Thursday, June 11, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Fire Destorys Century-Old Church

Maspeth Congregants Devastated over Sudden Loss

By Conor Greene

Local residents and devastated congregants of the Maspeth United Methodist Church woke up Tuesday morning to news that the 102-year-old church was destroyed in an overnight fire.

The church, at 58th Avenue near 66th Street, was gutted during the two-alarm fire, which was reported at 4:30 a.m. by a neighbor who smelled smoke while taking out the garbage less than a half block from the church. Firefighters from Engine 288 reached the scene in less than three minutes, but were unable to prevent the blaze from gutting the church sanctuary. Firefighters were forced to evacuate the building at 5 a.m., and needed three hours to bring it under control. Nine firefighters suffered minor injuries.

While the FDNY is still investigating the cause of the fire, the church’s pastor and neighbors speculated that the wooden structure might have been struck by lightening as heavy storms passed through the area at about the time the fire started.

“I’m devastated – it’s very surreal,” said one congregant who stood watching as firefighters continued to douse the building with water, hours after the blaze had been brought under control. “I couldn’t believe it [and] had a good cry,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

Aside as serving as home for the 155-year-old congregation, which has dwindled over the years and now attracts about 20 worshippers each week, the building hosted local groups including about 175 Girl Scouts who meet there weekly, Alcoholics Anonymous and yoga classes. “It’s a community church for so many things,” said the distraught congregant, who added that she was married there. “This church really means a lot to us.”

Pastor Avelio de Leon, who has been with the church for the past 14 years, was asleep in the parsonage next door when the fire started. His wife awoke at about 3 a.m. after hearing banging and thought someone was breaking into her car. Noticing nothing unusual, the pastor went back to sleep. He woke up 45 minutes later to the sound of sirens approaching the area, at which point he realized the church was on fire.

“I hope we will be able to regroup and rebuild the church,” he said. “The Bible says that God works in mysterious ways so maybe the people will be strengthened and become more spiritual.” The pastor said the fire started in the rear of the roof, which initially gave him home the building could be spared. However, witnesses said that firefighters who initially entered the building were forced back out due to the intense heat. “I’m disappointed that it’s a loss,” he said. “Of course, they [the congregants] are devastated.”

While next door neighbor Frank Santamaria’s home wasn’t damaged in the fire, he was forced out of his house because the church was in danger of collapsing. City Department of Building crews were on scene to coordinate the building’s demolishment, which was expected to be completed later that same day. After the fire was completely extinguished, firefighters helped the pastor and congregants recover items from inside the building.

“I was up with the thunder and then went to sleep. I smelled smoke, and the next thing you know, it was engulfed,” said Santamaria. The first crews on the scene made it about 75 feet into the basement before retreating due to the heat, he said. “It was hectic, but as usual the fire department was under control. They knew exactly what they were doing.”

Once the firefighters determined that there were no victims inside the church, the set up a perimeter to prevent the flames from spreading to nearby homes. Santamaria was counting his blessings that the wind was blowing in the right direction. “Ninety-nine out of one hundred, it’s coming this way,” he said.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) arrived at the fire scene and helped with the effort to preserve artifacts. She also used the opportunity to rip the FDNY and mayor for threatening to close firehouses due to budget cuts. “While the church will be completely destroyed, we must come together as a community, rebuild a new church, and we will come out of this great loss stronger and closer as a community.

“I believe this is another example of why we must fight to keep fire companies open,” said Crowley. “I urge Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and Mayor Bloomberg to immediately identify the locations of the 12 companies slated to close, along with the criteria and data used to make those determinations…”

Firefighters continue to douse the flames at Maspeth United Methodist Church as the congregation’s pastor speaks to reporters. The Forum Newsgroup/photos by CONOR GREENE

Thief Dies After Jump from Train Platform

By Patricia Adams

A man fell to his death on Monday afternoon, shortly after robbing a Capital One Bank branch on Lefferts Boulevard between Liberty and 103rd avenues in Ozone Park.

At about 1:30 p.m., the unidentified white male, approximately 35-50 years old, entered the bank, approached a bank window and passed a note to the teller demanding cash. The bandit took off from the bank carrying a bag of money and headed toward Liberty Ave. But when a dye pack exploded inside the bag, the man tossed the cash in a garbage pail at the corner and raced up the stairs to the elevated train tracks.

