Thursday, July 16, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Resident Rally in Protest of New Homeless Shelter

Local Dog Owners Devastated by Pet Abductions

Ridgewood YMCA Renovations Nearing Completion

Board Rejects Company's Trash Removal Plan

Two JFK Airport Workers Charged in Theft

Editorial: Leading by Example and Inspiration

Residents Rally in Protest of New Homeless Shelter

By Conor Greene

More than one hundred residents gathered on 58th Avenue on Saturday morning to protest the sudden opening of a homeless shelter in the middle of their quiet residential block that would provide temporary housing to 29 adults.

Residents of the Elmhurst neighborhood turned out in force to express their displeasure with the city for allowing this type of facility to open without any warning. Adding to their concerns is the fact that Queens Alliance, which is running the facility, has no history of operating these types of homes. There is also concern that 29 homeless individuals will be provided temporary shelter in close proximity to nearby schools.

“We’re here to protect what is most important to us – our children, our homes, our streets and our neighborhood... The decision was rammed down our throat without any feedback from our community,” said Linda Lam, who organized the rally with the local civic group Communities of Elmhurst and Maspeth Together (COMET). “Our children can no longer feel safe playing in the streets… To protect our children, our homes and not to let the homeless shelter destroy our neighborhood, we have to keep up the fight.”

While recognizing the need for homeless shelters in the city, Lam argued that the neighborhood, south of Queens Boulevard near the former St. John’s Hospital site, is already overburdened. “I know all communities should shoulder the burden of society’s problems that nobody wants it in their backyard; however, we have shouldered more than our fair share already,” she said, noting there is a group home located across the street.

Many of the residents were unaware of the facility until COMET held a meeting about it three weeks ago. While it is currently eligible to accept clients, none have been assigned there by the city Human Resources Administration as of Tuesday, according to Yolanda Martin-Garibaldi, vice president of Queens Alliance.

With no prior hearings or notification of the shelter, many expressed anger at elected officials ranging from Mayor Michael Bloomberg down to local City Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), who did not attend the meeting or rally but was represented by a staff member on Saturday. The only elected official to attend the rally was Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who represents the areas to the south of Elmhurst.

“We thank everyone for coming out today to express our anger at our mayor and our political representatives, who by their actions or omissions have shown that they do not have the best interests of our children, elders, wives and families,” said Jean-Claude Pierre, whose sister, brother-in-law and five nieces live three houses from the shelter. “Sadly I was wrong to think so highly of our elected officials. I now realize that we cannot simply rely on our mayor and political representatives.”

Residents packed the sidewalk and street in front of the shelter, located at 86-18 58th Avenue, while speakers vowed in English, Spanish and Chinese to continue the fight. Roe Daraio, president of COMET, urged the residents to “stick together” and monitor the facility to ensure Queens Alliance follows the proper health, safety and licensing guidelines, since the project is allowed as-of-right under the area’s zoning. “If we give them a lot of agida they might pick up and move somewhere else.”

Jeff Gottleib, representing state Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), told the residents that the senator will stand alongside them in this battle.

However, Vicky Morales, representing Katz, was booed loudly by the crowd due to the Councilwoman’s perceived lack of action on this issue. At the COMET meeting several weeks ago, a resident said she was told by a Katz staffer that the fight is a lost cause since the facility is allowed under the zoning. Morales told the crowd that she is looking into why the resident was given that answer, which she said is “not a usual response” from Katz’s office. “The councilmember is tired of as-of-right [projects]. We need to have community input,” said Morales.

Crowley told the crowd to continue fighting and said that “just because they have the right legally, it doesn’t mean it is right.”

Michael Cohen, who is running for the 29th District council seat being vacated by Katz, questioned the ability of Queens Alliance to properly run this type of facility, and bashed the city for giving the organization the okay to do so. “This doesn’t sound like sound social policy to me… The HRA should be ashamed it didn’t think this through rationally.”

A message left with the HRA press office on Tuesday was not returned. Martin-Garibaldi of Queens Alliance said in a brief interview that the bottom line is these individuals need a place to turn to for assistance.

