Thursday, April 29, 2010

This Week's Forum South and West

Supreme Help for Struggling Homeowners

Program Aims for Settlements With Lenders

By Patricia Adams

As a skyrocketing total of foreclosure motions continue to mount throughout Queens County, homeowners are finding help at one Queens County Courthouse. A pilot program to address record high numbers of foreclosures in the borough was first introduced by former Justice Judith Kaye back in October 2008.

Between January 2005 and June of 2008, New York State foreclosure filings showed an increase of about 150% while Queens’s foreclosures soared to 223% during the same period. That dramatic increase is attributed largely to the borough’s high concentration of owner-occupied, one-to-four-family residential properties.

The Residential Foreclosure Program was implemented to promote early court intervention and reduce the time, expense and potential losses involved in foreclosures. Since its inception, a total of 4,951 conferences between homeowners and lenders have been held by the court with the program providing greater efficiency in case resolution and better outcomes for both homeowners and lenders.

In the period from October 2008 through October 2009, 1800 conferences were held and from November 2009 through the present, the number spiked to over 3000 conferences. In fact, out of the 24,330 cases to come before the Queens Supreme Court, more than 7,500 were foreclosure actions--more than 30% of the total case load.

Despite a dramatic increase in conferences already held during the program’s second year, there are still many homeowners who fail to utilize the cost free services available to them through the court.

According to Justice Jeremy Weinstein, Administrative Judge for Civil Matters in Queens County, the single largest reason that people fail to take advantage of the court’s program is fear. “Many people are afraid to come to the court,” explains Judge Weinstein. “They actually think that when they come here we are going to take their keys and take their home away from them,” a notion that Weinstein says is understandable but totally unfounded. “This program was designed with the intention of exploring every available option for homeowners to keep their homes and satisfy their obligations to the bank.”

And indeed the process does provide every viable avenue to investigate all financial and practical options open to home buyers. Under the auspices of Justice Weinstein and Program Administrator for Queens County Foreclosure Conference Part, Tracy Catapano-Fox, every homeowner is scheduled for a settlement conference with their respective lenders and a consultation with a counselor from Housing and Family Services. Special attention has even been given to the forms and letters of explanation sent to homeowners after an action has commenced.

“It’s important that we do everything we can to take the fear out of the process. We’ve got to make the homeowners comfortable so that they can get the help they need,” said Weinstein.

Fear of the court is joined by other factors that keep homeowners from attending scheduled conferences. “In many cases people facing foreclosure proceedings are also facing other overwhelming debt,” explains Tracy Catapano-Fox. “They have a sense that there is no hope for them. We’re here to show them that is not true.”

In addition, Catapano-Fox says that many homeowners are falling victim to scam artists who solicit unknowing homeowners to contract their services. “They [scammers] promise to resolve the homeowners problems for a fee and essentially they take the money and run.” At that point the homeowner is left in more debt and with less time to legitimately resolve their issues. For those cases where a settlement is not possible the lender and the borrower are assisted in developing a streamlined plan to avoid delays.

When the program began about 16 months ago, conferences were being held two days a week only on a morning calendar. Now that the State legislature mandates a conference for all foreclosure proceedings, the courthouse calendar has expanded to five days a week, for the full day.

An increased demand for physical space to house different components of the program has necessitated many creative solutions including the transformation of a utility closet to office space. “We’re forced to work with what we have,” said Catapano-Fox, “and we’re adding what we can with what we have.” One of the additions she refers to is two extra judges to try and handle the case load which is expected to increase to more than 800 conferences a month.

Of the total conferences held since the program began, about 13% of the cases have been settled-- enabling nearly 700 families able to keep their homes. The goal of the program administrators is to continue to help homeowners with the process and obviously to keep as many in their homes as possible.

Justice Augustus Agate, recently added to the roster of the foreclosure team says a very important objective is to raise awareness among homeowners. “The more people know about their situation, the easier it is for them to get the best help available to them,” says Agate.

And among everyone working in the conference program there is a consensus that a homeowner who knows their rights and has an accurate estimation of personal and financial circumstances is an important component of the process. According to Justice Agate, “It’s all part of keeping people in their homes and keeping their neighborhoods strong.”

Details Provided on Atlas Park Stabbing and Ridgewood Flashings

By Conor Greene

Details on several recent incidents, including an apparent stabbing at Atlas Park shopping center, another flashing incident in Ridgewood and arrests for pot smoking in Juniper Valley Park were provided to residents at last week’s COP 104 meeting in Maspeth.

Deputy Inspector Keith Green of the 104th Precinct informed residents that major crime is down about 1.5 percent so far this year. Through the first 17 weeks of 2010there have been 464 major crimes reported, down from 472 at the same time last year. In addition, overall arrests for all crimes are up 14 percent this year, thanks to big increases by the precinct’s patrol unit and detective bureau.

Green reported that there has been another incident in the Ridgewood area of a man exposing himself to young girls on their way to school. There were at least two incidents before Easter and the third occurred last week, all between approximately 7 and 8 a.m. in the vicinity of neighborhood schools. While the victims, who are between 9 and 11 years old, were unable to provide detailed descriptions of the suspect, he is believed to be a Hispanic man in his 20’s who drives a beige car.

A man was previously arrested for flashing incidents within the 104th Precinct, but officers have confirmed that the same individual isn’t responsible for the recent crimes. “We think that he is local and that we will get him soon,” said Green. Police later said the investigation is ongoing, with officers from the precinct and school safety squad dedicated to patrolling each morning along routes where children walk.