With the police in pursuit, the suspect jumped onto the tracks of the A line and began running away from cops. About 5 blocks later, the man decided to jump off the tracks onto a roof top of the corner building at Liberty Avenue and 113th street. He misjudged the distance, which police sources estimate to be at least 22 feet, and plunged to the sidewalk beneath.

The man died at the scene.

Two Mayoral Candidates Discuss Visions for City

Bloomberg a No Show at Forest Hills Civic Meeting

By Conor Greene

The two Democratic candidates for mayor, Comptroller Bill Thompson and Councilman Tony Avella, told residents that the city needs a change in leadership in order to protect the interests of average New Yorkers at a civic meeting in Forest Hills Tuesday night.

The two men used the forum at the Forest Hills Community and Civic Association meeting to tell residents about their experience in public service and their plans if elected mayor. The race’s frontrunner, incumbent Michael Bloomberg, declined the civic group’s invitation to attend due to scheduling issues but said he would try to attend a meeting in the fall, according to FHCCA President Barbara Stuchinski.

Councilman Avella Calls for Change

Avella was first to speak, and Stuchinski introduced the Bayside councilman as a “great guy” who for “many, many years has always been involved in the communities” and is” “not looking for personal esteem. He really is a person to be admired.”

Avella, who declined to run for a third term on City Council after term limits were amended last year, said he started out as a “civic activist… helping to address local problems” in northern Queens. He was chief of staff to a number of elected officials before being elected to the City Council in 2002. “Being a community activist means knowing with the community expects, needs, and desires,” he said. “We’ve lost control over our own city government.”

One of the top priorities is stopping overdevelopment and taking neighborhoods back from politically-connected developers, said Avella. “It’s about time we start paying attention to the unique character and charm of every single neighborhood.” Ensuring that the zoning matches the area’s character will help prevent overdevelopment, he argued. Instead of city planning officials and the real estate industry controlling the agenda, Avella wants residents to have a say over their neighborhood. “Nobody knows their block better than the people who live there,” he said.

On education, Avella said that it was clear in 2002 that the Department of Education had to be revamped. However, “Michael Bloomberg made a major mistake” by not reaching out to stakeholders such as parents and teachers. Instead, he hired Chancellor Joel Klein, who is “running it like a business… I’m not saying you throw money at the DOE, but you cannot equate the all mighty dollar with advances in education.”

He noted that while the Bloomberg administration has recently touted gains made in statewide testing, nationwide tests show “absolutely no improvement in the eight years Michael Bloomberg has had control... All we do is teach to the test – we’re not educating kids, we’re just teaching them to adjust.” One of the first things Avella would do if elected is fire Klein, who he called a “disaster.”

Avella hammered home one of his main messages: that the city needs a “philosophical change” in the way residents and government interact. “If we want to have a better city, we all need to be involved… I don’t have all the answers – I want to listen to you,” he said.

He has also taken steps to “restore people’s faith in elected officials,” including voting against the pay raise that the City Council voted to give itself, and rejected the “lulu” politicians receive for chairing committees. In addition, he “fought like hell” against the mayor’s successful push to overturn term limits, and declined to seek reelection to his Council seat. “Whether you like term limits or not, what he did was an absolute disgrace,” he said. “The only way to overcome the terrible blow [to voters] is to vote them out of office.”

He also said that despite the wide disparity between the candidates fundraising, money shouldn’t determine who is elected. “In the end it shouldn’t be about money – it’s about people,” he said. “I’m not selling my soul. My donations are coming from people like you.”

When asked about potential funding cuts to libraries, community boards and the FDNY, Avella said it comes down to priorities. He wants to provide community boards with more power instead of reducing their funding and wants libraries open seven days a week, instead of cutting hours as is being threatened under the proposed budget. To do this, he would eliminate wasteful spending in other areas, including education. “The waste is unbelievable,” he said of city agencies.

“If you don’t want change, elected Mike Bloomberg… elect my Democratic opponent, because you are going to get the same nonsense,” said Avella, who promised “major reforms” if elected.

Comptroller Thompson Makes His Case

Thompson began by providing insight into his background, beginning with his childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant. His mother was a city school teacher and his father was a former senator and judge. “I grew up in a household that believed in community service,” he said. “It is important to help the community you live in.”

