Thursday, December 10, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Maspeth House of Horrors Terrorizes Neighbors

By Conor Greene

Residents of a quiet residential block in Maspeth have been terrorized for several years by an emotionally disturbed man who they say regularly harasses neighbors and has turned his home into a crack house.

While residents of 66th Street will have some temporary relief after the individual, Hani Nasser, was recently jailed on assault charges, they worry about the condition of his house at 52-45 66th Street, which is unsecured and could attract squatters and junkies.

“It’s been a non-stop nightmare,” said one longtime resident of the block who asked to remain anonymous. “He has basically turned this into a crack house” that attracts underage teenagers at all hours of the night, the resident added.

Despite appeals to the 104th Precinct, Community Board 5 and local elected officials and civic groups, the problems have continued. “Half the time they don’t even show,” the resident said of the precinct. “They treat it like it’s a joke… There is not another single problem on this block,” which is home to several dozen children, he said. “The people living on both sides are terrorized. He gets confrontational and targets the neighbors.”

Civic leader Roe Daraio, president of Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, has been working with 66th Street residents in hopes of forcing the city to take action. “It’s not really progress, but the guy is in jail right now,” she said. Adjacent residents were affected when a pipe in the house burst last year and are concerned that the house will be left to deteriorate, added Daraio.

Neighbors have informed Daraio that Nasser, 25, is enrolled in an out-patient drug treatment program at Elmhurst Hospital Center and blew up a garage behind the home while getting high several years ago. “He gets confrontational with neighbors, invites teens over there, and meanwhile the house has gone into serious decay,” said Daraio, echoing the laundry list of complaints she has heard from neighbors. “He’s in jail now, but that’s not solving the problem. For six months, they’ll be fine, but it’s a Band-Aid effect.”

Daraio has reached out to local elected officials for assistance, but thinks the city needs to go after Nasser for failing to maintain the home. “Maybe if the family starts getting violations, they’ll start paying more attention,” she said, adding that Nasser lives there alone and is supported by his relatives. “To give him free reign of a private house, I don’t think is the smartest thing. It’s become the neighbor’s problem, and it shouldn’t be that way. It’s a quiet block, and everyone is friendly with one another.”

Residents agree that the city needs to step up and secure the house so that it doesn’t pose a danger to local children or cause damage to adjacent properties. “The city has to condemn that house – that’s the bottom line,” the longtime resident said, adding that he fears a physical confrontation will eventually occur. “Somebody is going to get hurt. It’s been ratcheting up since the summer.”

A visit to the empty house this week showed how the situation could become inviting to squatters and drug users. The front windows were wide open, and the unfurnished living room was strewn with trash. Neighbors worry that teenagers who used to hang out with Nasser will continue to use the house to get high while he is incarcerated.

An officer from the 104th Precinct’s Community Affairs Unit confirmed that Nasser was recently locked up, but said he was unaware of ongoing issues with neighbors. According to the Queens District Attorney’s Office, Nasser is currently being held on $2,500 bail after being charged along with three other men in an October assault outside the house.

Addabbo Explains Rationale Behind Gay Marriage Vote

Freshman Senator Broke from Party in Rejecting Bill

By Conor Greene

In the wake of the state Senate’s rejection of the marriage equality bill, several of the borough’s representatives have come under fire for voting against the law, which would have provided gay and lesbian residents the right to marry.

While several of the Queens’ Democratic delegation on the state Senate surprised observers with their no votes, one in particular – freshman Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) has come under especially heavy criticism. Addabbo was elected to the Senate last year to replace longtime Republican Serf Maltese, leaving some of the groups and people who worked to elect the Democrat feeling let down when he didn’t support the law.

At the same time, much of Addabbo’s district, which stretches from Woodside south to Howard Beach, is made up of socially conservative voters in neighborhoods such as Glendale and Middle Village who oppose gay marriage. As a result, Addabbo was left in a tough spot as he is now being viewed as a major reason the bill was defeated 32 to 24.

Throughout the weeks of debate leading up to the vote, Addabbo refused to reveal how he personally stands on the issue. Instead, he says that more than 400 constituents contacted his office in the weeks leading up to the vote, on top of the many more he spoke to each day. Addabbo says about three quarters of the constituents he heard from on the issue were against allowing gay marriage. “This decision of mine was totally constituent driven,” continued Addabbo.

