Thursday, May 27, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

Rego Park Four-Alarm Fire Under Investigation

Neighborhood Stores Gutted in Blaze

By Conor Greene

The cause of a huge fire in Rego Park that destroyed several small local businesses on Sunday remains under investigation this week, according to FDNY officials.

A dozen firefighters and one police officer suffered minor injuries in the four-alarm fire that broke out near 99th Street and 66th Road just after 8 p.m. All are said to be recovering, but the same can’t be said for several destroyed mom and pop stores.

The scene attracted large crowds of residents, who watched in shock and horror as 168firefighters worked to keep the fire from destroying adjacent buildings including the Tower Diner, which sustained smoke damage. While the building housing the Ohr Natan synagogue was saved, members rushed into the building as firefighters battled nearby flames to save sacred artifacts in case the fire had spread there.

Many residents said this is the largest fire they can recall in the neighborhood since a 1972 blaze near 63rd Drive and Austin Street destroyed several businesses and the local library branch. Michael Perlman of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council, who was among the residents gathered near the scene, said he has “never seen such a potent local fire.” He added that some of the “way over 100 residents” watching the scene were reduced to “tears and shock” watching the businesses burn.

“A number of long-term mom and pop businesses which are dear to the neighborhood, such as the candy/convenience store, Laundromat, barber, fruit store and dress shop, amongst others, were affected on the 99th Street side,” said Perlman. “Thankfully, nobody was killed, and the pets [in the animal clinic] were rescued.”

The cause of the fire remains under investigation as of Tuesday, and is believed to have started in the corner bodega. The majority of the injuries to firefighters occurred when an explosion brought down the ceiling of one of the businesses, which allowed the fire to grow out of control.

Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) said she spoke with fire officials and was told that all the injured firefighters are recovering from minor injuries. She said the synagogue suffered “very, very slight damage to the back” of the building and that the diner seems to only have sustained smoke damage. The animal clinic also only suffered minor damage, and all the animals were rescued, confirmed Koslowitz.

However, four stores in the area of 66th Avenue and 99th Street were “really heavily damaged,” said Koslowitz. “This was the worst that I can really remember, and I’ve been living here a lot of years,” she added. “It wipes out a lot of stores that served the community around here.” She will work with the city’s small business division in hopes of assisting the displaced business owners. “We’re going to get them together and see what we can do, possibly rebuild them and get them back.

“Thank God nobody was [seriously] hurt, but it’s very sad when you see it in your neighborhood,” said Koslowitz. “It is so depressing when you walk by – it still smells like smoke, which is a constant reminder.”

Hamilton Beach: Still Under Water

By Patricia Adams

The residents of Davenport Court in Hamilton Beach have had enough. After more than 20 years of flooding along their street, frustration rises with the dangerous and destructive tides that threaten their safety and continue to destroy their quality of life.

“I used to have a basement,” says Michael Caspare, who lives with his wife and daughter near the end of the street. A quick tour of Caspare’s home leads to a small staircase and what has now been transformed into little more than a crawl space. “I filled it in with six feet of dirt and then poured four inches of concrete over that.” Without the fill, the basement would have kept taking on water—eroding the foundation and inviting a host of complications into the family’s home.

Caspare’s wife, Margarita Bravo stands nearby holding a stack of correspondence that’s been sent to “every city official I could find.” But she says the writing, the meetings, the complaints and the outcries have not resulted in a remedy. She has been fighting — seemingly in vain — for years. Despite the deaf ears she has faced, Bravo continues to be hopeful the damaged duct pipe at the end of the street will be repaired. “It should be draining the water from the street into the adjacent canal,” Bravo explains. “The last time it was fixed was more than ten years ago.”

But on Monday night at a site meeting with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Councilman Eric Ulrich may have brought a little hope to the hearts of Hamilton Beach residents—that is until the tide rises again. The situation is extremely difficult and complicated according to Ulrich. A long term solution would involve reconstruction and repair of a faulty, inadequate drainage system, installation of a proper seawall and bulkheads and elevating and pitching streets affected by constant flooding. Problems arise in the fact that the job that would have to be handled as a collaborative effort between the DEP and the Department of Transportation (DOT).

“The long term solution is obvious,” Ulrich said.” In addition, he notes, there are environmental laws in place that regulate what is permissible construction for the area. But he says, for the people who live with this on almost a daily basis, what is far more crucial is what can be done now.