He recalled his own 2001 run for comptroller, which was his first run at elected office. “I wasn’t supposed to win,” he said, as his opponent was chair of the City Council finance committee and greatly outspent Thompson. “In the end, I was able to put together people all across the city who believed in what I did.”

Thompson also made an effort to inform the crowd about the work he has done as city comptroller. He said that it became clear the MTA was operating using “two sets” of books during recent budget negotiations. “That’s the work I did,” he said of exposing that situation. “I knew they were lying… and went in and looked at the books.”

On term limits, Thompson stressed that it was always his intention to run for mayor and says the matter should have been brought back to the people for another referendum. “We know in the end he didn’t,” said Thompson, referring to Bloomberg.

After the City Council voted to allow officials to seek a third four-year term, Thompson continued with his mayoral bid “after looking at the things going on around us” such as the plan to close and consolidate local senior centers. “They pulled that back because of the election,” said Thompson, predicting that Bloomberg will continue with that plan if he is reelected.

He also criticized Bloomberg for charging homeless families rent to stay in city run shelters, which makes it harder for them to save enough to secure permanent housing. He also noted that water rates have risen 13% this year and a staggering 58% in the past four years. “You’re being overcharged,” he said. It’s almost a backdoor property tax.”

Another example of the city’s attempt to “squeeze more and more each year” out of middle class New Yorkers was the proposal to put tolls on the free East and Harlem river bridges. He said that 60% of those affected by this plan are Brooklyn and Queens residents. “Middle class New Yorkers… are going to be pushed out of this city,” he warned.

Despite the disparity between his fundraising efforts – which have netted about $6 million so far, compared with Bloomberg’s seemingly bottomless self-financed campaign war chest – Thompson said he “believes” he has a real shot at victory in November. He referred to a recent poll that showed that only 40% of respondents want Bloomberg to serve a third term.

“They realize that Michael Bloomberg is not there for the people of the city… He is there for a few of his wealthy friends.” He noted that Bloomberg opposed tax increases for the wealthy and says his opponent is spending upwards of $100 million “to try to convince you that he’s a different person than he’s been for the past eight years… After eight years, we know who Michael Bloomberg is. During these tough times, we can’t afford to have him back again as mayor.”

Other issues Thompson touched on included diversifying the city’s economy to reduce the dependant on Wall Street. One way to do that is to fully reinstate the tax credits formerly provided to the film industry. The city and state tax credit directly and indirectly led to 100,000 jobs, however many companies left the city after the credits dried up last year. While some money has been put back into that fund, it is set to expire in 2011.

Thompson said he believes in mayoral control of schools, but with some changes, including giving parents involvement and strengthening the powers of local Community Education Councils. He also wants an independent agency to assess how the city is doing in areas such as drop out and graduation rates and test scores. “They’re playing with the numbers,” he alleged. He called the DOE “the most fiscally irresponsible agency in the world.” Under a contract between the DOE and a vendor that Thompson recently rejected, the city was going to be “overpaying on almost everything by 10%,” he said.

Candidates Don't Get Their Say at Forest Hills Civic

Two of the candidates vying to represent Forest Hills, Rego Park and Kew Gardens on the City Council were given a chance to speak at Tuesday night’s Forest Hills Community and Civic Association meeting, but two others in attendance weren’t happy they didn’t get the same chance to address voters.

After mayoral candidates Tony Avella and Bill Thompson addressed the crowd at length, FHCCA President Barbara Stuchinski offered City Council candidate Mel Gagarin several minutes to discuss his campaign. The 27-year-old grew up in the neighborhood and told the residents that “it’s time for a new generation of leadership” in the city.

After Gagarin spoke, Stuchinski invited candidate Karen Koslowitz, who is director of Queens community board, to speak about the role the boards play in city government. She spoke for several minutes about ways the boards, which she called the “city halls of your community” help residents. She said that the proposed cut of $35,000 of the board’s $200,000 annual operating budget would “decimate the boards.”

However, Koslowitz then touched on other issues including senior citizen services and the elimination of child care programs. She also touted accomplishments she achieved while serving on the City Council from 1992 to 2001, including safety improvements along Queens Boulevard and the efforts to shut down a strip club on Austin Street. “I’m running for City Council because I like to make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.

