Thursday, April 2, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Mapeth School Vote Expected Thursday

UPDATE: The City Council has approved the DOE's plans to build an 1,100-seat high school in Maspeth. Voting against the plan were Councilmembers Elizabeth Crowley, Tony Avella, Eric Ulrich, James Vacca, Vincent Ignizio, James Oddo, Lewis Fidler, Peter Vallone, Jr., Michael Nelson and Darlene Mealy, according to Crowley's office, which released the following statement after Thursday's vote:

"Let me be clear, I want a school in Maspeth, but I cannot agree with this plan. In an effort to alleviate the traffic and transit concerns raised by the community I asked the Department of Education to compromise on a plan to allow this school to better address the needs and concerns of my community. They did not and as I result I do not support this plan.

As the plan stands now it does not have the approval of the community education council, it does not have the approval of the community board, it does not have the approval of the local civic association. It does not have the full support of local parents. It does not have the support of the local elected officials."

By Conor Greene

City Council is expected to vote today, Thursday, on the Department of Education’s proposal to build an 1,100-seat high school in Maspeth. The plan has been met with stiff opposition from residents who say the area is already too congested and can’t handle another school.

A City Council subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday on the proposal for 1,000 high school seats and 100 special education seats on the site of the former Restaurant Depot at 74th Street and 57th Avenue. Several dozen area residents testified against the proposal, while one Woodside resident spoke in favor of it.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley has said she won’t support the plan unless the city zones the school to ensure neighborhood children can attend it. But, while the councilwoman and the DOE have negotiated for weeks over how the school would be zoned, residents testified that a school shouldn’t be built in the area no matter how it is zoned.

Micah Lasher, a DOE executive director, said that the department has made a “number of substantive changes” to the original plan, including reducing it from 1,650 seats. After much back and forth with Crowley (D-Middle Village), the DOE also agreed to give first priority to students in District 24, followed by districts 27 and 28. That zoning would be “narrower than for any other high school in this administration,” said Lasher.

Crowley wants priority to be first given to students attending five neighborhood schools, to ensure that local children can attend if they wish. Under the DOE’s current plan, a child living across the street from the school has just a one-in-twenty chance of getting a spot in the proposed school, according to Crowley’s office.

In a letter to Crowley, Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott stressed that the DOT no longer creates “such narrowly” zoned high schools. “Most practically, it is simply not possible to find sites in every individual neighborhood whose students need more school seats, nor is it fiscally responsible to target school construction dollars so narrowly,” he wrote. “In this case, using the Maspeth site for a locally zoned school would not broadly address an overcrowding issue that exists throughout the borough and would not be fair or responsive to all the parents who deserve more high school seats.”

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the DOE has followed a policy of making high schools available to students throughout the city. Zoned high schools “have, historically, contributed to the persistence of a stratified school system and, in turn, an unequal distribution of resources,” wrote Walcott.

However, while the zoning issue has been atresidents who testified Tuesday made it clear they don’t want any school on that site. Many cited two existing schools that are within just three blocks of the Restaurant Depot site and expressed concern over congestion, transportation, parking and crime.

Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, said “the SCA was asleep at the wheel when they sited the school.” He said that the two existing schools have already contributed to congestion in the area, including along Grand Avenue and on city buses.

“There are locations where a school won’t work,” and the Restaurant Depot site is one, he argued. “We don’t think this site works as a school. If it’s congested now and has no subway, you can’t site a school there.”

Gary Giordano, district manager of Community Board 5 – which first rejected the plan and then agreed to support it provided a number of stipulations are met – said “there are severe problems in this area with the two existing schools.”

Tony Nunziato, a Maspeth resident and businessman, said this proposal flies in the face of years of work to bring proper planning to the area. “It’s called over-saturation,” he said, adding that the school would be “shoe-horned in the neighborhood, and it doesn’t make any sense.” He feared the impact a third school would have on small businesses along Grand Avenue, where groups of students hangout after dismissal.