“As a community person and somebody that works for the needy, my personal feeling is if we don’t help each other who’s going to do it?” she said. “Those are our people and our people need to go somewhere. I understand the fact that they don’t want the drugs and other stuff and I’m the first to say we don’t need that. It’s their community, they have a voice and they’re entitled to that,” she said of the protest.

Addressing concerns about Queens Alliance’s lack of track record, Martin-Garibaldi said the staff members are qualified from working with other organizations. “The corporation was formed a year ago. Every agency began somewhere and to create a track record you have to start somewhere.”

Still, Lam and others promised to continue protesting the facility until it is shut down. Petitions opposing the home are circulating the neighborhood, and voter registration forms were available at the rally to help the residents gain a political voice. “This is just the beginning of a long fight,” she said. “We need all of you until the shelter is closed.”

Local Dog Owners Devastated by Pet Abductions

By Patricia Adams

A trend not unfamiliar in Queens has reared its ugly head, most recently in Ozone Park, where there have been several incidents of small “designer” dogs being stolen from homes.

Last week, 40-year Ozone Park resident Ken McIntosh says his two Yorkshire terriers, six-year-old Princess and three-year-old Trixie were abducted from the family’s home on 133rd Avenue in Ozone Park.

McIntosh says the family has never had a problem with leaving the dogs out. “We have been doing it for years. Someone comes home and lets the dogs out. We always make sure the gate is closed. While they are out it’s common for us to run to the store or do another errand. We never leave them out for more than an hour or so.”

Last week when his son, 23-year-old John, came home, he let the pair out into the yard before going off to the gym, making sure that the gate was locked and the dogs were safe. But when someone arrived home a little more than one hour later, the dogs were gone.

The gate was closed and nothing was disturbed but the dogs were not in the yard. “Even when we’re out here with them, if the gate is open they never even go near it.” The family immediately started to canvass the neighborhood. “We went to every house, to find out if anyone had seen anything,” said Ken McIntosh But the attempt to get information was futile. None of the neighbors had noticed anything suspicious or seen anyone near the house and the dogs. The McIntosh’s say that since the dognapping the neighbors have been coming to the house to say how sorry they are and to see if there is anything that they can do to help.

Ken McIntosh says there’s only one person who can help us with this — “the person or people who took our dogs. We want them back so badly — you can’t imagine how this feels.” He also says that his neighbors are very concerned because many of them have small dogs and are used to letting them out in the yard by themselves.

The police were contacted but according to McIntosh were unable to make a report because no one saw the dogs being taken.

Now everyday the family returns home, hoping to find some news about their beloved pets. “It’s just not the same coming home,” said Ken McIntosh. “You walk through the door expecting them to come running up to greet you and they’re not here. My wife, my kids, me - we’re all devastated.”

Steps to find the dogs include posting pictures of Princess and Trixie throughout the area and calling anyone they can for help. When asked what he would say to whomever took the dogs, Ken McIntosh shook his head. “Wow — what would I say? I would just say to please, please bring our dogs back. No questions asked.”

And McIntosh warns other pet owners, especially those with small dogs. “You’d better think a hundred times before leaving your dogs out,” he says. “Things have changed and times are different. I’m afraid there’s no sense of integrity in these people. What kind of character do you have if you can steal away a member of someone’s family? They just don’t care. Our family is ripped up over this. It’s such a shame.”

But according to others faced with the same heartbreak, there is hope of getting the dogs back. Dog owners Lisa Connolly and her partner, Rodney Flannigan from Maspeth were faced with losing Benny and Molly, their 4-year-old Peek-a-Poo (Pekingese/Poodle) and 15-month old Shi Tzu back on September 23.

The story was featured on 1010 WINS news radio and in several local TV news reports. Fliers featuring photos of the dogs had been plastered all over neighborhoods from Woodside to Ridgewood. And in early October the couple got a call from a man who said he knew where the dogs were and would arrange for them to be returned.