Green said the investigation into a stabbing at Glendale’s Atlas Park on a recent weekend was stymied when the victim refused to cooperate with responding officers. In response to concerns from local civic leaders, Green confirmed that an incident did occur at about 3 a.m. on April 17 during an event held at the mall’s Simply Fondue restaurant. “Something happened, but we don’t know all the details,” he said.

Police and ambulances were called after a 26-year-old man suffered an apparent stab wound, but the victim claimed he had fallen and refused to say what happened. “We think there was a fight,” said Green. “He doesn’t want to talk about it, and no witnesses came forward.” While the shopping center has a surveillance system, the attack wasn’t captured on tape. Since the victim didn’t confirm the incident, it was not classified as an assault in the precinct’s crime statistics.

The restaurant didn’t return a phone message seeking comment on the incident, and an e-mail sent to mall management wasn’t responded to. While there haven’t been problems at Simply Fondue in the past, police are now checking to make sure their new hours of operation and events are allowed under the terms of their liquor license. “This raised some red flags, so they’ll be getting some attention over the next few weeks since they changed the way they operate,” said a police source.

Green also reported that, acting on complaints from residents, police made 11 arrests for teenagers smoking marijuana in Juniper Valley Park. In three cases, additional charges were added for criminal possession of a weapon, he added, with the arrests taking place during afternoon and early evening hours.

So far this year, most major crime categories have remained pretty level with the same period last year, according to Green. There has been one homicide – the murder of a transgender woman in her Ridgewood apartment – which was quickly solved, compared with one unsolved homicide at this point last year. There have been three rapes so far, down from five, while robberies are level at 66. Despite a rough two-week period, auto thefts have remained relatively flat, with 99 so far compared to 94last year.

Burglaries, which Green said “are always a problem for us regardless of the time of year,” have dropped eight percent from 135 to 124. The precinct generally ranks among the highest in the city for burglaries reported, so “they are always a concern of ours, and we put a lot into reducing that,” added Green. He noted that a burglary pattern was closed out earlier this year and said there are no current patterns in the area.

While there has been a major spike in felony assaults, with 63 so far compared with 39 at this point last year, Green said the increase is partly due to new guidelines for what incidents are classified as such. He noted there have been 57 arrests among those incidents, a clearance rate he called “very high.” Grand larceny has dropped 14 percent to 109 so far this year.

Crime News: Drug Raid and Subway Robbery

Austin Street Home Raided in Drug Investigation

Four individuals were arrested after police executed a search warrant at an Austin Street home, according to police.

Following an investigation by the 104th Precinct’s Street Narcotics Enforcement Team, an apartment at 75-02 Austin Street in Forest Hills was raided at about 6 a.m. last Saturday. While the home is within the confines of the 112th Precinct, the investigation and arrests were conducted by the 104th Precinct.

Inside the home, officers found a “substantial amount” of drugs including marijuana, heroin and an assortment of prescription pills. In addition, an undisclosed amount of cash and drug paraphernalia was also recovered at the scene.

Arrested were: David Evan, who police say lived in the apartment, and Alexis Afflick of Manhattan, Robert Kane of East Brunswick, N.J., and Michael Caccavale of Baldwin. All were charged with felony possession of controlled substances, according to police.

Man Robbed Outside Subway Station

A man was robbed by armed gunmen while entering a Ridgewood subway station last week, police reported.

The victim was about to enter the subway station at Halsey Street and Wyckoff Avenue at about 10:30 a.m. on April 22 when he was approached by two black males, according to the 104th Precinct. One of the perps flashed a gun at the victim and forcibly removed his phone and money before fleeing the scene.

A search of the area was conducted by officers from the precinct and transit division, but the suspects were not located. The investigation is continuing.

Rail Company to Upgrade Equipment, Reduce Idling

Residents: Locomotives Need to be Replaced

By Conor Greene

Residents received some good news in their fight to change the way railroad companies operate in local neighborhoods - New York & Atlantic Railway has received a grant for new equipment to lower emissions and reduce engine idling on locomotives.

The rail company announced Tuesday that it has received a federal grant for the equipment upgrade, which it says will reduce engine idling on its eleven-unit fleet and is expected to lower its overall carbon footprint by about 35 percent. The entire upgrade, of which 80% is covered by the grant, will cost about $1 million, according to the company.

To reduce emissions and cut down on the need for locomotives to idle while parked along residential areas – an issue residents say has gotten much worse in the past year – the new equipment will keep water in the engines heated so it doesn’t fall below 38 degrees. That will replace the need to keep the trains idling while parked near homes in neighborhoods such as Maspeth, Glendale and Middle Village.

Still, residents who have raised issue with aspects of the rail operations including noise, emissions, overwhelming odors and security say not enough is being done to address the concerns. Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, called it a “very small step in addressing the quality of life problems” for residents living near the tracks.

“Lowering emissions on NYA locomotives by one third is fine, but what about CSX locomotives, which are the ones causing the problems in Middle Village?” wondered Holden, who said both CSX and NYA currently use the tracks that cut through Middle Village as a rail yard, with crews working on the trains as early as 4 a.m. “Finding a quick solution to this unbearable air and noise problem is our number one concerns. For residents, finally getting a good night’s sleep would be cause for a celebration.”

Mary Arnold, who co-founded the group Civics United for Railroad Environmental Solutions, pointed out that the locomotives have been used since 1978 and need to be repowered or replaced. “The U.S EPA has said that these vintage locomotives are being used where they do the most harm because of the population density in the city,” she said.

