waterside Estates at Cresthaven in Whitestone and the Embassy Tower building in Manhattan, according to its website.

The firm had entered into discussions with utility company KeySpan in 2003 to build a Home Depot or other large store on the former Elmhurst gas tanks property. However, the city struck a deal with the energy giant to buy the land for $1 after community groups against fought the deal.

Initial Contract for Ridgewood Reservoir Approved

Comptroller Gives Parks OK for Perimeter Work

By Conor Greene

After a false start last summer, the city comptroller has signed off on a contract for design work around the perimeter of Ridgewood Reservoir.

Comptroller William Thompson announced last week that he has approved a preliminary design contract between the city Parks Department and Mark K. Morrison Associations. It allows for design work to begin at the perimeter of the Ridgewood Reservoir, which is located within Highland Park near the Brooklyn boundary.

The project, which comes following substantial community input, will include installation of fences, lighting, steps and benches and will increase public safety on the reservoir’s walking paths. The contract also calls for MMA to issue “three conceptual plans” concerning the overall construction and design of the reservoir, including one design dedicated to “passive” recreation.

“I am happy to announce the approval of a contract to begin the design of the perimeter of Ridgewood Reservoir, which will greatly improve the safety of those who utilize the space as a means of recreation,” said Thompson in a statement. “Under this new agreement, we have ensured that the public will have a say in the ongoing design and construction process of the rest of the reservoir each step of the way.”

Last summer, Thompson rejected a $3.3 million contract Parks attempted to enter into with MMK which would have involved converting one of the property’s three basins into ballfields. Doing so would have required that between 11,700 and 27,500 large truckloads of fill would have been transported through local streets.

When he rejected the contract last July, Thompson noted that he has “consistently urged the city to rethink its plans to develop” the 50-acre site, which he called “an accidental wilderness” in a New York Times op-ed piece he co-wrote with Robert F. Kennedy.

In the letter to Parks rejecting the first contract, Thompson argued that due to the “sensitive ecological nature of the location,” the project’s environmental review process is of heightened importance and “must have maximum transparency.” He also expressed concern that under the proposed contract, the vendor responsible for the environmental review would be a subcontractor working for the architect, “who has a vested interest in pursuing construction of a $38 million project.”

The news was well received by advocates who are pushing to have the reservoir’s thick shrubs, trees and wetlands preserved for hiking, bird-watching and other passive recreation. On the other side are those who want the property developed for active recreation, including ballfields.

To prevent the public from being excluded from discussions about the future of the property, Thompson and Parks “also have established a protocol within the contract that requires the public to have a say in the design process prior to and after the initial design concepts are created.”

The reservoir, which sits on the Brooklyn-Queens border, was built in 1848 to provide drinking water to Brooklyn residents. It was converted as a back-up reservoir in 1959 and taken off-line in 1989. Since then, tree, plants, turtles, fish, frogs and more than 137 bird species, including eight rare ones identified on the National Audubon Society’s “Watch List,” thrive on the land, according to the comptroller’s office.

Since rejecting the initial contract last June, representatives from Thompson’s office have attended a number of meetings to address the concerns of the project with community members. “This contract creates a level of community input that enables this process to be open and transparent,” he said. “By involving all parties in the process, the final result will better reflect the best interests of all involved.”

The reservoir property was controlled by the city Department of Environmental Protection until 2004, when it was turned over to the Parks Department. Through Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative, $50 million has been allocated for improvements there – leading to the current battle over what type of development should occur.

“The Parks Department is pleased that the Comptroller has approved the preliminary design contract so that the Parks can begin the design process and incorporate the input gained in numerous public listening sessions, meetings, surveys, and tours with the community, local elected officials, community boards and local environmental organizations since 2007,” a spokeswoman wrote in a statement.

The statement adds that Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe took Comptroller Thompson on a tour of the reservoir last fall, and that Highland Park is one of eight large parks being redesigned through PlaNYC, which aims to ensure that every New Yorker lives within a ten-minute walk of a park or open space.

Huge Federal Pot Bust in Middle Village

Investigation Started with Routine Traffic Stop

A routine motor vehicle stop by officers from the 104th Precinct last year has led to one of the biggest drug busts in Queens history.

Last week, federal drug agents seized 50,000 pounds of marijuana and arrested ten people in connection with a scheme that led from Canada to Queens, according to authorities. Over the past six years, the ring smuggled pot worth millions of dollars from British Columbia to New York, with the drugs entering the country through the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation on the Canada-New York border.

The ring used a house on Penelope Avenue in Middle Village to package and distribute the marijuana. However, authorities caught wind of the operation after officers from the 104th Precinct conducted a routine motor vehicle stop at the intersection of 61st Drive and 84th Street for a minor traffic violation last February.

A computer check revealed that the driver, Mersim Kolenovic, 28, of Forest Hills, was driving with a suspended license. While questioning Kolenovic and the passenger, 28-year-old Slobodan Pavicervic of Middle Village, the officers saw a gravity knife inside the vehicle.

