“Think globally, act locally” is more than just a saying for the Rego Park residents who formed the community’s first civic association.
The Rego Park Sustainable Communities Coalition was founded in reaction to the controversial development project at 63rd Road off Queens Boulevard, but the purpose is far broader.
“I strongly believe the future of the region and the world is going to be determined by these kinds of organizations, which have a vision of where things have to go,” said President Frans Verhagen.
Verhagen, who has masters’ degrees in divinity and international affairs, as well as a Ph.D. in sociology, points out there are 12 civic organizations in neighboring Forest Hills, when he speaks about the formation of the Rego Park civic.
The development that spurred activism in the community is Vornado Realty Trust’s plans to construct an 18-story building, a 23-story building, a garage and a number of retail stores on the lot once considered by Wal-Mart.
In addition to designing structures that will physically overwhelm the surrounding area, Verhagen said the developer did not take into account the community’s needs.
“We would like them to make a profit, but we would also like them to come up with a plan to enrich the neighborhood,” he said.
Because Queens Center Mall and Queens Place Mall are within walking distance of the site that is being developed, the civic would prefer a Whole Foods store over the proposed anchor tenant, Century 21. More retail stores are not needed, Verhagen said.
Members of the civic are also concerned that the new development will overload already stretched city services including traffic, transportation, sanitation and schools, as well as make an already difficult traffic situation worse. As many as 450 families could move into the planned high-rises.
“All of that is not being considered because the community is not being recognized,” Verhagen said.
So far, in addition to collecting more than 200 signatures for a petition against the proposed Vornado project, the civic is also in the process of raising money to hire a lawyer familiar with city planning and scoping.
Another project the coalition is working on is obtaining funds to plant trees in the community.
Some of the civic’s other goals are for the longer term. They include increasing participation in the community board, holding well-attended town hall meetings and putting an end to the illegal conversions of houses.
Although the Rego Park organization was formed last month, Verhagen has a long history of civic participation. He established the Ecology Task Force at Riverside Church in Manhattan in 1989 and for 10 years chaired the Queens Green Party—the first local green movement in New York State—which he founded.
For nearly 20 years, Verhagen, who is originally from Holland, taught Regents earth science in New York City public schools. In 2003, he left to work as director of Sustainability Education and Research for Earth and Peace Education Associates International. He also taught at Cooper Union, Hunter College and the New York Institute of Technology.
Currently, Verhagen serves on the board of directors for Park City 3 and 4 Co-ops, where he lives. Approximately 1,100 families live in the complex’s six buildings.
Through his involvement on the board, Verhagen is reaching out to residents of these co-ops as well as others in the surrounding area.
While he concedes that transforming Rego Park into a community that is socially, economically and ecologically strong will be a long process, Verhagen has set the year 2020 as a goal.
“In Rego Park, Queens, the city and the world, people ought to get involved,” he said. “So much depends on people who will do their little bit.”
For more information about Rego Park Sustainable Communities Coalition, call Verhagen at 718-275-3932 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.