Thursday, March 11, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

Aqueduct Project on Shaky Ground

By Patricia Adams

Although a casino operation is planned for development at Aqueduct Racetrack in Ozone Park, the continued drama surrounding the project is more of a circus than anything else.

Earlier this week, Rev. Floyd Flake announced that he would remove himself as an investor in the Aqueduct Entertainment Group (AEG), the consortium that was chosen to develop the long awaited video lottery terminals at the struggling raceway.

Insiders speculate that the Rev. Flake, as well as rapper Jay Z, had both dropped their investor positions with AEG due to a requirement by the State Lottery Division for the provision of extensive financial documentation from small investors.

Other sources maintain that Rev. Flake was under pressure from his congregants to exclude himself from any affiliation with a gambling venture. While Flake remained unavailable for comment, he did release a statement in which he said the Aqueduct project had caused him to be distracted from his many obligations at his church.

Still, officials at the State Lottery refused to comment on AEG’s status or if they had met the state filing requirements. If the deal with AEG does fall apart on or before the March 31 deadline, it would result in the state losing the promised upfront payment of $300 million. According to published reports, AEG “remains committed to obtaining state licensing of all investors by month’s end, and has access to the needed cash.”

On Tuesday afternoon at a press conference, Gov. David Paterson recused himself, on the advice of his attorneys, from all pending negotiations concerning Aqueduct.

When reporters pushed the governor about choosing AEG in the first place, Paterson responded that he “certainly thought it was right at the time,” adding “whether or not they are able to comply with the protocols is the same problem that one of the other companies was unable to do last year, and so we’ll just wait and see whether that application is valid.”

According to published reports in the Daily News, AEG could lose their rights to develop the project because they failed to meet state requirements. Reportedly, the Lottery Division informed Gov. Paterson’s staff by memo on Tuesday evening that AEG is “unlicensable” for numerous reasons.

Local officials remain concerned as to the fate of the project and there is no confirmation as to what will happen in the eventuality that AEG is bumped from the project. “It is sad that after eight years this questionable process has not resulted in a signed agreement to get the project underway,” said Betty Braton, Chair of Community Board 10.

In the meanwhile AEG says they are continuing with their plans for development and are hosting a job fair associated with the project at a middle school in the area on March 20.

Maspeth Demands Immediate Steps to Reduce Truck Traffic

Crowley Calls for Change to Through Route Designation

By Conor Greene

Sick and tired of heavy truck traffic along Grand Avenue, elected officials and community leaders came out in force last week to demand that the city take action to prevent large vehicles from using local roads instead of nearby expressways.

The long-awaited Maspeth Truck Bypass Plan is still being studied by the city Department of Transportation, which expects to unveil several route options to the public in September. In the meantime, a group of officials led by Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) is requesting that changes be made to the through-truck routes that currently run along Grand and Flushing avenues into Brooklyn.

Currently, the through route becomes local truck routes once the avenues enter Brooklyn, meaning vehicles can currently exit the Long Island Expressway and cut through Maspeth to reach their destinations. Crowley wants the DOT to change the through route designation to a local route, forcing truckers to stay on the expressway until they reach their destination.

“For far too long the DOT has ignored the traffic problems in Maspeth... and has allowed trucks to use [the neighborhood] as a dumping ground,” said Crowley during last Friday’s press conference at the intersection of Flushing and Grand avenues. “Why is Maspeth the only location in the city where the DOT allows a through route to terminate at a borough boundary?”

Crowley notes it would only require a “simple adjustment” to change the route designation and alleviate the strain on local roads, and says the change could be implemented within days or weeks. “What we’re asking for is something so simple… It’s not fair for people to be using Grand Avenue to get to Brooklyn,” she said.

Joining the councilwoman at the event were officials including Rep. Joseph Crowley, Rep. Anthony Weiner, Senator Joe Addabbo, Assemblywoman Marge Markey, Jim O’ Kane of the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce, Gary Giordano of Community Board 5, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, and members of the Juniper Park Civic Association, which has been pushing for the Bypass for years.

A city DOT spokesman wouldn’t say whether the agency will change the route designation, and didn’t provide an update on the status of the bypass plan study. “We are studying the concept of a local truck route as we move ahead with the ongoing Maspeth Bypass study and discussions with the community,” said Scott Gastel in a statement.

Crowley spoke with Queens Commissioner Maura McCarthy before Friday’s rally, but the councilwoman’s office refused to provide details of that conversation.