“I am determined to put a short term solution in place for now. The people who live with this deserve and have every right to demand immediate relief.” To that end, the freshman Councilmember arranged for DEP Deputy Commissioner James Roberts - who directs the city’s Bureau of Water and Sewer Operations - to attend the site meeting.

The man that runs every sewer in New York City listened to the complaints of a group designated to represent the community. One by one they reiterated what they say they have been telling city officials over and over for years.

“We had 18 inches of fill on this street but some of the neighbors decided they didn’t want that so the city came in and took it out,” said Roger Gendron, whose life on Davenport Court for the last two decades has been punctuated by a painful lack of response from the city. “If the check valve was on the pipe at the end of the block like it’s supposed to be, we’d be fine. Pointing to the pipe, Gendron uses his hands to show the diameter of the holes he says contribute to the pipe’s inability to drain water from the street. “This is more than mechanics,” Gendron says. “There are serious issues of toxicity connected to this water.”

The rain and high winds that have plagued much of the city in recent months has caused flooding on many streets in other neighborhoods, but in Hamilton Beach, the floods come year-round, rain or shine. The area’s close proximity to Jamaica Bay causes flooding in the area as often as two weeks out of every month.

Now, at the urging of Councilmember Ulrich, a meeting to address the problems between the DEP and DOT will be scheduled in the upcoming weeks. “The fact that Commissioner Roberts has come to the site himself is encouraging to me and should be to the community,” said Ulrich. “We are going to address this problem and give these people some of what they want. They have to get something to alleviate their problems. And they have to get it now.”

According to Ulrich, Roberts will return to the site — most likely during high tide -as will DEP’s citywide Commissioner Caswell Holloway, to assess the situation further and determine what measures can be put in place readily to combat the flooding problems.

Although Hamilton Beach residents can say they’ve heard that song before — from a string of Ulrich’s predecessors — there seems to be an air of confidence in the young elected official who is trying to put a plug in the situation now. “He’s pushing for us and we have faith in him,” says Margarita Bravo. “People say we should just move out—that we are like prisoners in our own homes. But we’re not going anywhere. And we want it fixed.”

Crime News: Shooting in MV, Burglary in Maspeth

By Conor Greene

Police provided details on several incidents that occurred recently within the confines of the 104th Precinct: a shooting in Middle Village, and a residential burglary in Maspeth.

Daniel Pizzuli, 18, and Daniel Pizzuli, 40, both of 52-30 65th Place in Maspeth, face charges of attempted murder, criminal possession of a weapon, reckless endangerment, assault and menacing following a dispute and shooting on May 23rd in Middle Village.

According to police sources, the pair was arrested after assaulting a 25-year-old man at about 7:35 that evening near the corner of 79th Street and 68th Avenue. The victim was first hit with a bat and then shot in the hand, police said. Both of the suspects were charged in the incident, but the Queens District Attorney’s Office didn’t have any additional details.

Police also reported that a home near 60th Street and 59th Drive in Maspeth was broken into on the night of May 20 while the family was home and asleep. Police say the suspects entered the home through a window, likely after cutting out the screen. They took a wallet and credit cards before fleeing the scene in the family’s vehicle after locating the car keys.

The investigation is ongoing, with no arrests made yet.

Remembering Middle Village Community Activist Robert Doocey

Middle Village resident Robert Doocey, who was active in many local causes around his neighborhood, died on Sunday morning surrounded by his family at Calvary Hospital.

Doocey, who was a longtime member of the Juniper Park Civic Association, was honored on the organization’s Website by neighbor Lorraine Sciulli. “His passing is a great loss for his family, friends and our community… Bob Doocey was a neighborhood activist in the true sense of the description,” wrote Sciulli. “There wasn’t a topic you could mention where Bob Doocey didn’t have an opinion.”

Robert was bon on Jan. 20, 1940 in New York City, the third of eight children of the late Frank and Margaret Doocey of Jamaica Estates. In 1955 the family moved to Allentown, Pa. Robert graduated from Central Catholic High School and attended Georgetown University for one year. In 1961 he joined the Army and was honorably discharged after four years of service.

Robert married Zenaida Rellosa on Dec. 30, 1967. Their children are Terence Edward Doocey of Alaska and Timothy Edward Doocey of New York. After an annulment, Robert married Linda Koh on Aug. 8, 1980 at Our Lady of Hope Church in Middle Village. Their children are Thomas Edward Doocey and Theresa Elizabeth Doocey, both of Middle Village.