“When I took the oath of office, it was to represent the opinions of the people, and it was very clear that… the residents who I represent in Albany are against marriage equality.” He says not divulging his personal stance allowed him to receive an accurate and clear picture of his constituents’ views, instead of just having residents on one side of the debate contact him.

During the interview, Addabbo repeatedly stressed that the role of an elected official is to get the community’s consensus on an issue. “I keep saying that my personal feeling is my personal feeling, and it’s only one opinion, so I take my opinion out of it and go with the views of many,” he said. “When you have issues along the lines of civil rights, religion or other personal beliefs people have, certainly their voices should be heard… When it came time for a vote, my people had been clear.”

While Addabbo called this “one of the hardest” votes he has been part of during his career in politics, he noted that, unlike budget and tax decisions, it only impacts a small portion of the community. “I knew at some point we would have to take up this issue, and there still will be hard issues in the future and I’ll try to get the consensus of my people again in the future,” he said.

Now that a vote has finally been cast on this emotional subject, Addabbo stressed the importance of moving ahead with other state business. “I think the idea here is, we did this issue - which was ery important to many - but we have very serious issues that lie ahead that affect everyone” including budget, education, transportation and public services, he said. “We definitely need to move forward with issues that affect the daily lives of constituents.”

Looking ahead at his own political future, and the possibility that he alienated portions of the Democratic and liberal base that helped get him elected, Addabbo maintained that he never made promises to groups regarding gay marriage.

“One thing I’ve been consistent with was that I kept an open mind and never committed myself to a yes or no,” he said. “I am grateful to all those who supported me, including members of the gay community, but they did that as everyone did, not knowing if I was a committed yes.”

Addabbo said he couldn’t base his decision on the possibility of facing a Democratic primary next year, even though his vote has made that much more likely. “My philosophy is to do my work to the best of my ability, and I put that body of work, both legislation and constituent service-wise, on the lien every other year, and it’s up to the people to judge me I hope not on one issue, but on a whole bunch of issues I put work into.”

He said he “can’t be hung up” on the prospect of facing a party primary challenge on the basis of one vote. “If there is a primary, I’ll put my record up against my opponent, and if there is a general, I’ll put my record up against that opponent.”

Addabbo did seek to debunk one theory that has been presented since the vote: that his vote, which came early in the roll call due to his last name, set off a chain reaction that led other Democrats to also reject the bill. “We knew going into the chamber that there were not enough votes, so the myth that I caused a chain reaction didn’t happen,” he said. “If you do the math, eight other Democrats were solid with their no votes. This issue really wasn’t as cultivated as much as it should have been, and we didn’t have enough votes going in.”

The other Queens Democrats voting against the bill were George Onorato (Astoria), Hiram Monseratte (East Elmhurst) and Shirley Huntley ( Jamaica), while borough Democrats Toby Ann Stavisky (Flushing) and Malcolm Smith (St. Albans) supported the measure. Frank Padavan (Bellerose) joined every one of his Republican colleagues in voting against the bill and not participating in the discussion leading up to the roll call.

Major Shopping Center Nearing Completion

Costco Slated to Replace Home Depot

By Conor Greene

The huge shopping center under construction at Junction Boulevard in Rego Park is nearing completion, but the roster of tenants to occupy the mall remains up in the air, with Costco expected to replace a Home Depot initially planed for the site.

Despite appearing at a recent Community Board 6 meeting to update officials and residents about the project, an official from developer Vornado this week declined to discuss it, citing company policy of not commenting to the media. However, work at the 6.6-acre property, which is also bounded by the Horace Harding Expressway, 62nd Drive and 97th Street, is entering the final stages in advance of an opening this spring.

The 600,000-square-foot shopping center, developed and managed by Vornado and owned by Alexander’s Inc., is adjacent to the Rego Park Mall, which features an Old Navy, Sears and Bed Bath & Beyond. The new four-level center is slated include a 138,000-square-foot Costco, a 134,000-square-foot Century 21 and a 132,000-square-foot Kohl’s. The Costco was included after Home Depot withdrew from the project, and T.J Maxx is also in the process of signing a lease with Vornado for space at the center.