After more than a decade of waiting for action to reduce the amount of trucks rumbling through the neighborhood’s commercial center, residents and officials say they are running out of patience with the DOT.

Robert Holden of the JPCA said the problem became much worse with the closing of the Staten Island landfill ten years ago, at which time community activist Frank Principe and Maspeth business owner Tony Nunziato began devising the bypass plan. “Here we are in 2010 talking about the same thing,” he lamented. “We’ve done so many studies, yet the DOT is not listening. Our patience has run out – we need something done right now.”

“It has sat on many a desk for too long,” said Nunziato of the bypass plan.

Assemblywoman Marge Markey, who has represented Maspeth since 1998, said the truck traffic negatively impact the local quality of life in numerous ways, including by adding to air pollution, creating hazardous conditions for pedestrians and clogging up roads for local drivers. “In these tough economic times, it is important that we do everything we can to help neighborhood businesses survive,” she said.

When asked why elected officials have yet to be able to get the truck bypass plan implemented, she laid the blame with the city. “It’s just that the DOT is working at a very slow pace. I think it’s a real embarrassment for that agency,” she responded.

Jim O’ Kane of the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce said the trucks have a huge impact on the many senior citizens living and shopping in the area. “They are intimidated by this truck traffic while crossing the street,” he said.

After the official press conference ended, members of the JPCA including Holden, Nunziato, Manny Caruana and Lorraine Sciulli called out several of the politicians whom they say only attended for a “photo op” after dragging their feet on the issue for a decade.

“Frankly, I’m surprised a couple of the elected officials dared show their faces,” said Holden, specifically mentioning Markey, Joe Crowley and Anthony Weiner. “Marge Markey never mentioned Tony Nunziato, who thought of the plan. What’s happened since 1999? Zero. She can’t even get trucks off the main street of her own town.”

Lydon Sleeper, chief of staff for Councilwoman Crowley, interjected several times that holding the second conference “is not right.”

“Had they done their jobs for ten years, this would have been done,” said Sciulli. “These elected officials didn’t do their job for ten years.”

Vision for St. Saviour's Parkland is Unveiled

By Conor Greene

While funding for the project is still up in the air, the Newtown Historical Society has unveiled its vision for public parkland at the former St. Saviour’s Site in Maspeth.

Based on input from area residents, Christina Wilkinson of the historical society has created a rendering for the 57th Road property, which currently sits vacant. “I met with the residents who live around the site, and they listed amenities they would like in the proposed park,” she said at last month’s Community Board 5 meeting.

Among the items suggested are a wrought iron fence around the property perimeter, a landscaped hill featuring a statue and flag poll, walking paths and benches, open space, restrooms, a children’s playground, gardens and flowers and trees, especially along the Rust Street side to buffer the greenspace from noise and pollution from passing trucks.

However, due to questions regarding funding for the property acquisition, the plan remains up in the air. The city Parks Department agreed last year to buy the land if local officials can come up the funds needed for acquisition, and the owner is asking for about $10 million for the property.

Wilkinson was hoping that the state’s Environmental Protection Fund would be the key to securing funding for the land, but that is in jeopardy due to the state’s budget deficit. In a letter to Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) last month, State Parks Commissioner Carol Ash said the governor’s current plan to close the budget gap would result in suspension of the property acquisition program.

“Governor Paterson has proposed a budget that will place an indefinite moratorium on land acquisition under EPF, starting in the state fiscal year commencing April 1,” wrote Ash in a February letter to Crowley. “If the budget is enacted by the state legislature accordingly, State Parks’ land acquisition activities will be put on hiatus.”

There has since been a push to restore the funding for land acquisition, with local State Assembly members including Marge Markey (D-Maspeth) and Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) signing on to a letter being circulated by Robert Sweeny (D-Lindenhurst), who chairs the Assembly Environmental Protection Committee.

The city has refused to release the results of a recent appraisal conducted of the property, according to Wilkinson. However, according to the city Department of Finance, the two lots that create the square-block site have a market value of about $2.5 million, and the owner purchased the site for about $6 million in 2005.

The property was home to a historic 1847 until it was set to be demolished to make way for residential development. Local preservationists, including members of the Juniper Park Civic Association were given permission to dismantle the structure so that it can eventually be rebuilt on land in Middle Village. While the development plans never panned out, the site – which is zoned for manufacturing uses - was recently cleared and leveled for construction.