At one point, Stuchinski recognized that candidates Heidi Harrison Chain and Michael Cohen were also in the audience. However, after Koslowitz spoke, a resident brought up issues concerning construction of the Metropolitan Avenue school. After that issue was discussed, Stuchinski adjourned the meeting.

Shortly after, Chain said she thinks it is “a little bizarre” that the two candidates were not asked to speak. Cohen said he thought he was attending a community meeting and wasn’t aware that two of the candidates would speak. He said that he is willing to give Stuchinski the benefit of the doubt that she didn’t realize Koslowitz was going to give a full-fledged “political speech.”

However, once Koslowitz addressed the crowd in that fashion, Cohen said Stuchinski should have made sure all candidates in attendance were invited to speak. “Once it happened, there should have been some type of fairness [and] equal time,” said Cohen, adding that he is “disappointed” in how the situation played out.

On Wednesday, Stuchinski was less than apologetic for not providing Cohen and Chain a few minutes to speak. She said that Gagarin had not been invited to the civic’s recent candidates forum, so she thought it was only fair to give him a chance to introduce himself to voters. She said she thought Koslowitz was only going to speak about the community boards and not about her City Council Campaign.

“You know, when you are losing, you should learn to be gracious. Those two are being so belligerent and nasty” she said of Cohen and Chain. “I called on Karen not realizing she was going to go into campaign mode, so what was I suppose to do, hit her in the knee caps to get her off the stage?”

Stuchinski argued that the candidates “definitely had ample opportunity at the first panel to discuss” various issues. “These two seem to have this chip on their shoulder, and that’s not the way to win votes. Act like an adult, learn to be gracious and learn to roll with the punches.”

Bloomberg Stops by Ridgewood Civic Meeting

Discusses Landmarking, Crime and Education

By Conor Greene

With test scores rising and crime dropping, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stopped by last week’s Ridgewood Property Owners Association meeting, just as his bid for a third term in office starts to heat up.

“I’ve got some good news about Ridgewood,” the mayor told the crowd of nearly 200 inside IS 93 on Forest Avenue, before addressing four topics - landmarking, education, public safety and the economy during his 11 minute speech.

Mayor Bloomberg did not mention his run for a third term or his controversial push that led to the City Council’s decision to overturn term limits. He didn’t take any questions, instead allowing audience members to submit a written query on forms distributed around the auditorium.

The mayor began by announcing that the city Landmark Preservation Commission is expected to vote on September 15 to vote on a Ridgewood North Historic District, something he has been told “will be very popular” and is likely to be approved. Also at that meeting, the commission will hold a hearing on a “larger Ridgewood South [Historic] District,” added Bloomberg.

“For those of you who want landmarking, I think you are going to get what you want,” he said. “Ridgewood’s history needs to be preserved and celebrated and these landmark decisions will go a long way towards doing that.”

Mayor Bloomberg was also eager to tout progress city students have made on standardized tests. He said that IS 93 students have made “huge progress” and are now outperforming citywide students. Three years ago, just 40% of IS 93 students were at or above acceptable standards for English, while this year nearly three-quarters of students scored proficiently in English. For math, only half of students were proficient three years ago, compared to 82% today.

“We’re seeing progress all over the city,” said Bloomberg. “Why? I think it’s because we’re investing in teachers… [and] making everyone in the system accountable, and we’re getting the results… It really is amazing what the schools system has done – the city is catching up to the state, and big cities never catch up to the state.”

Even with the city struggling through a recession, crime is down both in the 104th Precinct, which includes Ridgewood, and across the city as a whole, according to Bloomberg, who said that crime is down 9.4% this year in the 104th Precinct, and down 43% over the last eight years.

“As everybody knows, when the economy slows down due to a recession, crime goes up… except it doesn’t have to be true,” said Bloomberg. “Crime is going down at a time when sadly the economy [is struggling]. It is just so counterintuitive… but you don’t have to suffer the conventional wisdom… We just don’t have to sit back and say that’s just the way it is.” He vowed that the city will continue to make investments in its infrastructure “that we stopped making back in the 1970s.”

At the end of his quick speech, Bloomberg thanked the residents for employing him, even if he accepts just “a dollar a year” salary. When a woman yelled out that he is the best mayor in the world, Bloomberg responded, “You and my mother think so.” He accepted a gift bag containing neighborhood favorites before heading out to his next appearance.