Frank Gulluscio, district manager of Community Board 6, said he plans to meet with city Department of Transportation officials to ensure the shopping center doesn’t cripple the neighborhood. “I am going to meet with DOT to make sure that the plans that were initiated come to fruition,” said Gulluscio. “The impact of that mall is going to be huge, which everyone knew… We’re going to be inundated with traffic, everybody knows that, but this has all been worked out, so we want to make sure everything is in place.”

One big change from the initial proposal is the elimination of two residential towers that were planned when ground was broken at the site in 2006. Vornado has constructed the building so one of the towers can eventually be built when the market rebounds, according to Gulluscio. “It’s definitely on hold, but the footprint is there so they can build them,” he said. “They built what’s there now with the full intentions of having the towers, so all that stuff is ready to go if they decide they can do that.”

The original plans also included space for a Wal-Mart, but that plan was met with opposition from the City Council after word of that agreement began circulating in 2004.

Gulluscio welcomed the switch from Home Depot to Costco, which he says will be useful to a wide range of residents. “There is such a need for a Costco type store in that part of Queens, so this board feels that is a positive thing,” he said. “If you think about that side of Queens Boulevard, there are some small supermarkets, but nothing that can compare to a Costco.”

He noted that residents at recent CB 6 meetings are eagerly anticipating the additional shopping options close to home, which Gulluscio noted should be an “economic boom” for Queens, as many residents currently head to Long Island. “People want it open now, they’ve dealt with the construction, so there is a sense of ‘Ok, let’s get it open now,’” he said. “The fact that we could stop people from going to Nassau County and keep the tax base here, is the beauty of this whole thing.”

While the property is in the City Council district to be represented by Daniel Dromm beginning in January, much of the impact will likely occur in the Rego Park and Forest Hills area that Karen Koslowitz is preparing to represent. Her spokesman, Greg Lavine, said that Koslowitz "plans on working closely" with the community board and Dromm "to ensure that the transportation situation makes sense for the residents of the area."

A traffic study was previously completed, but Koslowitz still wants to follow up with the DOT and community board "to make sure that all issues are looked at, and that any changes that are needed to be made are accomplished in time for the mall opening," said Lavine.

"The opening of this mall really presents a great option for Queens and all of New York City, and we hope this will keep residents shopping in Queens and provides a service that hasn't been here," the spokesman added.

The large anchor stores will occupy space in the mall’s cellar and upper levels, leaving space on street-level for smaller stores and restaurants. Subway sandwich restaurant has signed a lease for one of the storefronts. Since it only recently signed on, Costco isn’t expected to open until the summer.

The center also contains a parking garage with approximately 1,400 spaces and a 2,500-square-foot community center. In all, the project is expected to cost more than $400million. Questions also remain over the construction of a new entrance at the 63rd Street G/R/V subway station, with Vornado currently planning to pay the MTA to complete that project.

Approval Granted for Greenspace at Rundown Intersection

The LIRR has signed off on a plan spearheaded by Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley to beautify the intersection of Fresh Pond Road and Metropolitan Avenue, which is currently dominated by a run-down building that was formerly home to a newsstand.

Crowley (D-Middle Village) was joined at the site in September by fellow elected officials to call on the LIRR, which owns the property, to allow a community greenspace be created until a plan to develop the area moves forward. That plan has been delayed for years, leaving the structure to deteriorate at the intersection where Maspeth, Middle Village and Ridgewood meet.

“I am excited that the LIRR has approved our plan to clean up and green up the property,” said Crowley in a statement. “For the past decade this abandoned old newsstand has invited graffiti, vandalism and traffic. As one of the busiest intersections in Queens, beautifying this corner will help east traffic tension, reduce crime and attract consumers to surrounding businesses.”

The next step, according to Crowley, is securing funding for the project. Her office is estimating that about $100,000 will be needed to demolish the structure and replace it with greenery and benches. She plans on working with city and state officials, including Assemblymembers Mike Miller (D-Glendale) and Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood) in hopes of finding money to complete the intersection’s transformation.

“This is an important community initiative,” said LIRR President Helena Williams. “We are working with Councilmember Crowley to help the community identify a source of funding for removal of the old newsstand building and to develop a green area.”