As a result, the two men were taken into custody. The men’s Lexus sedan was taken to the precinct stationhouse, at which point police noticed a strong odor of marijuana. The precinct’s Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit found 18 large bags of pot inside the vehicle’s trunk containing a total of nine pounds of the drug.

According to report, it was that traffic stop that opened the investigation into the cross-border smuggling ring. Canadian nationals Randolf Square, 34, and David Sunday, 37, allegedly masterminded the operation and face 20 years in prison if convicted. They were arraigned last week in Brooklyn Federal Court and ordered held without bail. Eight others, who helped package and distribute the drugs from the Penelope Avenue home, face up to 10 years in prison.

A federal source told the Daily News that it was the men’s sloppiness that led to their downfall. “His sloppiness led to this bust. He was driving with a suspended license while carrying nine pounds of pot,” he said. “This will go down in history as one of the biggest pot busts ever.”

The federal government is now moving to seize assets used in the operation, including $100 million in alleged profits and the titles to several homes, including one on Penelope Avenue in Middle Village. The group is believed to have moved more than one ton of marijuana over the past six years.

Woodhaven Man Charged with DWI Outside Astoria Nightclub

Seven Run Down While Standing on Astoria Sidewalk

A 24-year-old Woodhaven man has been charged with running down seven people outside an Astoria nightclub while driving drunk, according to authorities.

Renis Kuci, of 83-25 98th Street in Woodhaven was arraigned on Monday morning in Queens Criminal Court on charges of second-degree assault, first-degree reckless endangerment, second-degree vehicular assault, reckless assault, DWI and speeding. He was released on $5,000 bail and faces up to seven years if convicted on all charges.

Authorities said Kuci was driving his black BMW at more than 70 miles per hour while drunk when he lost control near the intersection of Steinway Street and Northern Boulevard, in front of El Noa Noa nightclub, at 4:30 a.m. Sunday. While attempting to make a turn, Kuci spun the vehicle in a circle and drove it onto the sidewalk, striking seven pedestrians.

The victims ranged in age from 20 to 34 years old, according to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, and suffered injuries including a broken leg, cuts and bruises and swelling. Following his arrest, Kuci told officers from the 114th Precinct that he had “a few drinks” and refused to take a breathalyzer test, said Brown.

“This defendant’s alleged choice to drive after admittedly drinking alcohol turned his vehicle into a dangerous weapon,” said Brown. “Seven innocent people were injured and are lucky to be alive. This case will be vigorously prosecuted.”

Kuci had recently been laid off from his job with an air conditioning company, according to his mother, who told the New York Post that her son “isn’t one to drink.”

Witness Rezaul Rabby, 21, described the vehicle as traveling as fast as 90 miles per hour in the 30-mile-per-hour zone. “[People] were under the car, and all I could see were legs and hands,” he told the paper. “It was, like, torture.”

Witnesses said a handcuffed Kuci kissed his girlfriend and told police, “I don’t know what I did” before he was led from the scene, according to the Daily News.

Queens Gun Buyback Nets Record Haul

The recent gun buyback program held by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and the NYPD collected a record 919 weapons at sites throughout south Queens and the Rockaway Peninsula.

“Our one-day gun buyback effort has proven to be a huge success – far exceeding our expectations – by taking more than 900 weapons out of circulation,” said Brown. “I think it is fair to say that the citizens of Queens County are safer today as a result.”

The buyback program was held last weekend at six churches in Jamaica, Laurelton, Saint Albans and Far Rockaway. Individuals in possession of illegal or unwanted guns were allowed to anonymously trade them in for a $200 bank card, while functional BB guns and air pistols were exchanged for $20bank cards. The cards can be used as a debit card or to withdraw money at any ATM.

“Six churches in St. Albans, Jamaica and the Rockaways helped us collect 919 guns – the most ever collected since we began our buyback program,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said the total number of guns collected citywide through buyback programs has reached 3,500. “That’s 3,500 guns that won’t end up on our streets in the hands of criminals, won’t be involved in tragic household accidents or crimes, and won’t ever be pointed at police officers or civilians.”

According to NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the city has collected an additional 5,000 guns over the past seven years through its program of offering $100, no questions asked, to individuals who return guns to any precinct stationhouse in the city.

“Our partnership with the city’s clergy and their congregations has worked miracles,” said Kelly. “That’s 5,000 guns [collected at stationhouses] over seven years. But over the course of just six Saturdays, we have recovered over 3,000 guns by having them turned in at houses of worship and by doubling the reward to $200 with matching contributions from our district attorneys. It is a life saving program.”

Added Brown: “The Queens gun buyback initiative is another example of the partnership that exists in this city between police, prosecutor and the communities that we serve to improve the quality of life of our residents and to lower the level of violence in the city."

Editorial: Gun Buyback is a Good First Step

Kudos to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly for finally holding a gun buyback program in Queens, after holding one in every other borough last year. While it took some prodding by Councilman James Sanders, we are very pleased to see that funds for this worthy program were set aside.