Prior to Bloomberg’s speech, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) briefly addressed the audience, speaking among other things on the importance of investing in Ridgewood Reservoir. It was recently announced that the $50 million earmarked for improvements there has been cut in half, and Crowley urged the mayor to reinstate that money. “Despite these tough budget times, we have an opportunity to… create a place where we can learn about preservation and conservation for future generations,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Crowley later said that the Councilmember was “disappointed” that the mayor didn’t mention the Ridgewood Reservoir during his speech.

Members of the RPOA pose for a photo after Mayor Bloomberg’s speech. At left, the mayor is presented with a gift bag containing items from the neighborhood. The Forum Newsgroup/photos by CONOR GREENE

Willets Point Land Owners Rally Against Eminent Domain

By Conor Greene

With the city ready to begin the process of using eminent domain to seize private property at Willets Point, land owners are vowing to “fight to the bitter end” to retain ownership of their land.

Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and a group of Willets Point property owners gathered in front of Shea Gas Station on 127th Place on Monday to call attention to what they say is hypocrisy on the part of the city. Property owners claim the city told them that negotiations for properties in the project’s second and third phases are on hold, but has since signaled that it is moving forward with eminent domain.

The city plans to acquire the land at the 62-acre site adjacent to CitiField to pave the way for a glitzy redevelopment featuring housing, restaurants, retail, a hotel, convention center and other amenities. In November, City Council voted to approve the project, which just two members – Avella and Charles Barron – voting against it. Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who was not in office at the time of the vote, refused to discuss her feelings about the project or her opinion on the potential use of eminent domain.

While property owners have yet to receive a formal letter informing them that the city intends to seize the property, several say their employees were approached by representatives of Cornerstone Realty Group, which is assisting the city in its efforts to relocate the businesses. In addition, the city has scheduled a public hearing on June 22 in Flushing Town Hall, which is the first step in the eminent domain process.

“Here we go again to show the hypocrisy of Michael Bloomberg and the Economic Development Corporation (EDC),” said Avella. “While they keep saying they’re going to negotiate fairly… all of a sudden they have an outside consultant going door to door.”

He said that the EDC was on the phone with his office within 15 minutes after he announced the press conference last Friday. They wanted to assure him that the city is not yet proceeding with eminent domain, which led him to wonder who it is that is contacting the business owners. “It’s amazing the hypocrisy and how they talk out of both sides of their mouths… Michael Bloomberg is a traitor to the American dream and to democracy in this city.”

According to a May 26 press release, the EDC has reached deals for about 40 acres of the 62-acre site after striking agreements with two more property owners. The city “will continue to reach out to business and property owners in Willets Point to negotiate fair acquisition agreements,” the EDC said in the statement.

However, in many of those property owners’ minds, the city is not negotiating in good faith since it is holding the threat of eminent domain over their heads. “The only reason anyone has sold them property here is because of the threat of eminent domain,” said Jake Bono, who accused the city of threatening, “If you don’t sell your property, we’re going to take it.”

Avella agreed that the city is using the threat of eminent domain to force property owners’ into reaching a deal. “Holding over their heads the threat of eminent domain is not fair negotiating… This whole thing has been a joke and a disaster from the beginning.”

Property owner Irene Presti Giacomo said that the property is the sole source of income for her and her daughters since her husband passed away. She pointed out that Bloomberg has made helping women business owners a part of his campaign, and wonders why that doesn’t apply to her. “I’ve been paying taxes here for years for services not delivered,” she said. “My property is not for sale. If they take my property, what happens to me?”

Jerry Antonacci of Crown Containers took exception with Bloomberg campaign literature touting his programs to help small businesses, which the mayor claims is the “bread and butter” of the city’s economy. The “reality,” said Antonacci, is that the administration is steamrolling 250 small businesses, eliminating 1,500 jobs, condemning 59 properties in an effort to cater to politically-connected developers. “We’re the only one fighting. He isn’t fighting for us,” said Antonacci.

The property owners have filed a lawsuit in hopes of forcing the city to stop moving forward with eminent domain. “This is a land grab to give to the development community, and they’re going to make a huge amount of money off the blood, sweat and tears of the property owners, and that’s un-American,” said Avella. “This is going to be a fight to the bitter end.”