Woodside resident Marge Kolb, president of the District 24 PTA Presidents’ Council, was the only person to testify in support of the project. She said it is located centrally within District 24, and to existing high schools. “We need this high school,” she implored. “We need seats in Queens [and] this is a good site… We deserve a shot at a local high school too.”

Roe Dario, president of Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, stressed that the zoning is not the issue. “The issue is the siting – it’s not who goes to it. It’s where it’s located,” she said, noting that 5,000 trucks go down Grand Avenue daily. “Seniors can’t go shopping on Grand Avenue for half the day because we have this staggered dismissal. I just feel it’s going to be too congested.”

Other residents raised issues including flooding in the area, the 104th Precinct’s response time and lack of on-site parking for teachers. Resident John Kilcommons said that seniors are worried about congestion along Grand Avenue, which is the route to Elmhurst Hospital Center.

Jim O’Kane, president of the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce, said he supports keeping this site for commercial use to prevent losing tax revenue and jobs. “Maspeth has done more than its share of providing sites for schools,” he said.

Manny Caruana of Maspeth wondered why the DOE has “dumped thousands of dollars” into the project before gaining City Council approval. He is worried that the school will actually serve more than 1,100 students once it’s open.

Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) said that the need for high school seats in Queens is the Restaurant Depot site, which may require the use of eminent domain to acquire. Liu said he has been asking the DOE for years to look into a Flushing site owned by Home Depot that has access to many bus and subway lines.

Liu called the DOE’s site selection process a “half-baked action that will only serve families in a limited capacity.” He said the “credibility of the SCA and DOE is severely undermined.” Liu also attempted to brace against potential backlash if the City Council rejects the proposal, which would mark the first time that happened during Bloomberg’s administration. “It is our job to do so to represent our constituents… If the DOE comes up with a halfbaked plan, don’t lay it on us,” he said.

Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) noted the lack of public transportation at the Restaurant Depot site and asked the DOE to look into sites in Jackson Heights “that are far more accessible borough-wide.”

Lasher conceded that “this is certainly not going to be the most accessible school in the city.” Still, “we do believe it is a very good site,” he said. Lasher claimed that rejecting the site and forcing the DOE to start over “will set us back a number of years.”

The DOE dismissed the former St. Saviour’s site near Rust Street in West Maspeth as not being suitable because of its location in an industrial area. On Wednesday, a DOE spokesman said that after two years of dialogue between the city and community about this project, the question is no longer about if the site is appropriate.

Right now, the decision that has to be made is not about the site – that conversation has come and gone,” said William Havemann. “Because the financial outlook is less and less positive, it is unclear if this site is rejected what would happen in the next capital plan. It is very possible another school just wouldn’t be built at all, and kids in Maspeth and District 24 would have to continue to go to high schools in other parts of Queens that already are overcrowded.”

By the end of the hearing, it was clear that the DOE is not willing to budge from its current stance regarding zoning. “We’re not willing to make the concessions it sounds like will be necessary,” said Lasher. “At a certain point you have to say you can spend the $80 million elsewhere. But I guess that decision is in your hands… I implore you not to make history by letting council vote this down.”

However, based on testimony provided on Tuesday, it appears a large portion of Maspeth and other area residents are hoping that Crowley does just that. “It’s going to cost $80 million to build this,” said Angelo Raneri. “Let’s build it where it is accessible.”

City Council was expected to vote on the proposal on Thursday afternoon; check for updates.

Councilman: School Opponents Driven by Racism

By Conor Greene

Many in attendance at a City Council hearing on the proposed Maspeth high school were shocked and insulted when Councilman Charles Barron accused the plan’s opponents of trying to “justify segregation” and “keep their high school for their white children.”

The comments came Tuesday during a council sub-committee hearing on the Department of Education request to build an 1,100-seat high school at the former Restaurant Depot site at 74th Street and 57th Avenue. Many residents are against a school on that site due to congestion issues the neighborhood already faces in part due to two existing schools within three blocks.

“I was checking my calendar to see what year we are in,” said Barron, suggesting that the opposition from the residents - none of whom had testified yet - was driven by racism. “Race is an issue whether you like it or not.” He said the residents were trying to “turn back the hands of time” to the 1950s and “justify segregation.”