On a Facebook posting, the group also posted the following statement: “Better news would have been that the NY & Atlantic and the LIRR that owns the circa 1978 engines are replacing them with new ones, the way CSX did at Oak Point Yards. The U.S EPA has called these vintage locomotives the ‘low hanging fruit’ of rail emissions reduction in NYC and went on record in 2009 to say that they need to be repowered.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Manhattan Man Charged in Ridgewood Murder

By Conor Greene

Police have charged a Manhattan man in connection with the murder of a transgender woman who was found strangled in her Ridgewood apartment on March 30.

Rasheen Everett, 29, was taken into custody on April 9 in Las Vegas by members of the 104th Precinct Detective Squad and Queens Homicide Squad. He was charged last Wednesday with second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence in connection with the murder of 29-year-old Edelbuerto “Amanda” Gonzalez-Andujar.

The victim was found inside her 62nd Street home after friends became worried because they were unable to contact her. Authorities say Gonzalez-Andujar was found naked, strangled with bleach poured over her body. Published reports say Everett was seen on surveillance tape leading the victim’s home with a laptop.

“The defendant is accused of violently taking the life of another human being in her own apartment and then tampering with the body by dousing it with bleach,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. “This case will be vigorously prosecuted in order to secure a measure of justice for the victim and her family.”

Authorities say Everett entered Gonzalez-Andujar’s apartment at about 8:50 a.m. on March 27, where he remained alone with the victim. The pair are believed to have met online, and police say that several minutes after Everett entered the apartment, screams and loud banging consistent with a struggle were heard. About 17 hours later, Everett was seen leaving the apartment alone, carrying two bags that appeared filled with items.

On March 30, an officer entered the apartment after friends had said they were unable to contact her since several days before and saw the victim’s body on a bed. The subsequent investigation was conducted by the precinct’s detective squad.

Police have yet to release a motive in the killing, but reports suggest that that money, and not the victim’s gender identity, was at the center of the altercation. Everett is also reportedly wanted in Massachusetts regarding the attempted murder of his ex-wife.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

Boards Rally Against Mayor's Proposed Cuts

Funding Reduction Would Severely Impact Board’s Role

By Conor Greene

Members of community boards from across Queens gathered on the steps of Borough Hall on Tuesday to demand that the Bloomberg administration rethinks its plans to reduce the groups’ budgets again this year.

Under Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed $64 billion city budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, each of the borough’s 14 local community boards would face a funding reduction of more than $17,000. That comes after several budget cuts reduced each board’s funding from about $206,000 several years ago to $144,000, according to one district manager.

On Tuesday, more than 100 board members, residents and district managers joined Borough President Helen Marshall to get the word out about how detrimental these cuts would be. They were joined by several City Council members, including Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) and Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), who both vowed to fight against these cuts as the budget process unfolds.

“There is no question that reducing the board to a fulltime district manager and one part-time individual will limit the board’s ability to perform their city-charter mandated functions,” said Marshall. “These boards help us to perfect democracy by bringing City Hall to neighborhoods directly affected by proposals that affect land use, city services, parks and a multitude of other issues.”

While the funding reductions are being necessitated by the economic crisis, there was also a feeling among some board members and district managers the cuts are part of an ongoing effort to reduce the board’s roles before eventually eliminating them all together.

Betty Braton, chair of CB 10, said there are “two undercurrents” to the decision to cut funds, and Frank Gulluscio, district manager of CB 6, agreed that “Money aside, there is a mission there.” Patricia Dolan of the Queens Civic Congress later said, “This mayor, for reasons we will never understand, wants to undermine neighborhoods, not just in Queens, but around the city.”

The Council members on hand indicated they wouldn’t let the boards’ budget be cut without a fight. “It’s a horrible situation when we have to fight for something that makes sense,” said Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), adding that it is “embarrassing” that the Bloomberg administration keeps targeting the boards for cuts.

Ulrich vowed that there is “no way the mayor can balance the books… on the backs of community boards.” He called it “ridiculous that we have to fight for peanuts so that we can serve our communities.”

Vincent Arcuri, chairman of CB 5, likened board members to “tribal leaders” who have their finger on the pulse of the local community. “We are needed – we are one of the most basic forms of government in the United States,” he said.

Gulluscio called the current funding levels “bare bones” and said budget cuts are impacting the board’s ability to perform duties such as community outreach, since there often isn’t money for necessities such as printing and postage. He noted that the Bloomberg administration’s handling of the boards is not consistent with a letter sent out by the head of the mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, Nazli Parvizi.

“Community Boards provide New Yorkers with a voice and the ability to be increasingly helpful and productive in their neighborhoods,” wrote Parvizi. “Whether advising on unprecedented land use reforms or fighting for crucial social services, Community Board members work to strengthen and celebrate this great city.” She goes on to note that the Bloomberg administration“ has long recognized the value of community boards as local experts within the larger structure of city government.”

Formerly known as “Community Planning Boards” and “Little City Halls,” the boards were strengthened when the 1975 City Charter was adopted, giving boards roles in neighborhood land use, preparation of the capital and expense budget and delivery of local city services. The role of the boards was reaffirmed in the 1989 charter. Each board has up to 50 members who serve staggered terms of two years on a volunteer basis.

Parents and Students Demand City Finally Renovates PS 87

By Conor Greene

The head of the city school system heard an earful from parents, students and teachers who are demanding that the Department of Education live up to a decade-old promise to renovate their Glendale school.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein stopped by PS 87 on Monday for a town hall meeting, during which the community had the chance to ask questions about issues throughout District 24. While topics like the city budget were discussed, the city’s failure to renovate PS 87 when it became a K-8 facility years ago was on the minds of a standing-room-only crowd.