Crime Down in 112th Precinct

By Conor Greene

Residents at Tuesday night’s Forest Hills Community and Civic Association meeting were updated on local crime by Officer Gigi Redzematovic of the 112th Precinct’s Community Affairs Unit. She reported “very, very good” news regarding major crimes so far this year, with decreases in every category. So far, the precinct is down 19% compared with the same time last year and 8.5% for the past 28 day period.

With the weather getting nicer, Officer Redzematovic reminded that “the opportunity for criminals to do what they need to do goes up” as residents began leaving windows unlocked. She urged residents to always lock their doors and windows, especially if they are inside the home but preoccupied with tasks such as laundry or showering. She also urged homeowners to check their outdoor lighting and to have a neighbor collect the mail and check on the home when you go on vacation. She reminded residents to immediately call 911 if they notice suspicious activity. “We can’t do it without you guys,” she said.

A resident asked about the status of the investigation into a rape that occurred at the intersection of Queens Boulevard and 69th Road at about 4:45 a.m. on May 20. Officer Redzematovic said police “are still looking for the person” and asked residents to be “careful of everything around you” while walking around the city. “I’m not saying it’s not safe in Forest Hills or Rego Park, but you never know.”

According to police, a Hispanic woman in her 20s was followed after leaving the subway station by a man who dragged her to the rear of an apartment building and attacked her. The suspect is a black male between 40 and 50 years old, about 5 feet 7inches tall, with a medium build.

Another resident complained that her driveway is constantly blocked by construction vehicles parking on residential streets new the new school site on Metropolitan Avenue. She said that it took 24 hours for an officer to respond after she called 311. “They used to come within an hour and with all the city needs I was surprised” she said of the delay. She asked if the procedure for having illegally parked cars ticketed and towed has changed, as it used to only take several hours.

Civic President Barbara Stuchinski said that they have eight hours to respond after a complaint is filed. “But don’t believe it,” she said, as it has taken as long as three days for officers to respond to her own complaints. Another resident who has had three cars ticketed and two towed from in front of his home near 69th Road and Sybilla Street said he has “given up on calling 311” and now contacts the 112th Precinct directly, which “works great.” By going that route, he said, an officer generally responds in about 20 minutes.

Finally, the officer informed residents about several upcoming events. This Saturday night, the third annual Relay for Life will be held at the West Side Tennis Club in support of cancer research. The event goes overnight and ends on Sunday morning. In addition, Austin Street will be closed for much of Sunday for a street fair, so drivers are urged to avoid that area.

The precinct’s Crime Prevention Unit is offering Vehicle Identification Number etching at the Home Depot parking lot from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday. No appointment is necessary, and having the VIN number etched onto your car window will help deter thieves, said Officer Redzematovic. Anyone is welcome to take advantage of this free service; however, the event will be canceled in the event of rain.

State Chooses Catholic Charities to Develop Fineson Site

By Patricia Adams

Last Friday New York State announced that Catholic Charities Progress of Peoples Development Corporation has been chosen to buy and develop the Bernard Fineson Developmental Disabilities site in Howard Beach into low- and moderate-income senior housing.

The Fineson site was originally constructed as a private hospital in the 1960's. Following the hospital’s closure, it became a residential unit in 1975 in which Fineson provided residential and program services for individuals, including those diagnosed with autism. The certified capacity at that time was 160 but, over time, the number of residents was reduced to less than 50.

The State’s Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD) is now carefully transitioning some of the residents into community placement opportunities with remaining residents being transferred to the main Fineson campus, Hillside, in Queens Village.

In January a request for proposals was issued by the state to develop the Fineson site into an unassisted housing unit for seniors. A small part of the facility was also designated for developmentally disabled residents.

Catholic Charities was one of a number of entities who submitted proposals to State officials for consideration.

“Catholic Charities was chosen because of the high quality of their proposal to redevelop this site and their excellent track record in providing affordable housing and services to seniors throughout Brooklyn and Queens,” Governor Paterson said. “This is an exciting day as we move one step closer to converting underused state property into much-needed affordable housing for the elderly.”