“It really would be a travesty to see this site developed, because it is historic,” said Wilkinson at the community board meeting.

Hearing Planned on New Maspeth School

PS 873 to be Housed in IS 73 Annex

By Conor Greene

The city has scheduled a public hearing on the recently-unveiled plan to open a new K-5 school on the IS 73 property in Maspeth.

Under the plan, a new school called PS 873 will open in an existing annex building adjacent to IS 73. It would be a zoned elementary school starting in 2010-2011, when it opens to about 50 to 75 kindergarteners. It would phase one new grade in per year until it tops out in 2015-2016 with between 270 and 350 students in grades K-5.

Education officials say the plan is feasible due to a “steadily decreasing” enrollment at IS 73 in recent years. It enrolls students in both 6th and 7th grades since it is fed by both K-5 and K-6 schools in the area. However, two of IS 73’s feeder schools – PS 49 and PS 102 are being expanded to K-8, contributing to the enrollment decline.

According to the DOE, IS 72’s current 7th grade class has just 590 students, compared with 715 students in 8th grade. Currently, IS 73’s 6th graders are housed in the annex building eyed for PS 873, but the DOE estimates that the space will be freed up for the new school as a result of the smaller 7th and 8th grade classes.

The DOE projects a combined enrollment for PS 873 and IS 73 of approximately 1,650 students in 2010-2011, well below the buildings’ capacity of 1,979. Of those students, between 270 and 350 students would be enrolled in the new PS 873. The change is intended to address the need to relieve elementary school overcrowding throughout District 24, according to the DOE.

The public hearing is set for April 14 at 7 p.m. inside IS 73, located at 70-02 54th Avenue. Comments can also be submitted by e-mailing or by calling (718) 935-4198. Speaker signup begins 30 minutes before the start of the public hearing and will close 15 minutes into the session.

There will be no question and answer period at the public hearing, so for additional details on the proposal contact Natalie Ondiak of the DOE’s Office of Portfolio Planning at (212) 374-3482.

Hallelujah! Stolen Chalices Returned; Arrest Made

By Patricia Adams

Two chalices stolen from St. Helen’s at the end of February were recovered by police after two men showed up at the parish rectory on Tuesday evening.

Howard Beach resident Thomas Kurplewski arrived at St. Helen’s Rectory accompanied by another parishioner. He was carrying a black plastic bag which he said contained the chalices. It was about 6 pm when Msgr. Al LoPinto opened the door for the men who told him they were there to return the chalices.

Msgr. LoPinto asked the men to be seated and informed them that he had to call police because of the ongoing investigation. Minutes later when they arrived, it was confirmed that the bag did indeed contain the stolen vessels.

According to police sources, Kurplewski told investigators that the chalices had been purchased from thieves on the street outside a Brooklyn housing project near Linden Boulevard, known as the Pink Houses.

Detectives who had vigorously investigating numerous leads in the case pursued questioning until Kurplewski admitted that it was his son, 20-year-old Theodore Kurplewski, who had broken into the church sacristy and stolen the chalices. He was subsequently arrested and charged with burglary and criminal possession of stolen property. The family lives just blocks from the church.

“I am just so thankful to God and to everyone who prayed for the return of the chalices,” said Fr. Rob Keighron. “The police, the press and the entire parish were all so supportive. I am glad that people recognized the wrong that was done here and that it was rectified.”

Msgr. LoPinto praised the police for their attention to the case and also expressed his thanks to the media for their handling of the case and to his parishoners for their support. “We’re so thankful to have this situation end this way. We so appreciate all the support that was shown since this incident occurred.

Deputy Inspector Joe Courtesis, commanding officer at the 106, said that many resources were dedicated to the investigation and credited Msgr. LoPinto for giving the police his full cooperation. The Inspector said he was looking forward to returning the chalices to the priests where they rightfully belong.

DA: Ozone Park Man Bit, Battered Infant Daughter

An Ozone Park man was arrested and charged with first-and-second-degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child in the brutal assault of his infant daughter, Hailey.

Juan Gomez, 23, of 104-01 Liberty Avenue allegedly caused extensive injury to the child left in his care while her mother went to work.

The infant was taken Schneider Children’s Hospital last week with bruises to her chest and eye, a healing fracture in her foot, a fractured ankle, a healing fracture to the lower leg, a bite mark to the right leg, seventeen fractured ribs (sixteen of which were healing), a lacerated liver and difficulty breathing due to a disruption to the lining of the lung.