The school became one of the first in the district to expand to K-8, but remains the only not expanded or renovated since, as money set aside for repairs became unavailable after 9/11. To show how bad the problem is, students Lorena Chelaru and Stacey Aguilar presented a video showing the building’s crumbling ceiling, crowded hallways and cafeteria, lack of full-size gym and run-down bathrooms featuring broken sinks and lack of stall doors.

“We want that expansion that we’ve been fighting for a long time now,” said CEC 24 President Nick Comaianni. “This shows you what many of the students… have to work with – it’s not much. Hopefully this is something we can work together to see what we can do to help PS 87.”

In response, Klein called the video “terrific” but noted there are an “enormous number of compelling demands” at schools across the city. Still, he agreed to conduct a feasibility study to assess the situation and then work with Community Education Council 24 “to make sure your priorities are aligned with what can be done.” That prompted at least one audience member to yell, “Don’t give us empty promises.”

Council Vice President Peter Vercessi said that renovating PS 87 is a “top priority,” but was unable to get a clear answer from Klein as to why the work never happened. Klein couldn’t explain why the renovations never took place, and took exception with the idea that “something happened to the money.” He said it was likely the money was reallocated, but couldn’t say for sure since he wasn’t chancellor at the time.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) also pushed the chancellor to provide a “real promise” regarding the expansion.

“You have my commitment that we will look at those issues and work with the community to find a real solution,” said Klein in response to the councilwoman.

While the situation surrounding PS 87 dominated much of the meeting, Klein took a few moments to give an update on progress made around the city and within the district since Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002.

Since then, the city’s school budget has rose from $13 billion to $21 billion, with city funding up 80 percent, state up 55 percent and federal up 27 percent. Per pupil spending has increased from $10,649 to $17,696.

“We’re making better investments and getting better results,” said Klein. As a result, graduation rates have jumped 33 percent in that time, after staying flat for the prior decade. Schools are also safer, according to Klein, with major and violent crime rates down across the city.

In District 24, which is considered the most overcrowded in the city, eight new schools have opened since 2003, said Klein. “This is a good school district – people want to go to school here, so we’re building.” There are eight more projects planned for the district in the upcoming five-year capital plan, including six schools with a total of 4,302 seats.

Vercessi asked what the likelihood is of having that capital plan cut, given how much is at stake for the district. “Right now, there is no reason to think the capital plan for this district will be cut,” responded Klein.

Thousands Attend Job Fair Sponsored by Addabbo

By Patricia Adams

One of the larger crowds seen at Aqueduct in the recent past lined up on three floors of the raceway last Friday afternoon - none of them in attendance because of their racing interests.

Instead, more than 2,800 people were there for a job fair hosted and organized by Sen. Joe Addabbo. Thousands of people stood together in the ailing venue in hopes of finding a solution to their own struggles. The crowd, mixed among men and women, young and old, the experienced and the very willing to learn, all came together with the common goal of finding a job.

Vendors from more than 140 companies were on hand to screen the applicants, accept their resumes and discuss job potential. “I am delighted with the response that we got,” said Addabbo, “however the size of the crowd is indicative of just how serious the unemployment crisis we face is, and that is certainly quite upsetting.” In addition to the standard job fair offerings, attendees also had the opportunity to attend seminars offered by vendors and job counselors.

“We took this approach and included other components in the fair because such a diverse group of people does not have cut and dry needs,” the senator said. “What we are trying to do is to offer everyone a viable chance at finding work.”

And to the delight of those standing on long lines, it was well worth the wait. Kathy Vitello was born and raised in Richmond Hill and now lives in Kew Gardens. After working as a project manager in production and design for more than 23 years, the ad agency she worked for closed down last year.

“I have been searching since I am out of work but nothing has happened,” said Vitello. “What Joe Addabbo has done here today is amazing. I am both grateful and impressed.” Vitello said that her job hunting has proven to be fruitless and often frustrating, but she said, “today for some reason I feel hopeful. I am now willing to look at freelance opportunities to get something going.”

And many like Vitello were quick to offer praise and thanks for the senator and his staff. “This is a great opportunity,” said Jack Sampson. “I have had the chance to see companies here that would not even let me in their doors. We all owe this guy [Addabbo] big time for helping all these people like this.”

Another integral component to the job fair was the provisions made for one of the most rapidly growing unemployment faction’s today - seniors. “There is a tremendous need today for senior positions,” Addabbo stated. Because of the downturned economy and the rising cost of living, seniors find themselves faced with the unexpected—seeing their retirement funds run out long before the end of their lives. One group on hand to address the special needs of seniors was AARP.

There were also groups of professionals who were there to offer advice and the potential of jobs later down the line. Helmets to Hardhats, Dressing for Success and Vets Helping Vets, were just a few of the organizations present to discuss possibilities and plans of action for future employment opportunities. Candidates planning career changes also had many opportunities to discuss details with a variety of companies.

According to Sen. Addabbo, one of the most beneficial features of the fair is that the help available on Friday did not end with the close of the day. The senator’s office is in close contact with many of the vendors who maintain that they received a large quantity of quality resumes from the day. In addition, any candidates for employment that ran out of resumes or missed a particular vendor can still reach them through the senator’s office. “We will forward resumes for people that ran out of them or missed an employer that might have left for the day.

Sudden Appearance of Heavy Trucks has Glendale Residents Worried

MTA Moving Contractors into 88th Street Storage Facility

By Conor Greene

The sudden appearance of tractor trailers and MTA work trucks along a quiet Glendale street has some residents worried about long term impacts on the local quality of life.