Fineson will be converted by Catholic Charities into a 100-unit apartment development. Eighty of the units will be reserved for seniors over the age of 60. The remaining 20 units will be set aside for individuals supported by the OMRDD. In material distributed to area civic leaders at an April meeting facilitated by Community Board 10, Catholic Charities described the proposed Howard Beach Apartments facility as consisting of “32 studio, 52 one-bedroom, and 9 two-bedroom apartments with laundry facilities, a community room, resident lounges, and offices.”

Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, one of the largest providers of affordable housing in New York City, also provides social services for seniors in both boroughs, including the Howard Beach community. The development team for this endeavor includes Catholic Charities Progress of Peoples Development Corporation, the housing arm of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens; CPC Resources, a subsidiary of the Community Preservation Corporation; Shuman Lichtenstein Claman Efron Architects; and Monadnock Construction as the general contractor.

Deborah VanAmerongen, Commissioner of the NYS Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), said, “I have had the pleasure of working with Catholic Charities Progress of Peoples Development and have seen firsthand just how effective they are in delivering much-needed housing for seniors and people with developmental disabilities. This important project will take an underutilized state property and turn it into affordable and supportive housing for people who need it most.

The Fineson site is currently owned by the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York. Its Executive Director, Paul T. Williams, Jr., said, "This project is a success story that demonstrates how government agencies working with committed not-for-profit entities can produce a meaningful new life and community purpose for an under-used state facility. We at the Dormitory Authority are proud to play a role in helping to create much-needed affordable housing for senior citizens in addition to supportive housing to serve some of our most vulnerable residents."

The process to determine a use for the Fineson site included discussions with local elected officials and community leaders prior to the State putting its Request for Proposals out. One result of those discussions was the inclusion of a preferential set-aside of 50% of the senior apartments for current residents of Community Board 10 in the RFP.

State Senator Joe Addabbo has been involved in the process since its inception. “Knowing and working with Catholic Charities in the past, I think they are a credible choice. I believe they realize what is at stake here,” Addabbo said referring to the hopes that residents already living in the community would be at ease with their new neighbors.

Addabbo made it clear that the proposal was well-suited for the community. “Because of the dire need to sell off the land it’s easy to see how another kind of project that might not be good for the community could have wound up here. We hope the community will enjoy a relationship as good or better than the long standing one it shared with the Fineson Center.” Addabbo went on to say that the need for senior housing is great in the city and especially in Queens and that the new facility was one to be welcomed

“Catholic Charities discussed its proposal with me prior to submitting it to the State and incorporated the Board’s input in that submission and provided detailed information to us both before and after submitting it,” said Community Board 10 Chairperson, Betty Braton. “I’m pleased with their selection and the Board looks forward to working with Catholic Charities as they develop quality housing and enhanced services for our senior population.”

Monsignor Alfred LoPinto, Pastor of Saint Helen’s Church in Howard Beach, who also serves as the Vicar for Human Services of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, said, “Catholic Charities Progress of Peoples Development Corporation is delighted to have been chosen to develop this site into low and moderate-income housing for seniors and persons with developmental disabilities. Catholic Charities knows that this conversion will help afford many people an opportunity to live with dignity and within an integrated community that is supportive, cheerful and filled with opportunities to enjoy their golden years. We look forward to working with representatives of the State, along with members of the local community, to bring this project to a successful conclusion.”

Monsignor LoPinto added that the estimated time before negotiations and the closing of the states deal with Catholic Charities, including financing for the project, should be completed by the spring of 2010. “Obviously, we are prepared to move ahead as quickly as possible with the closing so that construction can begin,” added Msgr. LoPinto. Following those negotiations, construction should take approximately 18-24 months.

Selection of the residents who will be living in the apartments will follow a standard lottery procedure, according to Msgr. LoPinto, a pre-determined 50% of the application pool coming from the population living within Community Board 10. “The application process generally sees about 800 applications for each unit available,” said Msgr. LoPinto. Traditionally, Catholic Charities, who owns and operates more than 2,500 senior residence apartments throughout Brooklyn and Queens, will see about 800 applications for every unit available. “The rents are set to be affordable so there is tremendous application pool,” concluded Msgr. LoPinto.

“Catholic Charities is well known for helping to revitalize communities through the development of affordable housing as well as providing quality human services that help support and empower the people we are privileged to serve,” said Robert Siebel, Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens. “Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens is proud of what we have accomplished and looks forward this new opportunity to respond to the needs of our neighbors.”