In the 1960s, Robert launched a career in the then new field of computer programming. He spent over four decades in that industry, and was a gifted problem solver and a dedicated and valued member of his technology teams. As a pioneer in a constantly-changing industry, Robert was interested in both continually learning and teaching his trade. He taught computer programming classes at several universities and colleges.

After retiring in September 2001, Robert found a new passion with his deep involvement with the JPCA. He was a member of the group’s executive board and assistant editor and columnist of the Juniper Berry magazine. He often spoke proudly of his work with the Juniper Juniors, a neighborhood youth organization focused on graffiti removal, planting flowers in local parks, community cleanups and other projects including It’s My Park Day.

Unwavering in his principals of honesty, friendship, loyalty and forgiveness, Robert earned a reputation as a man able to stand his ground, especially in the face of controversy. He patented his own brand of loyalty and bestowed upon his children the gift of cultivating lifelong friendships. He always meant what he said, and while he set an example to those in his public life as both a professional and gentleman, he taught his family the simple and priceless lesson of saying “I love you” every chance he had.

Robert donated his remains to the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons for the advancement of medical science.

“Rest in peace, Bob Doocey, you made your mark on our world and while you left us far too soon, we will always remember you for your kind, giving, generous personality, and let’s not forget your very funny dry sense of humor, understanding you always had the best interests of the other guy at the top of your priority list,” wrote Sciulli.

Robert’s family will be holding a memorial mass at Resurrection Ascension Roman Catholic Church, 85-25 61st Road, Rego Park, on Saturday at 9:45 a.m.

Queens Library Rally Rocks City Hall

Faced with the prospect of closing 14 local branches, reducing hours at an additional 34 locations and laying off as many as 400 employees, Queens Library officials and City Council members rallied Tuesday outside City Hall to draw attention to the drastic budget cuts the system is facing.

The proposed city budget currently includes about $17 million in budget cuts for Queens Library, which boasts the highest circulation of any library in the nation. As a result, more than 300 employees have already received notices that their jobs might be eliminated in August, and additional cuts are possible, depending on the outcome of the overdue state budget.

In an effort to inform the public of the impending cuts, and to convince Council members to work to help restore funding, more than 400 Queens Library supporters, trustees, union members, residents and City Council members rallied on the steps of City Hall this week. The mayor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 would reduce funding to Queens Library by $16.9 million, on top of cuts sustained this past year.

In all, a total of $28.3 million in funding has been cut from Queens Library’s budget since 2008, when funding was provided to keep all libraries open on Saturdays. During this past year, funding cuts caused the closure of all community libraries on Sundays, and the library’s workforce has been reduced by 160 jobs through attrition. The proposed 2011 funding levels would be the lowest on record.

“Demand for library services continues to grow and grow,” said Queens Library CEO Thomas Galante at Tuesday’s rally. “It is an indication of how much people in Queens rely on Queens Library to be their lifeline to information, education, literacy, jobs and job readiness. We will continue to fight to save service and save jobs for the 50,000 people who use our libraries every day.”

City Council members in attendance included Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who chairs the Cultural Affairs and Libraries Committee, Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Dan Halloran (R-Bayside), Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), Julissa Ferreras (East Elmhurst), Peter Koo (R-Flushing) and others.

“Libraries are an essential part of our communities,” said Van Bramer. “These educational havens provide vital resources during such pressing times – now more than ever New Yorkers need libraries.”

As a result of the proposed cuts, some 412 employees would be laid-off early in fiscal year 2011. Fourteen branches would close completely, and 34 would be closed four of five days a week. That would mean just twelve branches would be open five days a week, one would be open six days a week, and one branch would be open seven days a week. It would also result in deep reductions in books purchased, programs, building maintenance, furniture and needed equipment.

Deadline Approaches to Enroll in Metro Ave HS

With the city Department of Education’s deadline approaching for parents and students to file appeals regarding school assignment, several local officials are urging locals to consider enrolling in the Queens Metropolitan High School this fall.

The deadline for the DOE’s appeals round is the close of business on Tuesday, June 1. In the meantime, Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi and school Principal Marci Levy Maguire are encouraging students who live within the school’s zoning boundary to apply to attend there in September. Students who wish to be considered for the Queens Metropolitan HS must file an appeal through their middle school guidance counselor, with give to families that live within the zone.

The Queens Metropolitan High School will open this September with 350 9th grade students. In a victory for students and parents, both Koslowitz and Andrew Hevesi fought to make sure the Queens Metropolitan High School would be a locally zoned school. In 2010 the school will first accept students in the designated zone, followed by students who reside in District 28 and 24. After both zones, the school will be open to all Queens and New York City residents.