The concern arose after resident Kevin Burns noticed “huge trucks with pipes and giant wheels of wire” headed to the last property along 72nd Drive in the past week or so. A worker on the site told him that he was an LIRR employee and that the activity had to do with the planned East Side Access Project, which will connect the LIRR to Grand Central Station.

Burns, who was awakened several times by trucks coming and going late at night or early in the morning, became worried that the activity is “out of character for the neighborhood,” with the large trucks barely able to clear the turn onto 72nd Drive. “Will they be part of our lives for the foreseeable future, arriving and departing at odd hours?” he wondered in an e-mail he forwarded to various community leaders.

In response, an MTA spokesman told The Forum that the activity residents are noticing is part of the process of allowing contractors to occupy the agency’s storage 70,000-square-foot storage facility at 88th Street and 72nd Drive. The building will store equipment and supplies needed for the East Side Access Project, and trucks are only supposed to be traveling through the neighborhood between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

The spokesman, Aaron Donovan, was unable to comment specifically on the photos circulated by Burns or say for sure if those trucks are part of this project. “I can confirm that we are in the ramp up phase of beginning to use the storage facility. The important thing is this will be about a one-week move in process, after which truck traffic should decrease significantly,” said Donovan.

The storage facility is expected to be used for the next four to five years for the East Side Access Project. “Over the long-term, I would say that the residents in the area can expect to see a very dramatic decrease in the amount of truck traffic compared with the ramp up phase,” said Donovan. “I can’t tell you how much will remain, but there will certainly be far less than there currently is.”

In the meantime, Burns said residents are left wondering who will be responsible for fixing damage caused by the trucks, including tire tracks on the sidewalk, a broken stop sign, a large hole in the pavement and a broken drainage grate.

“I understand this is stimulus money, and people need work. And they are valiantly trying to minimize the impact,” said Burns. “But it seems to me that most of this money went down to Texas, where all that piping was fabricated, and not to Glendale. And now we have to repair the damage.”

Waste Management Bows to Pressure, Amends Trash Hauling Plan

Eliminates 1.5 Mile Truck Trip to Maspeth Rail Yard

By Conor Greene

Residents can breathe a sign of relief now that Waste Management has agreed to amend its trash-hauling plan to avoid running trucks between the company’s Review Avenue transfer station and the Maspeth Rail Yard.

As part of the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan, the company is converting its Review Avenue transfer station so that it can utilize the nearby railroad in order to cut down on long-distance truck trips, which are currently needed to get the trash out of the city. While the plan would greatly reduce the overall amount distance driven by 2.2 million miles per year, it would have required multiple trips daily between the transfer station and the rail yard - thus increasing truck traffic in West Maspeth.

That aspect of the plan wasn’t well received by residents or elected officials, who instead urged Waste Management to build a rail spur on its property or utilize the nearby Newton Creek and barge the trash out of the area. Company officials determined there wasn’t enough room on the site to build a rail spur. However, this week, Waste Management announced the plan has been modified to instead utilize New York & Atlantic Railway’s Blissville Yard, which can be accessed exclusively on private roads.

“Following an extensive analysis, we have modified our plan to eliminate the need to move rail containers over city streets, virtually eliminating any traffic impacts,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement. “Our revised plan will eliminate the city’s export of residential waste in long-haul tractor trailer trucks from Western Queens, reducing traffic and vehicle emissions.”

Under the revised plan, Waste Management will receive and containerize residential waste collected from neighborhoods within community boards one through six at the Review Avenue site. The waste would then be driven 2,000 feet west on private roads adjacent to the Long Island Railroad tracks, to the Blissville Yard. There, containers will be loaded onto railcars, which will be moved to the Fresh Pond Yard daily. From there, they will be connected to a CSX long-haul train for transport to landfills outside the city.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who was involved in the fight to convince Waste Management to amend its plan, called the announcement a “victory” for the neighborhood, as garbage trucks will no longer use Review Avenue. “The change is a step in the right directions. It shows Waste Management is listening and we need to keep the focus on the needs of Maspeth residents.”

Overall, the plan will end the city’s export of 1,200 tons per day of residential trash by truck from Western Queens, eliminating the impact on local roads, the company boasted in a press release announcing the amended plan. The city’s solid waste plan, which was issued in 2006, seeks to ensure each borough is responsible for handling its own waste and to shift trash export from a truck-based system to a rail and barge based system.

The expanded Review Avenue facility will be able to handle up to 2,100 tons per day and will typically receive about 1,150 tons of trash per day. Currently it has a capacity of 958 tons per day, and the original expansion plan would have required about 65 round trip truck trips each day between Review Avenue and the Maspeth Rail Yard.

Three-Alarm Brush Fire Visible for Miles

By Patricia Adams

A beautiful Saturday afternoon in Howard Beach came to a halt when a three-alarm blaze tore through the brush along 165th Avenue at 83rd Street and continued along the brush line to 161st Avenue near 81st Street. High winds and very dry brush were cited as contributing to the high risk category for the area.

According to a fire department spokesman, Frank Dwyer, reports of the blaze initially reached emergency operators at 3:46 p.m through multiple calls to 911 from area residents. Locals watched as the rapidly spreading flames sent huge clouds of thick, black smoke billowing into the overhead sky.

FDNY was first to the scene, responding in 3.5 minutes with 33 units and 150 firefighters to battle the flaming brush. Two tower ladders and eight hoses on the ground were used to extinguish most of the pockets of fire in slightly less than one hour. Crowds of residents and passersby stood along the course of the brush as firefighters battled the flames that grew as a result of the windy conditions of the day. The entire fire was knocked down and under control in 1 hour and 16 minutes.