They “want to keep their high school for their white children,” Barron concluded. He then left the hearing before any residents testified. Neighbors of the proposed site would later tell the committee that they feel that location is inappropriate for a school, regardless of how it is zoned. The residents asked the DOE to look for alternative sites with better public transit access.

Barron expressed his opinion following a discussion between Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley and DOE officials on a range of issues, including her request that students in five local schools be given preference.

During that exchange, Micah Lasher, executive director of DOE’s Office of Public Affairs, said that it is against department policy under Mayor Bloomberg to restrict admissions to certain neighborhoods. Doing so has “historically led to a system of haves and have-nots,” he said. Agreeing to give first priority to students in District 24, followed by districts 27 and 28 was a “difficult compromise” for the DOE to make.

Many residents later said they were insulted by Barron’s comments, which were also disavowed by several of his colleagues, including Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights), John Liu (D-Flushing) and Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan).

Anthony Nunziato, a neighborhood resident and businessman said he was “offended” by the comments. “It is a disgrace that a man of that [position] would say something like that,” he said.

Nunziato later said the residents are filing a formal complaint with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn demanding that Barron be publicly censured for his comments. “The guy is a racist. If it was a white supremacist who got up there and said that, they would have no problem throwing him out… I was never more offended in my life, and all of us felt that way.”

“Today I had to take offense to someone calling me a racist who knows nothing about my life,” said Bob Doocey of Middle Village.

Several other residents said they were insulted by Barron and invited Barron to visit their community. “ Then maybe, he can get his head out of... the 1950s,” said Manny Caruana. “This man has never been to Maspeth. Shame on you.”

Community Board 5 District Manager Gary Giordano said the problem was one of congestion and zoning, “not a racial issue.”

Sears said that she has “known Maspeth for many years” and “I don’t think I have ever known them to be racist people... We have to be careful we don’t label people because they are fighting for their community… I don’t think there’s any community in Western Queens we can call a segregated community,” Sears said.

John Liu (D-Flushing) said, “I don’t think race should be brought up here... It’s very serious.” He accused the Department of Education for subtly using race as a way to push for the school. “Let’s not inject race into this discussion. It’s the Department of Ed and the SCA that has raised that specter, and I find that despicable.”

Jackson, who is co-chair of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, noted that “obviously many people in the audience were offended by” Barron. “This is not the first time” the Brooklyn councilman made racially-charged accusations, said Jackson. “I respect your community and I respect your opinions,” he told the residents, many of whom boarded a bus on Grand Avenue that morning and waited hours for their three minutes to testify.

This isn’t the first time the project’s supporters have accused its opponents of acting on racist motives. At a prior hearing on the plan, Rosemary Parker said she felt like she was in an “alternate reality” after listening to the plan’s critics. “I’m really sorry I had to be here tonight to take this abuse and be in Archie Bunker’s house,” she said in February.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Woodside resident Marge Kolb, who is president of the District 24 PTA Presidents’ Council and supports the school, also suggested race was a factor and that the residents simply don’t want “outsiders” in their community. “To me, that means something and has resonance,” she said. “The fact is, I have heard people denigrating Corona.”

It also isn’t the first time Barron has made racially-charged comments that some found offensive. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Barron was elected to the City Council in 2001 and represents parts of Brooklyn including Brownsville and East Flatbush. He came under fire in 2002 after telling a crowd of several thousand at a rally calling for slavery reparations, “I want to go up to the closest white person and say, ‘You can’t understand this, it’s a black thing,’ and then slap him, just for my mental health.’”

Crowley said only, “I’m not surprised” when asked her reaction to Barron’s comments following the hearing.

Councilman Charles Barron speaks during Tuesday’s City Council hearing. Several of Barron’s colleagues look on as the councilman claims that opponents of the school plan want to keep minority students out of Maspeth. Many residents said they were offended by the remarks. The Forum Newsgroup/photo by CONOR GREENE

Minor Drop in Crime in 104th Precinct

Trends Discussed at JPCA Meeting

By Conor Greene

Residents at last week’s Juniper Park Civic Association meeting were brought up to date on local crime trends by members of the 104th Precinct. Recent incidents include a street robbery involving a 102-year-old victim and the theft of tires and rims from cars parked overnight on neighborhood streets.