The program is especially needed in south and east Queens, where homicides increased by a staggering rate last year. Within the areas covered by Borough Patrol Queens South, which includes precincts in Richmond Hill, Jamaica and Ozone Park, homicides jumped from 43 in 2007 to 71 last year.

Fortunately, the gun buyback program, held last Saturday at six churches throughout the area, proved successful and will hopefully lead to others in the future. A total of 919 working guns were collected, including 254 revolvers, 137 semi-automatic pistols and seven assault rifles. That marks a record for a single-day buyback in the city, eclipsing the 700-plus total reached last October in Manhattan.

Individuals were invited to bring working, illegal weapons to one of the churches in exchange for a $200 Chase bank debit card, no questions asked.

With lives constantly being lost in association with illegal guns – and our federal gun control laws severely lacking –the city’s monetary investment in this program is a priceless investment. In this case, the 919 weapons cost the NYPD and the district attorney’s office a total of $158,880.

Officials including Councilman Sanders (D-Laurelton) are hopeful that future buybacks will be even more successful, especially as the weather improves and word spreads that individuals really can drop the weapons off without fear. Until our federal government gets serious about keeping illegal guns from flowing onto our streets, this is one of the best tools authorities have to help rid the city of illegal firearms. We hope that District Attorney Brown builds on this momentum and hosts another event later this year.

Main JFK Airport Runway to be Reconstructed

$376 Million Project to Reduce Delays

The main runway at JFK Airport – which handled nearly a half million flights last year – will be widened and rebuilt under a $376 million project announced last week.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Board of Commissioners voted last Thursday to approve the $376.3 million second phase of the airport’s delay reduction program. As part of the project, the airport’s Bay Runway will be reconstructed and widened by 50 feet to accommodate the world’s largest commercial aircraft.

Work will begin in June and is scheduled to be completed by 2011. The main runway will be closed for 120 days between March and June of next year, at which time the airport’s three other runways will be utilized to their full capabilities to mitigate delays. The main runway measures 14,572 feet long – more than two miles – and handles about a third of the airport’s annual operations, including more than half of all departures.

This phase of the ongoing delay reduction program includes construction of additional access points on nearby taxiways, new taxiways that will improve aircraft queuing and enable swifter departures and easier access from taxiways to terminal gates, which officials say will save time on the ground for every passenger at JFK.

“These projects have a single goal: to give every one of our 48 million annual customers at JFK a more efficient, passenger-friendly airport,” said Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia. “This robust investment also is creating construction jobs – more than 1,000 workers in the peak period – which is certainly welcome news in the present economy.”

The runway reconstruction project includes milling six inches of existing runway asphalt and overlaying with 18 inches of concrete, which has a lifespan of up to five times more than asphalt and will provide an estimated long-term savings of $500 million; widening the runway from 150 to 200 feet to accommodate the world’s largest commercial aircraft; installing new runway lighting and electrical infrastructure; and installing new electrical feeder systems and accommodations for future navigational aids.

The materials required for this project includes enough concrete cement to pave every National Football League field to a two-foot depth, and enough asphalt to equal the weight of six Titanics.

“This is economic stimulus in real time,” said Port Authority Executive Director Chris Ward. “These investments will create jobs, reduce flight delays and increase our airport’s capacity to handle more planes.”

Also at its meeting on February 19, the authority’s board voted to increase the luggage cart rental fee from $3 to $5 at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports to fund replacement and improvements to the carts and equipment.

Human Rights Worker Admits to Possessing Child Porn at JFK

The director of a human rights organization with ties to the United Nations has pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography, a month after he was nabbed with DVDs while boarding a plane at JFK Airport.

Clarence J. Dias, 65, of White Plains, an attorney and director of the New York City-based International Center for Law in Development, pleaded guilty last Thursday in Queens Criminal Court to one count of possessing an obscene sexual performance by a child. He is expected to receive a conditional discharge and will be ordered to register as a sex offender for the next 20 years when he is sentenced on April 21.

According to the charges, Dias was boarding a Cathay-Pacific Airlines flight to Bangkok on January 20 when Transportation Security Administration personnel found several DVDs containing explicit images of children during a random search of his luggage.

Among the items found was a paper cover featuring nine nude photographs depicting various explicit acts between a pre-pubescent male under the age of twelve and an adult male, according to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. An examination of a portion of the DVD also revealed similar acts being depicted.

“Child pornography strikes at the heart of innocence – sexually victimizing and violating the human rights of the youngest members of our society around the world,” said Brown. “It is often linked to human trafficking and child prostitution. This case is particularly disturbing because the issue of human rights has been the focus of the defendant’s public career.”

Dias’ offices with the International Center for Law are located within the United Nations building in Manhattan. He holds a doctorate in law from Bombay University and has consulted on human rights issues with several U.N agencies, according to his online biography. He has authored three books on human rights and laws in developing countries. The International Center for Law in Development is a nongovernmental organization concerned about human rights in the development process.

According to prosecutors, Dias tried to say the explicit DVD called “Winner Pub Pattaya” was for research after it was located during the search. The video title is a reference to a beach resort in Thailand, and Dias had faced as much as four years in prison on the charges he was originally arrested on.