Thursday, February 3, 2011

This Week's Forum South and West

Water Main Break Leaves Residents Without Water

By Patricia Adams

A water main broke on Saturday at the corner of 99th Street and 160th Avenue in Howard Beach and went unrepaired into Sunday morning leaving some area residents without water for about nine hours.

The break was reported to DEP through 311 by residents. “The water was shut off with no notice,” one resident told The Forum. Lisa, who lives with her family across the street from Charles Park said water service went down after 3:30 p.m Sunday and was restored around midnight.

According to officials, no notice was given to the residents about the shut off because it was an emergency situation. “The DEP’s priority was to get the water off and prevent dangerous icing conditions in the freezing temperatures,” said Betty Braton, chair of Community Board 10.

Water service was shut off to the area surrounding the break and crews worked from early Sunday morning to remove mounds of snow and ice in order to locate turnoff valves.

The break was repaired and service to approximately 100 homes affected was restored by the end of Sunday night.

From Austria to Forest Hills: Woman Celebrates 101 Eventful Years

By Patricia Adams

For most of us, living to celebrate our 101st birthday would be extraordinary enough. But for Forest Hills resident Regina Schilling Mittler, the number of years she has lived is just a fractional part of how extraordinary her life has truly been.

Born in Lemberg (then part of the Austrian Empire) on February 2, 1910, her mother was a concert violinist and her father a conductor. Much of her early childhood was spent in Czernowitz, where her aunt lived, while her par- ents were off on busy concert schedules.

Regina’s life would go on to be punctuated and shaped not only by the arts and culture, but also by one of the most tumultuous times in world history. It included hardship and struggle as early as her fourth birthday few of us ever encounter. It was 1914, World War I was underway, and Regina’s mother -- away on tour when all railroad connections to the Austrian Empire were severed -- had no way back to her beloved child.

Regina remained in Czernowitz under the care of a nanny for more than four years until 1918, when she was finally reunited with her mother. They travelled together to Vienna, and despite the fact that Regina was mal- nourished, she managed to escape the influenza epidemic that was spreading though the world.

In keeping with the family’s love of music, Regina was provided with piano lessons with a local teacher and within five years, she earned a full scholarship to the Vienna Conservatory. She was just 13 years old.

She continued on at the Conservatory, graduating with honors before passing the Austrian Music Teachers Exam. During her time at the school, Regina sang with the famed Arbeiter Chorus and attended the Vienna debuts of noted musicians Vladamir Horowitz, Bela Bartok and Marion Anderson. Following her graduation, Regina continued on at the conservatory as a staff accompanist and taught privately.

Regina was working as a piano teacher in Austria at the end of WWI, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was 1938 and demands for the union of Austria and Germany increased after Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany.

The German army occupied Austria on March 13th, and one day later, while she was giving a piano lesson, Regina got a phone call from her mother after the Gestapo had come looking for her. She had been a counselor in a summer youth camp run by the Social Democratic Party and now the Nazis were arresting anyone with a known association to the party.

When Regina hung up the phone she knew that her life—if she weren’t killed—had changed forever. She left the home of her stu- dent and immediately began her life in hiding. She moved from friend to friend for more than a year—hiding in basements and any other safe location available, sneaking around the streets when necessary. She waited for help from people with access to the American Embassy as they searched for her immigration number needed to secure her travel visa.

One day while walking past the American Embassy, Regina and her friends were approached by an official who asked them if they wanted to immigrate to America. Regina submitted an application, which was approved on her birthday in 1939. Her cousin Laura’s employer provided her with an affidavit and funds to buy a ticket to New York. She arrived in New York in March. She had escaped the Nazi’s and was safe.

In New York Regina visited Steinway Hall to receive a piano from a refugee relief agency, and there she ran into the composer and pianist Franz Mittler, a fellow refugee, with whom she had studied in the early 1930s. They grew increasingly close and got married in December of 1939.

In September 1943 the couple moved to Kew Gardens where Regina lived for 45 years until moving to her present apartment in Forest Hills in 1989. They had one child, Diana, who is still caring for her mother today.