Luckily, they were quickly reunited with their pups having made arrangements with the caller. They forked over an $800 reward and in their happiness over the reunion failed to call police about the man who had claimed he had “found” their dogs.

Local police authorities say that the scheme involved is very simple. “Designer” dogs are easily carted off without much noise or notice. They can be readily sold to people looking for dogs but even more common is to abduct the animals, wait for their owners to post a plea to be reunited with their pets and then return the dogs to their owners, taking the reward with them.

While combating this crime against small dogs and their owners is very difficult, dog owners, veterinarians, shelters, and organizations that are concerned for these animals have this advice for all dog owners: Take your dog to a vet or any organization that will painlessly inject your pet (cat or dog) with a chip the size of a grain of rice. This chip contains identifying information that will assist people in returning your dog to you. There are internet sites that match found dogs with their owners.

Ridgewood YMCA Renovations Nearing Completion

By Conor Greene

The Ridgewood YMCA is expected to reopen this fall after extensive renovations to the Catalpa Avenue building that will allow the organization to offer additional programs
“For many, the Ridgewood YMCA serves as a lifeline to the community,” said Weiner (D-Forest Hills). “Revamping the YMCA will help ensure that young children from low-income families are able to access youth activities and surround themselves with nurturing role models.”

According to Jack Lund, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York, the organization never considered abandoning the building and leaving the neighborhood, even though the 1931 building was in “very poor” condition. “We have a rule – we do not leave neighborhoods,” said Lund. “We are confident that the new, state-of-the-art Ridgewood YMCA will embody our message that we’re here for the kids and families of Queens, and we’re here for good.”

While the building has been closed for about a year, Lund said that the YMCA continued to operate “vital programs like day camp and after-school child care” during construction at locations elsewhere in the community. The footprint of the 23,000 square-foot building didn’t change, but there is about 10,000 square feet of additional usable space as a result of the renovation, which included capping and enclosing the center courtyard.

The additional space will allow the organization to expand its early childhood education center and, for the first time at this location, provide a child watch room where parents can drop their children while they work out, according to Gregory Maziarz, executive director of the Ridgewood YMCA. He noted that the facility will serve about 5,000 individuals from the surrounding neighborhoods and is affordable. “This is pretty much a place for everyone,” he said. “The community is really excited about the YMCA.”

The construction work includes roof repairs, window and plumbing replacements, electrical upgrades and interior repainting. For four decades, the YMCA has served low-income families with programs for all ages. In addition to the traditional programs offered at YMCA branches, the Ridgewood center will include affordable child care, a low-cost after-school program for kindergarten through seventh grade and a teen program that stresses personal development, community responsibility and college preparation.

Officials hope the building will be ready by September to coincide with the start of the school year. The facility will feature all new equipment when it reopens its doors, said Lund. “We’re very excited and anxious to get the building operating,” he said. “It’s going to be in effect a new building…We have a lot to do but we’re optimistic we’ll be ready.”

While the building is getting a complete facelift, it will retain many of its unique characteristics, including the large windows. The building originally housed a courthouse and was acquired by the YMCA in the early 1970s. Naturally, there were some minor delays and issues that came up during the project. “Once you get behind walls, you discover some things,” he said, adding that there were also problems with the roof. “We operate in lots of neighborhoods around the city and find a way to make it work.”

When presenting the check to Lund, Weiner called the YMCA a “community touchstone for all of us” and called the project a good example of how tax dollars should be used. “This shell is going to go from being a construction site to being the site of great activity, for which I’m grateful,” he said. “This is the taxpayers doing what I think the taxpayers should do.”

Board Rejects Company's Trash Disposal Plan

Maspeth Truck Traffic Would Increase

By Conor Greene

Waste Management’s plan to transport trash from a new facility on Review Avenue to the Maspeth rail yard for transportation to out-of-state landfills was resoundingly rejected by Community Board 5 members because it will result in more truck traffic in Maspeth.