“The Queens Metropolitan High School will be one of New York City’s finest public schools. Yet, in order to make the local zoning agreement a reality, we need local students and parents from the zone to participate in the appeals round exercises by making the Queens Metropolitan High School their choice,” said Council Member Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills)

"We fought very hard to ensure that the residents of our neighborhoods would be able to send their children to this new local school. It is now crucial for parents to take advantage of this opportunity and fill out an application to have their child considered for placement at the Metro School," said Hevesi (D-Forest Hills).

Study: FDNY Saves $3.1B in Property Annually

A study conducted by the FDNY and Columbia University, released this week at a press conference in front of City Hall, shows that local firehouses save $3.1 billion worth of property each year.

“This study shows that the FDNY is the best deal going when it comes to getting bang for your buck,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who chairs the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee. “As the city negotiates the budget, New Yorkers are getting a two-to-one return on their investment in the fire department.”

The study, completed in 2009 by Columbia University graduate students of the School of International and Public Affairs in close cooperation with high-ranking chiefs of the Fire Department, is intended to show how much money taxpayers will lose by closing even one of the 20 jeopardized fire companies, as proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to balance the city budget. It calculates that the FDNY saves at least $3.1billion in property damage alone, operating on a budget of $1.5 billion.

Crowley notes that the amount saved, divided among the 198 engine companies citywide, shows that each company is responsible for roughly $15.6 million in property saved each year. “If we close even one company, who will pick up the slack for the $15.6 million in property damage?” questioned Crowley. “If we close 20 fire companies, can we afford the $313 million in property damage? The message is clear: we simply cannot afford to reduce our already overstretched fire protection because fires don’t care about budgets.”

Crowley was joined on Wednesday’s press conference by Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), who chairs the Public Safety Committee, Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy and Uniformed Fire Officer Association President Alexander Hagan.

“This study clearly illustrates that in addition to New York City Firefighters most important job, saving lives,” said Cassidy. “Firefighters save the taxpayers over $3 billion in property damage annually with our ability to quickly respond to and extinguish fires."

"It is precisely in these tough times that our City needs to show what our priorities are,” said de Blasio. “The number one responsibility of government is to keep the public safe - period. The current economic environment obliges us to make tough decisions, but that should mean making sacrifices to preserve public safety, instead of jeopardizing it."

Coming to a Polling Place Near You: Electronic Ballot Marking Devices

By Patricia Adams

Voters at polling sites in NYC are slated to be introduced to the “new kid on the voting block”, the Electronic Ballot Marking Device, as early as this year’s September 14th primary election. But State Senator Joe Addabbo, Chair of the Senates Standing Committee on Elections, says he intends to petition the judge with a request to hold off replacing the machines until next year.

If the Board of Elections (BoE) funding is cut at the city level, federal money will run out, according to Addabbo, and there will not be enough funding to train BoE workers or to educate voters on the use of the new machines. “Next year is the perfect year for this,” Sen. Addabbo said. “It’s an off-year with no major elections. It’s already years late,” he contends. “I don’t see the world spinning off its axis if we do this next year.”

According to the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, a program was put in place to provide funds to states to replace punch card voting systems. According to Addabbo, the situation is further complicated by several factors including the fact that because states used HAVA funding, they were mandated to comply with regulations and forced to decide on machines they are now unhappy with.

Changing the machines during a popular election will cause mayhem at the polls according to Sen. Addabbo. “The mayor is proposing huge cuts to the Board of Elections. Training for the introduction to this system on the board end and to the voters could be upwards of thirty million dollars. The money is just not there.” And he maintains that voters need very little to be discouraged. “If you don’t want someone to vote, just give them a little reason to be frustrated—they’ll stay at home,” said Addabbo.

But in the eyes of another elected official, the arrival of the machines has been delayed for far too long. “There is no reason to delay,” says Councilman Eric Ulrich, a former employee of the BoE. “There are huge benefits to this machine,” he says, “People do not have faith in the system. That’s obvious by the decline of voter turnout.” Ulrich and other supporters of the immediate change say that infusing the new technology will encourage a younger set of voters whom statistics show are not voting.

Supporters of the machines say there are a number of highly advantageous components including instant reporting, allowing the results of an election to be known much sooner. On a more practical basis, the new machines offer voters the opportunity to correct any mistakes they may have made on their ballot and the machines also create a paper trail to verify the voter’s intent.