Lt. Jerry Lester kicked off the meeting last Thursday in Our Lady of Hope auditorium in Middle Village by providing residents with statistics comparing the number of major incidents this year compared with the same time last year.

So far, there has been one murder within the confines of the 104th Precinct, when an elderly man was found murdered inside his Ridgewood home. That case has gone unsolved; last year there were no murders at this point.

There have been two rapes so far, compared with six last year. Robberies are down, with 51 this year compared to 64. Felony assaults have declined by two from the 28 reported at this point in 2008, while burglaries have dropped from 102 to 96, said Lester. Grand larceny has dropped by 25 from 110 last year, and while grand larceny auto has risen slightly, from 74 last year to 77 this year.

The lieutenant said that the majority of assaults occurred at night, with many taking place inside or near area bars. “It’s early in the morning, they’re intoxicated and the bottles come out and the knives come out,” he said.

Earlier that day, a 102-year-old woman and her 89-year-old friend were walking down Ridgewood sidewalk when somebody approached them and stole her purse. The woman wasn’t injured, and while detectives are investigating, Lt. Lester said cases involving elderly victims often prove difficult to solve. “At that age, [often] they can’t identify the person,” he said. “We’re hoping that somebody from the community saw something.”

With the warm weather approaching, Lt. Lester urged residents to be on the lookout for graffiti vandals, and to call 911 to report them. He stressed that residents should not call 311 if they see the crime in progress.

The lieutenant also reported that the precinct’s narcotics enforcement team recently carried out several drug busts. Using search warrants, they found at least a pound of marijuana along with prescription drugs and cocaine during a raid in Ridgewood earlier that day, he said. Another search had been executed in the same area just weeks prior. “They do a pretty good job with narcotics [enforcement],” he said.

Updating residents on an ongoing problem, Lt. Lester said there have been three more incidents of tires and rims stolen from cars, usually while parked overnight. “It’s a problem citywide, statewide and countrywide,” he said. Cars targeted are usually 2006 models or newer, and the problem has been ongoing in the Maspeth area for months now. Lt. Lester also reminded residents to never leave any valuables in the car, especially GPS systems and shopping bags.

There have also been several residential burglaries, with the perps often entering through unlocked ground-floor rear windows and doors. “They test it, and if no one is around, they’re going in,” warned Lt. Lester.

A resident asked Lt. Lester about the sudden increase in the number of NYPD helicopters flying low over Maspeth, something others in the audience said also bothers them. “One in the morning, I’m outside looking at a helicopter that says police,” she said. The lieutenant said it might be part of training exercises and promised that the precinct’s Community Affairs Unit would look into it.

Another resident raised another issue that seems to becoming more and more common: individuals going door to door and offering residents a discount on their energy bill. While these people are sometimes employed by a legitimate company, “there is a scam going on,” warned Lt. Lester. He said they often work in pairs, with one distracting the homeowner while the other sneaks away to steal valuables. “I wouldn’t let anyone in my house,” he said. “If you see anyone suspicious, call 911.”

A topic of concern for Robert Holden, president of the JPCA, is the amount of commercial vehicles parked overnight on public streets. The problem has gotten much worse since the precinct lost its midnight patrol, which included an officer dedicated to ticketing offending vehicles. Holden also said there is a dangerous situation beneath the Long Island Expressway, where residents are forced to walk behind a row of trucks, out of view from the street. “It’s a very dangerous situation,” he said.

A Mother's Loss: Unsettled Details Lead to Search for Answers

By Patricia Adams

In an exclusive interview with The Forum, Aaishah Francis, mother of 13-year-old Al-Haarith Atthahabi, expresses her grief and doubts over the events surrounding her sons death from after playing basketball at MS 210 last week.