Smoke that filled the sky over Howard Beach was seen as far as Manhattan’s South Street Seaport and spread charred brush and debris across the area. The intense heat and flames came within dangerous proximity to vehicles parked alongside the brush and houses across the street.

The flames were heading away from Jamaica Bay in the direction of the wind, with crowds of onlookers being sprayed by wind-blown water. Firefighters broke up into several units working their way from 161st Avenue over to 165th Avenue.

Despite flames that came so close to property lines, no houses were damaged and there were no injuries reported.

City to Open PS 290 in Maspeth Until Ridgewood Building is Completed

While the city Department of Education continues negotiations with the owner of the former Rite Aid site on Metropolitan Avenue – eyed as the future site of PS 290 – officials announced that the new school will open this fall on the IS 73 campus in Maspeth. Students of the planned school will attend classes at the temporary location until construction is completed at the Ridgewood property.

The city recently unveiled plans to build a 600-seat school on the Rite Aid site at 55-20 Metropolitan Avenue. However, the city doesn’t yet own the site and doesn’t expect to open the new PS 290 there until 2014. Since District 24 is the most overcrowded in the city, there is a sense of urgency to begin opening the new K-5 school as soon as possible to help alleviate the strain.

“While we work hard to acquire a permanent home for the school, the temporary location of PS290 is an important step that will let us relieve overcrowding faster in a district that really needs it. The proposal will leave both IS73 and PS 290 with enough space to serve their students,” the DOE said in a statement.

In the fall, PS 290 will open to 50 to 75 students who were denied enrollment at PS 153 or PS 71 because of capacity issues there. One additional grade level will be introduced at the campus each year, until the school is moved to its permanent location in four years, at which time pre-kindergarten classes will be offered. In addition, PS 290 will be a zoned elementary school, meaning DOE will rezone the area prior to the building’s opening.

The PS 290 incubation plan is contingent on approval by the Panel for Educational Policy, which is due to meet on April 20. The City Council must approve the purchase of the Rite Aid property before the DOE can finalize that agreement and begin construction.

A public hearing on this proposal was held on Wednesday evening in Maspeth. If the DOE is unable to open the Metropolitan Avenue site in 2014, the PS 290 students will remain in their temporary home on the IS 73 campus.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

Rego Center Opening Causes Traffic Woes

By Conor Greene

The new Rego Center has only been open several weeks, but complaints have been pouring in from residents about constant traffic jams on the roads surrounding the huge retail space.

Local elected officials, community leaders and the city Department of Transportation are now looking into ways to alleviate the strain placed on area roads, including the Long Island Expressway, Queens Boulevard, Junction Boulevard and 62nd Drive. While some of the complaints focused on the center’s opening weekend, Community Board 6 District Manager Frank Gulluscio said the gripes have continued since then.

And, while Kohl’s, T.J. Maxx and Century 21 are already opened, there is concern the problems will only worsen when bulk discounter Costco opens in the coming weeks. “The traffic during opening weekend was really horrendous, but we’re still getting complaints from people, mostly on 97th Street,” said Gulluscio. “Their concern is traffic, no doubt about it - getting ambulances in and out of the area, the public school down the block and pedestrian safety for residents and those going to the mall.”

Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said that Queens DOT Commissioner Maura McCarthy agreed to review the situation now that the mall is open. “They’ve been working with us on this and I don’t think is a final deal,” he said, adding that he is hopeful traffic will be alleviated once the mall’s second entrance, located off the Horace Harding Expressway, is opened. “They [mall management] have been very responsive to us, and it’s a good thing to have the mall over there, we just have to iron out the kinks.”

The property is adjacent to the district represented by Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), who vowed to work with Dromm, CB 6 and the DOT “to make sure that we meet an appropriate balance between protecting the needs of the residents in the area with the economic benefits that the new mall brings.” She urged residents to contact her office with suggestions about improving the situation.

In a statement, a DOT spokesman said department officials met at the site prior to the mall opening and will be back there next week to review issues raised since the opening. Traffic patterns outside the mall are being monitored and requests submitted by community leaders and residents are being studied. The specific proposals include changing 62nd Drive to a one-way street, changing the timing of traffic lights on Junction Boulevard and 62nd Drive and reviewing the situation along 97th Street.

The DOT spokesman noted that many of the issues occurred on the mall’s opening weekend and said the department expects traffic will ease once customers and residents get used to the new layout.

Middle Village resident Lorraine Sciulli said she was disappointed how difficult it was to navigate the local streets around the shopping center on a midday trip there on a recent weekday. “It’s a horror. It was very hard to park as you would imagine. Totally tied up,” she said. “If more stores are coming in, they definitely have to make adjustments with the traffic. I don’t know what, but something has to happen.”

Despite the planned improvements, there is a feeling that more should have been done ahead of time to reduce the project’s impact on the neighborhood. “I expressed some of these reservations in advance when I was running for office, but now it’s there,” said Dromm. “I would have liked to see a ramp going to the expressway, and there were some other things that probably needed to be negotiated before the mall was given the okay.”

Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, said the project has also led to constant backups along the LIE. He agrees that steps such have been taken prior to the center’s opening, such as creation of an additional lane on the exit ramp, to prevent these problems.

“It was insufficient five years ago and it’s only worse now because of the new mall and expansion of the Queens Center Mall,” said Holden. “They’re going to have to have an emergency DOT meeting to address all these concerns because when you can’t get around, people start moving away.”

Still, Gulluscio maintained that the project is beneficial to the community. “It’s become a destination, with everything located right here as far as retail stores,” he said. “You don’t have to go to Long Island anymore, and the economic base stays in Queens, especially the hundreds of jobs created. People aren’t happy initially, but it’s there so we just have to make it work moving forward.”