Regina was interviewed and appeared in the film documentary “Last Stop, Kew Gardens” which was broadcast on PBS Channel 21 in 2008. After her retirement Regina devoted much time to reading and travel. Since 2008 she lives at home assisted by her 24-hour home attendants Rina Soldevilla and Virginia Martinez.

Atlas Park Sold: Owner of Queens Center Mall Involved in Purchase

By David J. Harvey

The Shops at Atlas Park was sold at auction on January 28 at Queens County Supreme Court, and the buyer will soon take ownership. The winning $53.7 million bid for the property was submitted by a newly-formed group called WMAP, LLC.

Little is yet known about WMAP, apparently formed for the purchase, except that Walton Street Capital, a Chicago based investment firm, is a member. Walton Street Managing Principal Eric Mogentale said the company does not publicly comment on its investments. Macerich, the owners of Queens Center Mall, will be in charge of managing the shops at Atlas Park after the sale is complete on February 28.

Atlas Park, formerly owned by the Hemmerdinger family, had been under foreclosure for nearly two years. The financier, Société Générale, was still owed $119 million at the time of the sale. The Hemmerdingers had created Atlas Park, LLC for the original property purchase and can’t be held person- ally liable for the balance of the debt owed on the mall.

The sale is expected to close within 30 days of the auction and will leave Société Générale at a significant loss. Société Générale spokesperson Jim Galvin did not return a request for comment.

According to auction referee Denis Cap- pello, the opening bid of $50 million came from a group that had partnered with the bank, which had revealed Société Générale’s willingness to sell for much lower than the debt owed.

“If the bank was going to say listen, we want $119 million or we’re just going to take it over ourselves a lot of people would probably just walk away,” he said. “When they started at $50 million, I was somewhat surprised that they were willing to go that low.”

Cappello said he had expected the bidding to reach up to $70 million, and that there would be more bidders. After the opening bid, Capello set the bidding increment at $250,000 and only two parties—the one partnered with the bank and WMAP—went back and forth up to $53.7 million.
“When we got past $53 million and I had to start closing the bidding, I was surprised,” he said.
While there remains uncertainty about the future of the Glendale shopping center, the
involvement of Macerich was seen as a promising sign.

Additionally, Walton Street has been heavily investing in mall properties. In June 2010, Walton Street set up a $300 million refinancing for a mall property in Colorado it originally invested in back in 1999, The Streets at SouthGlenn, an open-air town square-style mall with joint residential properties. In December, Walton Street purchased the Simi Valley Town Center in California, which came with a $112 million mortgage.

Walton Street Managing Principal Neil G. Bluhm told the New York Times in 2009 that his firm was prepared to begin heavy investment in the Northeast and in California. He said the recession had caused a lull in real-estate speculation, but that he planned to spend $1.5 billion over the next few years on property in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Bluhm said he hopes for annual returns of 20 percent.

Currently, the struggling Atlas Park has no such potential. Kathy Masi of the Glendale Civic Association said the community is thrilled that Atlas Park finally has an owner, and welcomes the connections to the more successful Queens Center Mall. Masi said she hopes the success of Queens Center will come to Atlas Park under dual management. Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who has worked to bring new life to Atlas Park for years, said she is looking forward to revitalizing Glendale’s shopping mall.

“The community welcomes the new leadership with open arms and is eager to help Atlas become an engine for economic growth. I will be meeting with Macerich this week and other stakeholders including civic groups in the coming weeks and months to make sure this shopping center works with the community and the residents I represent."

Cappello also said he is eager to see Atlas Park transformed. He said his wife often shops at Atlas Park, and the night before the auction, they ate at the mall’s California Pizza Kitchen.
“In this business we get caught up in the numbers, but when I see a closed store over there and that the people who worked there lost their jobs, it’s a concern. Living in the area, I would like to see it move along and see better times.”