At its meeting last Wednesday at Christ the King High School, the advisory board unanimously voted in favor of a Sanitation Committee resolution rejecting Waste Management’s current plan. Instead, the resolution suggests that the company use the adjacent Newtown Creek to barge the containerized trash out of the area, build a rail spur at its Review Avenue property or purchase part of the former Phelps Dodge property or another site where a rail spur can be accessed or built.

Waste Management has applied to the state Department of Environmental Conservation for permission to replace its existing truck-based solid waste transfer operation at 38-22 Review Avenue in Long Island City with a new rail-based transfer facility that would accept trash from neighborhoods within community boards 1-6 in Queens. However, the plan would require the company to transport the trash one-and-a-half miles from Review Avenue to the Maspeth rail yard at Rust Street.

It is this aspect of the plan, which would result in 85 round-trip truck trips daily between the two sites, that didn’t sit well with board members. “This whole plan – pardon the pun – stinks,” said Robert Holden before the vote.

“We all know how congested that area is now.” Sanitation Committee Chairman Paul Kerzner noted that the area was already backed up with traffic at 9:30 on a recent morning. “This is just going to add to it,” he said.

Holden also noted that the containerized trash will be loaded onto trains near the Clinton Diner at Rust Street and Maspeth Avenue. The transfer will take place in the open, near the former St. Saviour’s property and homes. He questioned whether the plan meets requirements that this type of facility be located at least 400 feet from homes and parks.

The resolution notes “there was significant opposition” to the plan during a public information session the company held last month at Martin Luther High School. In addition, “there was unanimous agreement that for several important reasons, a better waste transport plan needs to be found.”

The “major reasons” for the board’s objection to the plan include that it “would mean additional handling of garbage” in order to get it loaded onto trains; that “the Maspeth community would have dozens of additional movements by tractor trailers daily” between Review Avenue and Rust Street; that the additional traffic “would mean significant increased air pollution hazards to Maspeth and adjacent communities,” and because the truck traffic would cause hazards, especially navigating tight turns such as from Rust Street onto Maspeth Avenue and after leaving the rail yard.

The resolution instead urges Waste Management to barge the trash directly from its facility, build a rail support at its 38-22 Review Avenue property - which is adjacent to LIRR tracks that are only used by two passenger trains daily - or investigate other nearby properties such as the former Phelps Dodge sites.

“Part of this former Phelps Dodge site would be further from residents than the Maspeth rail yard, where there is a residential area across the street,” the resolution notes. “By reducing the handling steps associated with transporting residential garbage… barging of garbage or establishing a rail spur may prove less expensive over time.”

Under the current plan, Waste Management will build a new, fully enclosed transfer facility at the Review Avenue site. The current facility is permitted to receive up to 958 tons of garbage per day. Under the new plan, the site will be able to handle up to 2,100 tons per day and will typically receive about 1,150 tons per day, according to the company. The facility would receive 134 deliveries daily from garbage trucks, in addition to the tractor trailer trips to Maspeth. The company claims that each train will carry between 60 and 68 containers, which is the equivalent of 51 to 58 tractor trailer loads.

In response to CB 5’s vote, a Waste Management spokeswoman said the company met with the community board “and other stakeholders several times” to discuss the project and obtain input. “We are committed to continuing this dialogue with the community and to working with the city to address the issues that have been raised,” wrote Rachel Amar.

Amar noted that the city Department of Sanitation identified Waste Management’s Review Avenue property as a site for handling residential waste under the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP). “The plan was developed over several years with input from environmental groups and other stakeholders and was approved by the City Council in 2006,” she wrote. “The SWMP is designed to manage the city’s municipal solid waste in a more sustainable, efficient manner over the next 20 years, by shifting NYC’s waste exports from a truck based system to a rail and barge based system, reducing truck traffic and vehicle emissions.”

Still, some residents aren’t accepting the additional truck traffic without a fight. Maspeth activist Christina Wilkinson has organized a rally at the Clinton Diner at 11 a.m. Saturday to call on the city to prevent additional truck traffic and instead preserve the former St. Saviour’s property, which is being offered for sale for $8.5 million. In addition to members of local civic groups, Councilmembers Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) and Tony Avella (D-Bayside) are expected to attend, along with other elected officials’ representatives.