Residents Hope New Laws Will Resolve Train Issues

By Conor Greene

A group of residents who say local rail operations are destroying their quality of life are hoping that the answer to their problems lies with legislation being considered in Albany. However, it appears that the federal Interstate Commerce Act will make it difficult to enact all of the reforms residents are pushing for.

At last week’s Juniper Park Civic Association meeting, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D- Forest Hills) updated residents and members of the group Civics United for Railroad Environmental Solutions on legislation he is drafting in hopes of addressing residents’ complaints regarding rail operations.

Members of CURES have been working for the past year to address issues including emissions, idling, noise and security along the railroad corridors that cut through Middle Village and Glendale. The group was co-founded by Glendale neighbors Mary Parisen and Mary Arnold, and has been meeting in recent months with elected officials and rail company executives to push reforms they say are needed.

Hevesi told the audience at last Thursday’s session that he is currently working on two pieces of legislation to address some of the concerns, and has three additional related bills coming down the line. “The emissions are a problem, but the biggest problem I’m hoping to address is the garbage trains,” said Hevesi, referring to train cars that pass through the area carrying stinking trash, which is often not secured properly.

However, the efforts to enact reforms on the state level have been hampered by the Interstate Commerce Act, which prevents local officials from putting restrictions on rail companies that operate across state lines. As a result, the rail companies “are not very cooperative” and feel like they “don’t have to listen to anyone,” said Hevesi. Hevesi says his bill circumvents the commerce act by dealing directly with the issue of waste, since transfer stations, such as the one in Maspeth, are located on state property.

The first law would require that smelly waste be transported in containers covered by a solid lid. That bill recently passed the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, paving the way for it to be acted on in the coming months. The second law would institute stiffer financial penalties for rail companies who violate that requirement, as the current fines are “very small,” according to Hevesi. Under his proposed law, the fines would double for subsequent violations, meaning companies could be fined up to $90,000.

“Right now it is a small hit, so they don’t care,” said Hevesi, adding that the rail lobbyist in Albany is opposing the measures and that every Republican on the committee voted against the legislation except for one GOP member. “The bottom line is, they’re gearing up for a fight… This will be a protracted fight, but we’re going to fight it.”

In the meantime, residents say they are still forced to endure unbearable noise from idling locomotives at all hours of the night and early morning. “I do not have an alarm clock because I do not need one,” said Anthony Pedalino of 69th Place, where trains idle for more than a half hour “every single weekday of the year.” As a result, many neighbors are attempting to sell their homes, something Pedalino said he is now considering. “It is a total sham, and I blame it mostly on the elected officials,” he said.

In response, Hevesi delivered some bad news: while he is attempting to tackle the issue of garbage trains through legislation, he is likely unable to resolve the issue of idling trains. “I want to be really candid – the idling I don’t think I can do much about.” As a result of the Interstate Commerce Act, those issues would have to be tackled in Congress, according to Hevesi. “I just want to be candid. It’s a very difficult issue.”

A representative from the city Department of Environ-that inspectors visited that area on a recent morning to measure the noise coming from the trains. He reported that the area was “very quiet” at 5 a.m., before any trains arrived. However, he described noise caused by a locomotive that arrived at 5:30 as “very, very uncomfortable” and “intolerable.”

Hevesi said the rail companies will likely claim those local standards don’t apply to their interstate operations. The DEP official said it appeared the problem could be alleviated by simply moving the trains away from the residential area, as they are currently parked right next to homes.

“We certainly deserve a good night’s sleep. Without that, there’s no quality of life,” said JPCA President Robert Holden, adding that the problem will only get worse if legislation Mayor Bloomberg is pushing is approved. Under that plan, trash from additional communities around the city would be transported through the Glendale-Middle Village area by rail, according to Holden.

Attempted Deception Burglary Leads to Huge Police Response

Details of Maspeth Incident Provided at COP 104 Meeting

By Conor Greene

Crime is down and arrests are up in the area so far this year, according to the
104th Precinct, which was able to fight back from a spike in incidents that occurred earlier this year.

So far this year, major crime is down 4.6 percent in the precinct, which covers Maspeth, Middle Village, Glendale and Ridgewood, according to Lt. James Lombardi of the Special Operations Unit. At the same time, arrests are up throughout the precinct, he told residents at the monthly COP 104 session, which was held during last week’s Juniper Park Civic Association meeting.

While felony assaults are up 32 percent this year, there have been a total of 31 arrests in connection with the 41 assaults reported this year, according to Lombardi, who estimated that 90 percent are domestic in nature. After a large spike earlier this year, burglaries are up just one percent, or one additional incident, compared with the same time last year.

“We were able to get that under control recently,” said Lombardi of the spike in crime that occurred throughout the precinct in the first few months of 2010. One bright spot, he added, is graffiti arrests, which have risen 437 percent this year. There have been 43 graffiti busts so far, compared with just eight at the same time last year. “Everybody is doing their job. It does take some time because we have to identify the tags.” He said that three individuals recently served jail time after being arrested on graffiti charges.

A resident asked about a huge police response last Thursday on 73rd Street near 57th Avenue, when a number of squad cars and a helicopter descended on the neighborhood.

Officer Tommy Bell from the precinct’s Community Affairs Unit explained that huge turnout was in response to a report at about 10:30 a.m. of an attempted burglary. An individual who claimed to be a Department of Environmental Protection employee fled the scene when the homeowner became suspicious, leading to the huge response.