The intersection is one of the busiest in the borough, with six different bus lines passing through the area each day, along with thousands of vehicles and pedestrians. At a recent hearing on the MTA’s 2014 capital plan, Crowley testified about the property and provided board members with photos of the abandoned LIRR-owned properties. Board members then surveyed the area before approved her proposal.

Beach Channel High School Among Scheduled School Closings

By Patricia Adams

Nine city schools will be phased out or closed, according to a list released by The Department of Education (DOE).

As a result of the announcement from the DOE, Councilman Eric Ulrich, whose district includes Beach Channel High says he will circulate a petition to his fellow Queens council members to stop the proposed closures.

“As elected officials we don’t want them [the schools] to close,” said Ulrich. “We all share the same goals to improve education, but I don’t see these closures as the way to fix the problem.” Ulrich supported his position with the belief that closing one school and opening another does little to address the failing academic progress that has been seen at some of the schools for more than a decade.

“We need to put the schools that we have on the right course. Kids need stability and structure. If we’re closing schools, bringing in new principals and new teachers, we continue to take stability away from these students.” Ulrich says this is a classic example of band-aid measures that won’t hold up in the long term. “Kids need to come to school each day and know there is a system—there is order.”

The Department of Education announced its decision to phase Beach Channel High School out of operation beginning in the 2010-2011 school year. Beach Channel will begin phasing out one grade per year, with Grade 9 eliminated in 2010-2011; grade 10 eliminated in 2011-2012; and grade 11 will be eliminated in 2012-2013. Beach Channel will close in June 2013. Nearby, Jamaica High School, which also serves grades 9-12 will be phased out of operation during the 2010-2011 school year.

The eventual closure of Beach Channel will provide space at its current location of 100-00 Beach Channel Drive to house 27Q324, a new school. The DOE is proposing a new high school as Beach Channel phases-out. 27Q324 will open in 2010-2011 with grade 9 and will serve grades 9-12 at scale. DOE says the phase-out and eventual closure of Beach Channel and phase-in of 27Q324 will address the need to provide higher quality high school options throughout the City. According to a press release, the DOE says it will continue to assess the available space and needs for additional options at Beach Channel in 2011 and 2012.

The decision to eventually close the school is the result of a DOE evaluation and determination that the school does not have the ability to improve student performance. The department’s framework mandates that schools scoring either a D or an F in progress reports are subjected to the institution of school improvement measures. If no significant progress is made over a three-year time period, the DOE will implement a leadership change, restructure or possible closure.

The same is true for schools receiving a C for three years in a row and for schools that the Chancellor has determined lack the necessary capacity to improve student performance.

In accordance with feelings expressed by Councilmember Ulrich was a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), District Representative for Queens High Schools, James Vasquez. “The UFT really feels that the DOE and the chancellor are responsible for every single school and every single child—the same way a teacher is responsible for every student in their classroom and the principal is responsible for every teacher in the building.”

Vasquez says the DOE has “abandoned” the schools. “The schools they’ve deemed to be failing and not achieving have been the same way for at least the past 7 years. Where has the DOE been?”

Instead, critics of the DOE’s intended plan say it will not serve students, their families or school faculty and staff. “They [DOE] have other choices,” said Vasquez. “They don’t have to upend students, parents and families.”

The public will have the opportunity to attend hearings scheduled at each school in early January. To submit public comment on the issue you can e-mail your comments to You may also leave verbal comments at 718-935-4414.

For more information on any of the intended citywide school closings, visit the DOE website at

Food Shortage Takes Toll on Local Pantries

The nationwide struggle to provide food for those in need has, according to statistics, left its mark on Queens county. A study which tracked the number of meals served in Queens this year as compared to 2006, shows a 106% increase for 2009 - an additional 14.3 million meals served. Overall 87,552 Queens households were either unable to obtain enough food for their families or were uncertain about having enough food. Throughout the county the total number of meals served between July 2008 and July 2009 is 27.7 million.