“He was always here by 2:35. I could be out, but I knew he’d always be there.” On March 11 he wasn’t home at 2:35. He still wasn’t home at 3:00. In an interview with The Forum at her home, Aaishah Francis explained what happened on the day her 13-year-old son, Al-Haarith Atthahabi, didn’t come home from MS 210.

“I was so anxious all morning about him. It’s hard to explain. I wanted to tell him before he left he should come right home after school but I didn’t catch him in time. He was very self-sufficient. If he needed me he would come to ask.”

Aaishah said that by 3 o’clock she was very anxious about why Haarith wasn’t home. The phone rang at, what she says, was about five minutes past three. It was her 12-year-old son, Dihyah. He told her to “come to the school quick, something’s happened to Haarith.”

She ran downstairs to ask a neighbor about babysitting for Haarith’s brother, but the woman had to work. While Aaishah dressed the youngest of her four sons, the phone rang again. “This time it was another child,” she said. It was a friend of Haarith’s, Mark. “He said that I had to come to the school now. That Haarith had collapsed and he was on the ground. I knew it was bad.”

“I ran up to the school. I couldn’t find my key. I just left the doors open and ran with the baby.” When Aaishah got to the schoolyard, she said she remembers a lot of people standing all around. She watched a fire truck pull through at the playground. “I ran through the schoolyard. I screamed for Haarith because I saw my son on the floor. I saw the fireman with a bag. That’s all I saw, they were pumping the bag. And then I think I blacked out.”

She remembers screaming and a teacher asking what school he goes to. “He goes here. He’s at 210 in the eighth grade. What are you talking about? He’s here.” Aaishah says that the woman told her to stay back. “Let them work,” she said referring to emergency personnel. “Stay back over here. Don’t go there. Don’t go over there.”

By this time Dihyoh had come to his mother’s side at the schoolyard. She handed off his younger brother. “I told him to hold the baby,” Aaishah said. “I was flipping because I had never seen my son in my life like that. He’s never had issues in terms of medical conditions. I remember that I said he’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead.” Aaishah says she will never forget the strength of the feeling she had at that moment.

Later, Aaishah learned that it was Rosalyn Manning, the school’s principal, who she said held her back at the schoolyard. “She said to me “Don’t go over there. They’re working on him. Just pray.” Aaishah said, “Pray? He’s dead. I just wanted to see my dead son. I know it sounds morbid but that’s it. I could tell it wasn’t working on him. All I saw was the air thing. He was not hooked up to anything to put oxygen over his brain to try and stop the brain from being damaged. I watched enough ER for that.”

Aaishah says she doesn’t really know how many emergency personnel were there. “They weren’t going to let me go to the ambulance either but I went past them and just got in.” She asked repeatedly if her son was breathing but Aaishah Francis could get no answers. “The ambulance driver told me if you make a big scene we’re not going to be able to keep you with us. You have to calm down.” But according to the boy’s mother, no one was doing anything. She said she overheard EMT’s say they were waiting for the paramedics. “I said why are we waiting for the paramedics. Then they shocked him once. And we started to drive to the hospital.”

At the hospital, Al-Haarith was taken by a team in one direction, while his mother was moved to a room near the emergency room. “There were people all around again. Traffic cops, school safety, someone the Department of Ed sent down. They were all there and then the doctor came. He told me they could not save my son.”

Since leaving the hospital, Aaishah is troubled by the fact that she feels there are many things unresolved. “The school sent a few people down to the funeral service for my son but I have never really been contacted or spoken to about what actually happened on that day.” There are many questions that remain unanswered about what happened on the basketball court after Al-Haarith first fell to the ground.

According to Rosalyn Allman-Manning, the school’s principal, “As soon as we got the word we ran to the scene with the Automatic External Defibrillator (AED). We heard the fire engines when we got to the schoolyard. At the time a staff member was doing CPR. I was with the mother,” Manning said. “It was a matter of putting the pads on. He was shocked by the fire department.” Manning admitted trying to keep Aaishah away from her son and said that she was following orders of the EMS workers who told her to keep the mother away.