District Attorney Richard Brown said, “The extent of the physical injuries that this innocent and helpless child suffered in just the first few weeks of her life is beyond comprehension. That they were allegedly committed by her father boggles the mind. This case will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

According to the charges, Gomez was alone with Hailey and became frustrated because she would not stop crying. He then allegedly bit her on the right leg, leaving a bite mark. To conceal what he had done, Gomez allegedly bathed the baby for the following week so nobody could see the bite mark.

In statements made to police and prosecutors Gomez said that he would grab his daughter by the feet and ankles and push her legs back until the feet and ankles were bent back onto her chest, that he head butted the baby in her head and that his head piercings caused bruising to her head, and that he would throw his daughter up in the air – about a foot – and catch her by placing his hands over her rib cage.

If convicted, Gomez could face 15 years in prison.

Austin Street Businesses Report Mixed Outlook

Parking, Rents, Ticket Agents Remain Top Concerns

By Conor Greene

Small business owners along Austin Street have differing opinions about the state of the nation’s economic recovery. However, one thing is clear – local issues such as parking and rents continue to play a huge role in the success or failure of the neighborhood’s mom and pop stores.

During an informal tour of stores on Monday led by Rep. Anthony Weiner, merchants provided mixed reactions to the current economic climate along one of the borough’s most popular shopping strips. While some, such as Marie Sinanian of jewelry store Stoa, say business is as bad as it has ever been, others, such as Marc Pine of Instant Replay secondhand store, say the economy has actually helped his business.

However, most agree that while the jobs bill currently being debated in Washington would help small businesses, it is often local issues such as parking, foot traffic and rent prices that make or break local mom and pop style stores.

Sinanian, who has owned Stoa for 43 years in the area, including the past 15 on Austin Street, said business has been “awful, just awful,” adding that it is worse than last year. “Is there any way you people can tell some property owners to do something with lowering the rents?” she wondered, hitting on a common theme heard along the strip.

Sinanian also said that overzealous traffic agents cause some customers to vow to never return to Austin Street after receiving parking tickets. In one case, a woman bought a $65 item, only to find a $35 ticket on her windshield.

“There really is a sense among most shop owners along Austin Street that their only connection to city government is the traffic police,” said Weiner, comparing the unit to a SWAT team.

A few doors down, the owner of Dmitry Italian Silk Ties said he was recently forced to close his Manhattan location as a result of the economy, but chose to keep his Austin Street location open. “Obviously, there has been a little bit of a slowdown, [so] we’re trying to adjust,” he said.

While online sales have helped fill the gap, Dmitry said that the $1,000 tax credit that the $15 billion jobs bill would provide wouldn’t be enough to allow him to hire another employee. In addition, he said a row of empty storefronts that have been vacant due to a high asking price have reduced the amount of foot traffic that eaches his business.

The economy has had the opposite impact on Instant Replay, where owner Marc Pine says people have turned to second hand items to save money. In addition, many people are selling antiques and other valuables they normally would hold onto. While foot traffic has stayed pretty consistent, some new businesses seemed to be doomed by high rent prices, added Pine.

New York Diamond Boutique opened its doors just two years ago, prompting manager Michael Jaye to joke, “we like challenges, that’s for sure.” Still, by making customer service and quality merchandise top priorities, the store “is holding its own” and is even looking for a new employee, said Jaye. “Ever since Christmas, we’ve seen a greater influx of people coming through the door and being serious about shopping.”

Still, Jaye echoed other complaints about parking, and suggested that Austin Street become a one-way stretch to accommodate diagonal parking. Weiner said that would be tough to do because of the lack of parallel roads to accommodate the diverted traffic.

During the tour, Weiner spoke about the jobs bill, which the Senate has yet to pass. “I don’t think you are going to have a moment when the skies part” and the economy is fixed, he said. Instead, “little by little, bit by bit, people being more confident about the future of the economy” will lead to jobs creation. “What’s going to drive hiring is business coming back, but if they’re right on the bubble it gives them a push,” he said of the $1,000 tax credit the proposed bill would provide businesses for hiring.

On the topic of sky-high rents, Weiner said that ideally, “the wisdom of the marketplace” would solve these problems without government intervention. Still, “it’s very frustrating as a resident” to have storefronts sit vacant for months while the landlord holds out. “The further away the landlord [lives], the more difficult it seems to be to persuade him to take a deal that might not be perfect. Holding out for the perfect deal means creating a very bad economic environment for our stores.”