The term food insecurity has been coined to define households that are uncertain of having or acquiring enough food for all members and the number of those families rose in 2007 from just over 10 percent of U.S. households to nearly 15 percent by the end of 2008. Across New York, approximately 800,000 households are now food insecure, with the number of meals served by emergency food outlets across New York rising by early 60 million – an increase of 55 percent. In New York City, approximately 340,000 households are food insecure, with nearly 50 million more meals served by emergency food outlets since 2006 – an average increase of over 75 percent.

In response to the crisis, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced legislation in an attempt to spearhead an increase in charitable donations this holiday season. The legislation will provide double federal funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), make the Good Samaritan Hunger Relief Tax Incentive permanent to encourage more businesses to fill food banks with unused food items, and extend tax credits that incentivize seniors to donate portions of their retirement savings to New York charities.

“The holiday season is a time for giving, but because of the bad economy, New York families that typically donate food, warm clothes and other basics to those in need just can’t afford to this year,” Senator Gillibrand said. “As a result, food bank shelves have gone bare, and hunger and food insecurity have reached disturbing, historic highs. We need to make sure we’re helping New York children and families who were hit the hardest by this economy. So this holiday season, I have a plan to double federal funding for emergency food outlets like food pantries and soup kitchens, make tax credits permanent for businesses that donate to food banks, and extend tax credits for seniors who donate to New York charities.”

Charitable giving fell 2 percent to $308 billion last year -- the first decline since 1987, according to the annual report published at Indiana University, Giving USA. It is also estimated that corporate giving through 2009 is expected to drop as much as 5 percent.

More than 50% of emergency food providers reported huge deficits in food resources in October due to rising poverty and food prices according to a study by FeedingAmerica, a nonprofit national network of food banks.

Man Sentenced to 75 Years in Muggings of Elderly Women

A Queens man convicted of robbery, burglary and assault in the 2007 mugging of three women, including one who was 101 years old at the time – has been sentenced to 75 years in prison, or about one year for every dollar he stole from the three victims.

Jack Rhodes, 47, whose last known address was 1525 Ericksson Street in East Elmhurst, was convicted in October of first-degree burglary, first-and-second-degree robbery – all as hate crimes – and first-degree burglary, first-and-second-degree robbery and second-degree assault following a four-week jury trial. Last week, he was sentenced to 75 years in prison by Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory L. Lasak.

“The defendants disturbingly cowardly attacks on elderly and defenseless women – two of whom needed the aid of a walker to get around – has rightfully cost him his future,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. “He will now spend the rest of his life behind bars, never again having freedom to breathe fresh air or the opportunity to prey on society’s most frail and vulnerable citizens.”

According to trial testimony, Rhodes accosted 51-year-old Angela Khan as she entered her 182nd Street residence in Jamaica through the basement garage on the evening of Dec. 30, 2006. Rhodes punched and kicked Khan while robbing her of cash and other personal property, causing her to suffer a fractured nose, black eyes and lacerations to her face which required six stitches. The attack was caught on surveillance tape.

Shortly before noon on March 2, 2007, the superintendent of a Devonshire Road building in Jamaica confronted Rhodes, who was trespassing in the basement, and ordered him to leave. The super watched as Rhodes left the property with a red, pink and black bike.

Less than an hour later, Rose Morat – who was 101 years old at the time and uses a walker – was caught on surveillance video exiting the elevator on the main floor of her Highland Avenue building. Rhodes approached her in the vestibule and offered to open the front door for her. Rhodes then repeatedly punched Morat on the left side of her face while demanding money from her. The defendant then grabbed her pocketbook, which contained $33 and her house keys, before knocking her to the ground and fleeing on a bike. Morat sustained a fractured cheekbone, bruises and facial swelling in that attack.

About a half-hour later, 85-year-old Solange Elizee, who also uses a walker, was getting on the elevator of her 170th Street building at the lobby level when she saw Rhodes already on the elevator. Elizee exited the elevator alone one floor below her apartment and waited for the next elevator. As she exited on her floor and entered her apartment, Rhodes blocked the door from closing and forced his way inside.

Once inside the apartment, Rhodes repeatedly punched Elizee in the face, knocking her to the floor. The defendant then removed two yellow metal rings from her hand and took her pocket book, which contained $32. Once again, Rhodes fled from the scene on a bicycle, and Elizee was taken to a local hospital for treatment for lacerations to her lip, abrasions and bruising to her forearm, face and buttocks.