When asked when Ms. Manning expected that Aaishah would be called in to finally discuss the events surrounding the tragic death, Manning responded, “Oh sometime after spring break.” Now Al-Haarith’s mother will have to wait more than three weeks to perhaps get the answers to some of the questions she seeks.

But what Rosalyn Manning could not explain were allegations raised by staff, faculty and students about another disturbing issue that has arisen in the aftermath of the tragedy. In the days following Al-Haarith’s death, a crisis team came to the school in order to counsel children who were experiencing difficulty over the loss of their friend and classmate.

Some teachers had prepared their students by telling them that Al-Haarith had suffered a tragic death but in the end had passed very quickly and with little or no suffering. But according to many at a session held in the school library, there was a quite different account of Al-Haarith’s death by a Department of Education representative.

“This man came in about twenty minutes or so after the session started,” one faculty member said. “He said he was with Security or something at the DOE.” According to the teacher, who refused to speak on the record, the rep told the more than 50-60 kids in the library and at least a dozen teachers that their “friend Al was a real fighter. I was there at the hospital with his mother all night and he really put up a fight.”

One of the teachers also present said she could not believe what she was hearing. “We had just made these kids feel better and this guy comes in and makes them think their friend struggled to live and lost his fight.” And others had comments. Students questioned their teachers as to why they had been told Al died quickly. Any faculty or staff who was in the room and willing to speak all did so anonymously because of a fear of retribution by school administration or the DoE itself.

“To say that happened," said Manning, "is absolutely incredulous. I can’t imagine why anyone would say anything like that." But Manning admits she was not even in the room when the statements allegedly took place.

According to the official death certificate issued, Al-Haarith was pronounced Dead on Arrival (DOA) Jamaica Hospital at 4:11 p.m. There was no fight by Al-Haarith at the hospital. Aaishah explained, “he died of Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD). He was dead before he got there,” said Aaishah, “He did not die in the hospital…he was dead at that school.”

“As a mom my thing was if he was in pain. Did he hurt? I have to explain to my children what happened.”

The cause of death is still listed as pending the autopsy results, however Aaishah says the medical examiner explained it would be listed as natural causes because it was a cardiac incident. She also said she was told at the hospital that his heart had never started again and that he never had a pulse. How could he fight? That boy was out before twenty seconds. His friend told me he clutched his chest, gasped and went right down to the ground.”

As we go to press, The Forum was waiting for a call back from the press office at the Department of Education to identify the man who allegedly fabricated the facts about what occurred at the hospital. A reply is also being sought from the DOE as to why the principal sent a letter home to parents and guardians saying that Al-Haarith died in the hospital.

“I can’t bring my son back. But I can find out if everything that should have been done to save him was done. I have another child in this school. Although this is a rare occurrence, I never want to hear about another mother that has to face the death of their child.”

In the weeks to come The Forum will continue to follow this story with reports and developments. Next week we will examine the differences between the two types of ambulances that respond to 911 calls and how the units dispatched and the response times have been affected, if at all, by the recent loss of ambulance tours with the closure of two Queens hospitals.

Homicide Victim Found in Lindenwood


By Patricia Adams

On Friday, March 27, 2009 Police Officers Nolie and Fierro assigned to 106 Sector ABC, responded to a radio for an unconscious male in front of 133-24 78 St.

Upon arrival at the scene the officers were approached by Mr. Kester Papist, who left his residence on the same street at about 8 a.m., and discovered the body of a naked black male, approximately 40 years of age, lying face up with a gunshot wound to the head.

The victim was lying between a parked car and a fence. EMS personnel arrived and pronounced the time of death shortly after 8 a.m. A report from the Medical Examiners office later determined the time of death to be somewhere around 7 a.m.

A crime scene was established and a canvass for shell casings and firearms was conducted with no weapons recovered. Police obtained witness information, conducted a canvass for surveillance cameras and recorded all license plates near the scene.The deceased victim was not identified at the time of the incident.

The Crime Scene Unit collected forensic evidence and assisted the Medical Examiner with the removal of the body. An ongoing investigation was in progress to identify the deceased and establish the circumstances of the shooting.