Two JFK Airport Workers Charged in Theft

Two JFK Airport employees have been charged with stealing electronics from a piece of checked luggage during an integrity test conducted last week by the federal Transportation Security Administration and Delta Air Lines.

Brian Burton, 27, of Queens and Antwon Simmons, 26, of Brooklyn face charges of fourth-degree grand larceny, fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property, petit larceny and second-degree falsifying business records in connection with the theft of a laptop and cell phone from a piece of luggage planted by investigators during a probe into thefts from checked bags. If convicted, they each face up to four years in prison.

According to the charges, a “seeded” suitcase containing two cell phones, a laptop computer and an iPod was included as baggage for a Delta Airlines flight to Miami on July 7. It is alleged that when the suitcase cleared the checked baggage room, a laptop and T-Mobile Sidekick phone were missing from the bag and that the luggage tags had been switched – indicating a different passenger’s name and a destination of Los Angeles – to conceal the theft. A review of surveillance footage from the screening area showed Burton, a TSA officer, inspecting the bag with Simmons, a baggage handler, in the room.

“When air travelers check their luggage with an airline, there is an implicit trust that their bags and their contents will meet them at their destination,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. “In this case, the defendants are accused of betraying that trust and, in the process, of tarnishing the reputation of their employers and other baggage handlers who faithfully carry out their responsibilities each day.”

The investigation was conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, TSA and Delta Airlines, which released the following statement:

“Delta takes the security of luggage that we transport on behalf of our customers very seriously. We applaud the work of the law enforcement partners who worked closely with us in this investigation to ensure that the airport contractors and security staff suspected of luggage theft were caught and apprehended. Delta does not tolerate this kind of activity and has aggressive security programs in place to stop luggage

Editorial: Leading by Example and Inspiration

They come in all shapes and sizes, spanning every generation and every socio-economic background. They come from every religious persuasion, every race. They are men, women, children, seniors. They are students, professionals, retirees. They are undoubtedly one of the most diverse groups in today’s society. They are united by common denominators which account for their extraordinary contributions—heart and soul. And despite their remarkable differences they are all known by the same name—volunteers.

This unique assemblage of humanitarians devotes their time and efforts to a range of projects as diversified as their own backgrounds. Some lend a hand or an ear to elderly people while others give their time to care for those who are sick or perhaps just lonely. Some give their time to clerical duties for large charitable organizations, while others offer a range of pro-bono services from accounting to medical assistance to legal advice and everything in between.

Whatever they do, the American volunteer force is one of the most valuable natural resources we are blessed with. And although pictures are worth a thousand words, we can conjure up an image of volunteers without a photo; caring, compassion, generosity, understanding, empathy and kindness. Combine that with skill, energy, devotion and patience and you have a very clear picture of these national treasures.

We commend these cherished volunteers who “Inspire by Example,” and we applaud the recognition bestowed upon them at this weeks MLB All-Star game. After President Obama threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the game he was joined by all four living former presidents in a video salute to volunteers, the “All-Stars Among Us”.

The occasion marked the first time all of the living presidents participated in any sporting-event ceremony. The video messages were part of a pregame salute of 30 men and women -- each representing one of the MLB franchises -- chosen by MLB and People magazine for their community service.

In following the example set by our presidents past and present, we should all remember to offer praise to volunteers. Their jobs are done twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on three hundred and sixty five days a year. In fact, every minute of every single day there are volunteers giving freely of themselves, sharing their resources and talents.

We should celebrate the magnitude of their contributions and the difference they make in so many lives on a daily basis. We must never forget to acknowledge the importance of the work volunteers do and hope that the millions of volunteers will be joined by many others like them; sharing, unselfishly and without gain, their wealth of talents with the rest of us.

Perhaps the best understanding of volunteers is expressed in the words of author Sherry Anderson: Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.