Woodhaven Hopes to Melt Frozen Emergency Communications

By David J. Harvey

With record levels of snowfall in January, the city has struggled to coordinate street plowing, garbage pick-up and parking issues. Meanwhile, the web of complaints to Sanit tion during the snowstorms hasn’t seemed to have much impact—prompting one community group to try and streamline city-wide emergency reporting.

Trash continues to stagnate and many streets in Queens are still suffering diminished parking capacity. Piles of snow separat- ing streets and sidewalks impede deliveries, including those of heating oil, and block the view of drivers at intersections.

“On the corners you see mountains of snow and you can’t see past those corners, you’re going into the street blind,” Howie Kamp, of the Ozone Park Civic Association, said.

Local civic leader Tony Nunziato said he’s seen city workers plowing already clear streets and truck drivers taking side streets to avoid snow only to find themselves stuck.

“Once you don’t do something right, then it spreads.” Nunziato said. “When one thing fails, it just continues.”

Residents reporting snow issues in their neighborhoods can call 311, their local community groups, the local Community Board office or elected officials. All of those groups report to each other, as well as to the Mayor’s office and to the local Sanitation Department office.

Ed Wendell, president of the Woodhaven Residents Block Association, said even with all the avenues for reporting snow conditions, the city seemed overwhelmed.

“Problems were being reported to our elected officials, to the Mayor’s office, to our Community Board, and each one in turn was telling us they were reported to Sanitation, but it just didn’t seem to be getting done.”

So while the snow piled up, the WRBA began an effort to decongest the complaint pipeline to Sanitation.

After the first snowstorm in December, the WRBA revived the old tradition of “Block Captains” to help compile reports about conditions in the neighborhood. Wendell said he wanted to find a way to get a comprehensive report using a grassroots network.

“After the Christmas storm, a lot of people were blasting the city saying, ‘hey we were forgotten,’” Wendell said. “We wanted to take a different approach.”

The WRBA began using Facebook and Twitter to reach residents, but Wendell said this approach was too sporadic. He decided to use residents on each street to help the WRBA report conditions to Community Board 9 and the area’s two elected city officials, Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village).

“If [the block captains] can go out on their porch and look up and down their street they can tell us what conditions are, not just in a snowstorm.” Wendell said. “In a state of emergency we can put together some real comprehensive information telling them, ‘here, these are the conditions on the ground.’”

Despite high hopes for the network, Wendell said the city is still slow to respond.

During the last January storm, which ended early Thursday morning, Wendell collected reports from his captains and sent out a report before noon. By 4 p.m., the majority of streets had not been touched. He reported conditions again, leaving out plowed streets. On Friday, 16 roads were still unplowed.

“We’re reporting this information but I don’t think they’re very good at doing follow
ups,” Wendell said. “I don’t think Sanitation is very good at giving us any metrics on what’s been plowed or not.”

“They have no idea what they touch and what they don’t,” he added.

The Sanitation Department has announced plans to outfit every plow with a radio to improve communication, and Wendell said Mayor Bloomberg’s office had expressed interest in the WRBA’s Block Captain system. Wendell said he worries that the city is overwhelmed, and hopes to see the Block Captain approach catch on.

“If our elected officials are swamped with calls, I can only imagine how Sanitation is,” Wendell said.

By the end of January, the WRBA had 25 percent of Woodhaven streets covered by Block Captains. Wendell said the WRBA will continue signing up captains until it has 100 percent of the neighborhood covered.

Cuomo Promises Massive Cuts to 2011-2012 Budget

By Eric Yun

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his executive budget on Tuesday, which he promised will “set our state on a new path toward prosperity.”

Cuomo preached fiscal responsibility and promised reduced spending during his campaign last November. He said the new pro- posed budget would eliminate New York’s projected four year deficit of $64.6 billion by 86 percent without raising taxes.

The key component to Cuomo’s plan is cutting spending for numerous agencies including education and healthcare.

“We simply cannot afford to keep spending at our current rate,” Cuomo said. “Just like New York’s families and businesses have had to do, New York State must face economic reality. This budget achieves real, year-to-year savings while restructuring the way we man- age our state government.”