The Continuing Plight of Charles Park

Residents, Local Officials Outraged Over Gateway Neglect

By Patricia Adams

More than two hundred people packed the auditorium at Our Lady of Grace in Howard Beach on Friday night, hoping to get some answers about the dilapidated conditions at Frank Charles Memorial Park.

Residents, civic leaders and elected officials gathered at the town hall meeting to hear details about $200,000 in federal funding designated to help resurface eroded tennis courts and cleanup deteriorating baseball fields.

Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica), National Park Service Superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area Barry Sullivan and Dorothy McCloskey, founder of the Friends of Charles Park, were all on hand to discuss the appropriation for the much needed park repairs.

But those in attendance were skeptical about the sincerity of the plan and charged that the funding is both insufficient and long overdue. Rep. Meeks told the crowd that as far as Charles Park is concerned, there has never been a desirable relationship between Gateway and the community. Meeks said he came to the realization that the park was not a good place for parents to bring their children years ago when he first visited the facility. Gateway countered with a promise to enter into a partnership with the community so that Charles Park would be re-established as a priority green space and not fall behind other projects.

Discussion about the money originally allocated by Meeks’ office—a total of $ 1million—was glossed over as the meeting moved onto a familiar reiteration of complaints lodged by residents and park goers. Tennis courts littered with fractured clamshells, broken concrete, faded lines and dangerously uneven surfaces make it near impossible for players to utilize the facility.

The other source of complaint is the condition of baseball fields which ideally would be used to host an overflow of games from nearby Ozone Howard Little League. “The problem with these fields is like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” said Joe M. whose two sons play at Ozone Howard. “They are overgrown, full of rocks and just plain dangerous.”

Additional problems at the baseball fields stem from the permits issued by Gateway for adult leagues that come from distant neighborhoods and who do nothing to help maintain the fields. Residents say the leagues use the fields, leaving litter behind, and often refuse to vacate when local kids leagues come in for scheduled games.

Lynne Kenny, longtime Howard Beach resident says that the conditions at the park are deplorable. “I am living here for over 40 years, and I am using the tennis courts for the last 20,” said Kenny. “It’s amazing that what should be such a beautiful park is just a disaster.” Playing on the courts is risky according to Kenny, noting that another regular took a bad spill on the court last Saturday.

Other players who use the park regularly echoed Kenny’s sentiment adding complaints about broken benches, litter all along the shoreline and throughout the park and bathrooms that are almost always locked and virtually unusable due to filthy conditions when they are open.

Frances Scarantino, founder of S.T.A.R.S Youth Program and community activist has been part of the fight to restore the park since 1996. “It’s extremely frustrating that Gateway has never worked with us to make this park the kind of facility that it could be.”

Scarantino secured a grant and held fundraisers in order to purchase equipment for a playground in Hamilton Beach that is a part of Charles Park more than nine years ago. Now she says everything the community worked so hard for is basically useless. “Because of the lack of maintenance by Gateway the playground has fallen into a state of complete disrepair and should be considered dangerous.”

Senator Joe Addabbo told The Forum his concerns lie in the fact that money that was allocated for repairs to the park has not been accounted for. “What needs to happen here is that Congressman Meeks needs to take a much stronger stand. A lot more work has to be done by his office to remedy this situation.”

Addabbo also maintains that Gateway needs to concentrate on administrative help for the park and that the federal government needs to make a serious financial commitment to provide much needed funding. “Charles Park needs be considered along the same lines as some of its more famous Gateway counterparts like Ellis Island and Yosemite,” said Addabbo. “We simply are not getting our fair share.”

The money referred to by Sen. Addabbo was a $1 million appropriation earmarked for Charles Park from Rep. Meeks several years ago. But according to Gateway spokesperson Jane Ahern, neither National Parks nor Congressman Meeks’ office was able to confirm the designation of the money for Charles Park and so it was never applied to park projects. According to Meeks’ office the line item went to Gateway, however it was not used there.

Now there is more than $2 million dollars in appropriations that have been applied for by Congressman Meeks’ office and neighborhood group, the Friends of Charles Park. The group has also asked Meeks to request an additional $1 million so that Gateway can establish a maintenance budget for the park. Decisions on the appropriations will not be made until October.