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.