The first goal for the budget is to reduce the cost of state government. State agencies will be instructed to maximize savings, and Cuomo wants to negotiate with state employee labor unions to save money. Cuomo said if savings could not be achieved, up to 9,800 layoffs would be necessary.

In the executive budget, Medicaid spending will be cut by 2 percent, or $982 million. Medicaid funding has spiraled upwards every year, and Cuomo said the practice was unsustainable.

The cuts in Medicaid could be critical to Queens residents who already lost Mary Immaculate and St. John’s hospitals in 2009. According to a report in The New York Post, the Governor’s cuts could put Wykoff, Jamaica and Peninsula hospitals in danger of closing.

In reaction to the news, city Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) released a statement slamming the proposed cuts. “Queens County has lost three hospitals in the last two years alone,” Crowley said. “The human costs of closing another one or two will far outweigh the financial savings for New York.”

Cuomo also announced plans to cut educa- tion funding. The proposed budget would cut funding by $1.4 billion. SUNY and CUNY schools will also have their operating aid cut by 10 percent.
The MTA will receive a small increase in funding, but Cuomo is proposing using $100 million from dedicated transit funds to pay off state debts.

“When it comes to transit nothing much has changed,” said Paul Steely White, execu- tive director of Transportation Alternatives. “Cuomo is taking dedicated funds away from riders.”
Transportation Alternatives fears that taking the funds will lead to future MTA service cuts.

Last year, after former Governor David Paterson took $160 million of dedicated tran- sit funds, the MTA cut the W line, which ran through Astoria, and the V line, which ran through Forest Hills. More than 10 bus routes were also eliminated or reduced.

State Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) said the budget was “a good first step.” “We definitely need to cut spending and reduce government,” Addabbo said. However, Addabbbo was wary of layoffs and cuts to education and healthcare.

Education and healthcare are two of the largest elements of the budget, but Addabbo said there is wasteful spending within the bptj that can be reduced. Over the next eight weeks, Addabbo wants to discuss the budget and determine what the cuts will do to the state and the city. “We need to see what the ramifications are if we implement this budget,” he said.

Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Wood- haven) is also encouraged by the budget.

“That said, I am very concerned about the impact of eliminating aid to New York City. We cannot ask our already struggling schools to take another massive cut,” Miller said.

Miller also vowed to fight cuts to senior centers and people with developmental disabilities.

Addabbo said his biggest concern is that last year’s disastrous budget process is not re- peated. The 2010 budget was not passed by the April 1 deadline, and the legislature was forced to pass extender bills to keep the government working. Addabbo said Paterson held legislators hostage, with no room to negotiate, forcing them to pass Paterson’s budget.

Carl Berner, Steadfast MV Resident, Turns 109

In 1928, Carl Berner emigrated from Germany and entered New York Harbor. By 1938 he had bought his first home in Middle Village for $5,190. Over the next 73 years, Berner has been a celebrated civic activist and one of the original members of the Juniper Park Civic Association (JPCA).

Berner celebrated his 109th birthday last Thursday—adding another year and milestone to his already long and fulfilling life. As a youth, Berner split time in France and Germany. He was educated in German public schools and learned English. After moving to the United States, Berner achieved the American dream.

He toiled for hours as the nighttime superintendent for the Chrysler building. He worked there for five years, ten hours a day, six days a week. Berner was offerend a position to become a U.S. foreign agent because of his fluency in French and German, but he declined. Instead, he started his own toy-making company, first out of his garage, which became very successful. He met his wife, Margaret, and had a daughter, Emily.

Berner’s toys became collector’s items, and his expertise was sought by many businesses. He was invited to train younger workers in the industry. After moving to Middle Village, Berner immediately joined the Eliot Av- enue Civic Association, the precursor to the JPCA. Since then, he has been a fixture in civic activities around the community. At 109, Berner is still active and eager to help his neighbors, “especially the elderly.”

Bob Holden, president of the JPCA, praised Berner’s work and what he sees for the centenarian’s future: “We expect to see Mr. Berner walking around the neighborhood in the spring.”