According to Bell, the incident was consistent with past deception burglary attempts that have taken place both within the confines of the 104th Precinct and across the city. Any ongoing citywide crime patterns tend to result in a large response from law enforcement, he added.

Former CTK Basketball Coach Indicted on Child Sex Abuse Charges in Boston

By Conor Greene

It has been an up and down week for the Christ the King High School basketball program, as former longtime head coach Bob Oliva was indicted in Massachusetts on sex abuse charges, four days before both the boys and girls programs captured a state title.

Authorities in Suffolk County announced last Thursday that Oliva, 65, has been accused in a three-count indictment of molesting a young player and showing him pornography during a trip to Boston in 1976. Oliva, who resigned last year after 27 years at the helm of the school’s basketball program, is scheduled to be arraigned on the charges on April 12. If convicted, Oliva could spend the rest of his life in prison.

The Suffolk County District Attorney didn’t identify the alleged victim, but in 2008 Oliva notified the Middle Village school’s board of directors that he had been accused of abusing longtime family friend Jimmy Carlino. In May 2008, a Florida attorney sent Oliva a letter informing him that Carlino would drop the matter in exchange for a $750,000 payment and Oliva’s resignation by the end of that school year.

At the time, Oliva denied the charges before stepping down in January 2009 as head coach, citing heart problems caused by the stress of the allegations. He compiled a record of 549-181 and won four city championships while coaching several future NBA stars including Lamar Odom and Jayson Williams.

While the statute of limitations has expired in New York for any alleged incidents that took place between Oliva and Carlino in the 1970s, the Suffolk County DA is able to pursue the charges because time a suspect spends outside of Massachusetts is not counted against the statue of limitations. Prosecutors allege that the abuse took place at the Boston Sheraton during a trip Oliva and Carlino, then 14, took to see a Yankee-Red Sox doubleheader at Fenway Park.

“Cases of child sexual abuse are some of the most painful we see as prosecutors,” said Suffolk County DA Daniel F. Conley in a statement. “The victims can carry feelings of shame and guilt for decades before they’re ready to tell what happened to them. Oftentimes, it’s only in adulthood that they realize the abuse was not their fault.”

Suffolk prosecutors say the victim disclosed the abuse to Boston police last year. An extensive grand jury investigation was then launched, with “numerous witnesses” called to testify. According to the Daily News, Carlino and others connected to Christ the King, including former major league baseball pitcher Allen Watson, testified before the grand jury in February. Two other men told that newspaper they testified before the panel and had also been abused by Oliva. Additional charges could be levied against Oliva as a result.

Oliva met Carlino, who attended Archbishop Malloy High School, when the coach owned an Ozone Park bar called the Short Porch, where the youngster’s father bartended.

In a bright spot for the school’s basketball program, the Royal’s defeated Boys & Girls, 52-49 in the state Federation Class AA game on Sunday in Glen Falls. It was the first championship for the boy’s program since Oliva led the 1989 team to the title. In addition, the school became the first in tournament history to win both the boys’ and girls’ titles, after the lady Royals defeated Sachem East earlier Sunday.

Editorial: Beware of Blind Spots

Most of us have who drive have, on at least one occasion, held our breath behind the wheel-- gasping over a near miss with a car in the next lane. “I didn’t see that car. It was in my blind spot.”

Over the past week, another “blind spot”, one far more dangerous, appeared in the local news when three men were stabbed on a Manhattan train, early on Sunday. Two victims died from their injuries, a third was seriously wounded, their attacker left the scene without a trace-- and the subway station where the crime occurred did not have a security camera.

But these dangerous “blind spots” in crime and terrorism surveillance along the subway system of the largest city in the United States don’t occur just because of the lack of cameras. They exist also because of the 4,313 security cameras that have been installed, almost half just don’t work due to mechanical difficulties. In fact 2,043 of the cameras operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) are presently out of service due to a situation of which Mayor Bloomberg says, "I think it's fair to say the MTA does not have enough money to provide the level of security that people want and that we should have,” and “Someday we're going to get very badly hurt because of it."

Another contributing factor in the subway “blind spot” are the to-the-bone budget cuts--$93 million-- made by the MTA, resulting in unmanned token booths and far fewer officers to patrol our subways. The same cuts have resulted in a shortage of officers responsible for patrolling bridges and tunnels over the weekends.

While pressed about culpability in the matter of securing the city’s subways, the MTA and Lockheed Martin, the company contracted to install cameras and cell phone stations in the subway system, continue to play a dangerous game of finger-pointing. The result of which is a lawsuit filed by both parties. According to Lockheed Martin, their progress has been delayed because the MTA has denied them adequate access, while the MTA contests that Lockheed delivered faulty equipment.

Although crime is down on the city’s subways overall, the fact remains that a system which is responsible for transporting more than five million New Yorkers every day is not secure and remains an ever attractive prospect for criminals and terrorists. The NYPD does not rely on any surveillance devices operated by the MTA. They have officers routinely patrolling the subways and also conduct random searches in stations scattered across the five boroughs.

Clearly a more functional and cooperative effort among all the city agencies who contribute to mass transit security could eliminate more crime and add to safety for crowds of commuters under threat of terrorist activity. A most recent attack by suicide bombers in Moscow both points to the vulnerability of the subway system as a target and emphasizes the critical need for maximum surveillance.

The NYPD continues to install a network of thousands of security cameras throughout the city to be manned by private surveillance companies as part of an intensive security initiative. The onus is now on the MTA to adjust cost cuts and restore or re-acquire whatever funding necessary to initiate and maintain that subway riders in NYC are not faced with deadly blind spots.