Less than four days later, police believe they have made a connection in the shooting to yet another bullet-riddled body found dumped in Brooklyn. They have raided a Long Island condo owned by former New York Jets defensive star Jonathan Vilma, according to published reports in the Daily News.

Law officials are searching for clues in the double homicide they believe to be a pair of drug related murders. They also said there is no evidence that Vilma is in any way connected with the homicides. According to authorities, Vilma may have allowed a friend or relative to use the condo which the football star vacated in November of 2007.

Police did a canvass for witnesses in the area of the condo, asking other residents if they had heard anything strange like a gunshot or a bang.

On Friday, police found the body of Sekou Sakor, 31, dumped in the Paerdegat Basin of Brooklyn. Sakor’s body was disposed of in the same manner as the unidentified man found in the Lindenwood section. Both men were naked and shot execution style. Detectives believe both shootings were connected to a robbery in the Bronx in which Sakor was robbed at gunpoint of a suitcase full of cocaine.

Residents Upset Over Maspeth Building Rental

Variance was Based on Company's Need for Space

By Conor Greene

Some local civic and community board members are unhappy that a local business is advertising office space for rent, after gaining a variance on the basis the additional room was needed to accommodate its growing business.

In 2004, Aldona Fire Protection was granted a variance by the city Board of Standards and Appeals to build an additional three floors on top of what was a two-story building at 74th Street in Maspeth. Despite the objections of Community Board 5, which voted against the variance, permission for the expansion was granted after Aldona argued it needed the space to consolidate its operations under one roof.

Because of the impact the expansion had on the neighborhood, including the parking situation, Juniper Park Civic Association President Robert Holden was not happy to see that Aldona had hung a large For Rent sign across the building. At a press conference last Friday in front of the building, Holden and Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said the problem starts with the BSA.

“Towering over neighboring structures, this building is clearly out of context with the character of the neighborhood,” said Avella, who has long called for either reform or outright abolishment of the BSA. “It is blatantly obvious that BSA incorrectly granted a hardship variance to the owner of this property because they claimed they wanted to expand their fire protection business, yet now they are renting out office space. While shocking, this unfortunately occurs far too frequently throughout the city because BSA fails to take the concerns of the community into account.”

Holden noted that the building is now three stories taller than what is generally allowed under the property’s zoning. He pointed out that the company testified to CB 5, the borough president and the BSA that the space was needed for the business expansion. “Instead, we see that they are renting the building out as office space. What’s wrong with this picture?” said Holden, who is also a CB 5 member.

According to the resolution approving the variance, Aldona is required to gain BSA approval for “any change to the approved plans.” In addition, the company is required to provide for additional off-street parking if the parking conditions in the area worsen as a result of changes in the immediate area. The property, at 54-14 74th Street, is down the block from the former Restaurant Depot site, where the city wants to build a 1,100-seat high school.

“The problem is that developers claim hardships at the BSA in order to build what they want,” said Manny Caruana, a member of CB 5 and the JPCA executive committee. “Afterward, when it becomes obvious that the hardship never existed, the community is left to suffer and the BSA doesn’t do anything because they don’t care.”

A message left with Aldona was not returned by press time. However, the owner was quoted in a published report as saying that the company is considering renting out part of the building because it hasn’t yet been paid for several large contracts. The original plan had called for filing the building with the company’s 20 employees, but the third floor is now being offered for rent to account for the shortfall due to the unpaid contracts.

Avella, who is running for mayor, has been a constant critic of the BSA since taking office in 2002. Since one of the board’s five variance criteria involves the review of alleged financial hardship, Avella introduced a bill last year that would have required one of the BSA members to be a financial analyst with professional qualifications. “It only makes sense to have a member of the board who has the financial background to determine the legitimacy of any such claim by a developer,” said Avella. “Unfortunately, the bill has languished in the City Council.”

JPCA members Robert Holden, Anthony Nunziato and Manny Caruana join Councilman Tony Avella at a press conference in Maspeth last week. The Forum Newsgroup/photo courtesy of CHRISTINA WILKINSON