The selection process resulting in the selection of Catholic Charities to develop Fineson was overseen by the State’s Housing Finance Agency and the Division of Housing & Community Renewal with assistance from the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. Officially, the Catholic Charities team has received a preliminary designation to develop the site.

Groups Urge Governors to Block Gas Island Project

By Conor Greene

Members of community organizations along the Mid-Atlantic coast are urging the governors within the region, specifically David Paterson in New York and Jon Corzine in New Jersey, to prevent a private company from constructing an island off the Rockaway coast that would receive shipments of liquefied natural gas.

The Atlantic Sea Island Group has submitted an application to the federal government seeking permits needed to construct an island 13 miles offshore from Long Beach. While issuing permits for these types of projects falls under the jurisdiction of the federal Maritime Administration, governors of states bordering the project – in this case New York and New Jersey – have the authority to unilaterally reject it.

According to groups fighting this and other similar proposals, the five governors from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia are convening to create a regional forum for coastal and ocean planning in the Mid-Atlantic region. This marks the first region in the nation “to commit to a regional approach to ocean management during President Obama’s administration.”

Word that the governors from each state will have open lines of communication regarding ocean planning was welcome news for Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, a New Jersey-based group that has taken the lead on fighting the Atlantic Sea Island Group’s plan and two other similar projects.

“At long last the Mid-Atlantic is stepping up and thinking about our shared marine waters. This ocean realm is one of the must unique in the country and deserves protection,” said Zipf. We, the people, have a plan ready, it’s called the Clean Ocean Zone – a law that will keep improving our clean ocean ecology and the thriving economies that depend on it and keep the polluters, such as LNG and oil drilling out. Just as other costal governors around the country have done, we expect Governors Paterson and Corzine to listen to the people and reject LNG proposals now.”

Locally, environmentalists expressed disappointment that LNG issues are not among the priorities for the five governors to address and warned that years of work to reclaim the ocean could be lost.

“We are happy to see the mid-Atlantic governors meeting but surprised that they haven’t put LNG at the top of their list,” said Chris Wade, chair of the NYC chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “They say they want to collaborate on water quality, energy policy, climate change and conservation of marine habitat. But if they don’t act quickly and unanimously halt proposed LNG-port developments we’ll be losing tremendous ground on all of these issues.”

Michael O’Toole, secretary of the Rockaway Park Homeowners & Residents association, said his group is “strongly opposed to any LNG development” in the coastal waters. “We are particularly concerned about the environmental impact and the safety and security issue. Any facility of this type would be a prime terrorist target.”

According to the Atlantic Sea Island Group’s application, the project, dubbed the Safe Harbor Energy Island, would be at least 60 acres at the water surface and more than 110 acres at the ocean floor. It would require about 700,000 truckloads of fill to construct and would be about 14 times larger than Giants Stadium. Tankers from foreign nations would deliver the liquid natural gas, which would be converted into natural gas and distributed through pipelines.

In April, the Coast Guard held a public hearing on the proposal as part of the process of creating an Environmental Impact Statement that will be used to determine whether the permits should be issued. Gov. Paterson has yet to take a stance on the proposal.

Achieving Success on Opening Day

The Achievers of America program for Softball had its opening day on May 16, and it was a success, with about 70 proud Achievers dressed in uniforms and everyone getting up to bat, all going around the bases and getting a high five at home plate. It’s a dream come true for these special players, even if they are in a wheel chair, everyone plays, and gets a high five, they are part of the team. They play a practice game first, then play three strikes and you’re out, and they love it.

Refreshments such as pizza, bagels, bananas, apples, cookies, drinks, soda, water and more are put out for the players to enjoy each week. It was great time. Come to the field and have some fun. The Achievers of America program for special needs individuals with developmental disabilities. Giving everyone a chance to participate, helping to improve the quality of life of these individuals. They learn, socialize, gain self esteem and have fun! This is what it’s all about! Games played every Saturday 1 pm to 4 pm at: Kissena Corridor Park on Main Street and Elder Ave. across from the Botanical gardens in Flushing Queens, New York For more information, Steve Biondo 718-565-1141, Head Coach Randy Novick 917-355-0651 Sara Di Gennaro 718-738-9344 or visit