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Queens Chronicle

2005 Saw National, Local Concerns Blend In Mid Queens

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Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2005 12:00 am

For Mid Queens, 2005 was a year that saw national stories hit home and local stories go nationwide.

A year that began and ended with labor unrest in the transit system, 2005 also saw the Iraq war hit home in Middle Village, the national debate over Wal-Mart come to Elmhurst, and the face of a child found lost on local streets on television screens across the nation.

While it was last week’s citywide transit strike that grabbed international attention, Mid Queens residents had their own, longer encounter with labor unrest and mass transit in January, when workers at the Command and Green Bus Lines walked off the job for 10 days, leaving 70,000 riders in Mid, Central and Western Queens and Brooklyn stranded.

Workers at the then privately owned bus lines had been without a contract for two years when the strike was called. An agreement was eventually reached where the union got its medical plan in exchange for not interfering with the process of integrating the two bus lines with the MTA.

Last week, those buses were among the only ones running as MTA workers on the city bus and subway lines walked off the job on a three-day citywide strike. Benefits, in this case pensions, were again at the heart of the dispute. The system’s Elmhurst depot saw daily picketers until transit union leaders suspended the strike last Thursday and reached a tentative contract agreement earlier this week.

At some times, national and international events hit home, like the death of Middle Village resident James McNaughton in August. McNaughton, a 27-year-old 4-year veteran of the NYPD, became the first member of the Police Department to be killed in action when he was shot by a sniper.

A staff sergeant with the Army Reserve’s 18th Military Police Brigade, he had been called up to serve in the Reserves in Iraq shortly after moving to Middle Village with his fiancee last December. He was guarding prisoners at Camp Victory outside Baghdad when he was shot by a sniper.

Another national issue came to the area this year when Wal-Mart expressed an interest in opening a store at the border of Elmhurst. The reported plans by the retail giant to open its first New York City store at 62nd Drive and Junction Boulevard sparked citywide interest and three months of protests organized by union leaders and politicians, who objected to the chain’s labor practices.

Ultimately, the site’s developers decided not to pursue negotiations with Wal-Mart, but were continuing with plans to build a 693,000-square-foot mall and apartment complex on the site, plans that have brought continuing protests from neighbors concerned about the increases in traffic and population they would bring.

Another national chain, Walgreens, has sparked similar protests with its plans to build a new 24-hour drugstore on Eliot Avenue in Middle Village. Opponents say they are concerned about the potential traffic and the influx of big-box stores into the neighborhood.

Some other local stories gained nationwide attention, as did the story of a little girl who was found wandering a Middle Village street in October.

Cesar Ascarrunz, 32, of 66th Avenue, Forest Hills, faces two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of tampering with physical evidence in the death of 26-year-old Monica Lozada and the disposal of her body. He faces charges of first-degree reckless endangerment, abandonment of a child, and endangering the welfare of a child for allegedly abandoning Lozada’s 4-year-old daughter, Valery, on the street after the crime.

According to police, Ascarrunz confessed to strangling and stabbing Lozada to death September 24th. He has since denied making a confession.Valery is Lozada’s daughter from a previous relationship.

He is then alleged to have left Lozada’s body on the curb in a garbage bag and to have abandoned Valery barefoot on a Middle Village street in the early hours of the morning.

Valery remained unidentified for four days until the Administration for Children’s Services, in an unusual move, turned to the media for help. Her television interview, in which she said her mother looked like a princess, captured the hearts of the city.

She was eventually identified by staff members at the Head Start program she attended. Further tips led police to Ascarrunz.

Ascarrunz faces 25 years to life on the murder charges.

One 2005 story that touched some local hearts was when Niederstein’s Restaurant, a 150-year-old Middle Village institution and the oldest restaurant in Queens, was demolished to make way for Arby’s and retail stores.

Tom Clarke, the owner of the former German restaurant, said the pre-Civil War building had become structurally unsound and no longer adhered to the city’s strict safety codes. Originally founded to cater to mourners traveling from other parts of the city to nearby cemeteries, it had experienced declining business over the last decade.

Plans obtained by the Queens Chronicle for the new building show a 2,818-square-foot restaurant with a drive-thru and an outdoor seating area. There will also be a separate one-story building on the property with retail stores and a total of 30 parking spaces.

The year 2005 also saw the beginning of efforts to rezone more than 160 blocks of Middle Village and Glendale.

Currently, most of Middle Village and Glendale is zoned R4 or R5, meaning that all types of residences can be constructed, provided they are no taller than 40 feet. The zoning has been the same for more than 40 years.

The new plan aims to preserve the character of the communities and stop overdevelopment. Most of the new districts will be R4-1, meaning multifamily buildings will no longer be permitted. The maximum building height will be 35 feet and one parking space will be required for each residence.

Middle Village and Maspeth residents also united this year to demand a cutback in truck traffic on Grand Avenue, saying the increasing number of trucks avoiding Long Island Expressway traffic and heading to and from new construction and industrial activity in West Maspeth posed an environmental and safety hazard. Late in the year, their efforts were rewarded when the Department of Transportation announced the creation of a truck bypass.

News of new activity in former industrial sites around the neighborhood was one of the more positive developments. In November, the city and KeySpan Energy finalized a deal to turn the company’s former gas tank site on Grand Avenue in Maspeth into a new city park after years of lobbying by neighborhood residents and a cleanup of environmental contamination on the property. The Parks Department is now drawing up plans for the 6-1/2 acre property.

In addition, 2005 saw the return of businesses to a former industrial site that was once Maspeth’s most contaminated property.

Developers and local officials cut the ribbon in November at a new restaurant supply warehouse near the corner of 43rd Street and 56th Road on the former Phelps Dodge site.

Wholesale grocer and food service supplier Jetro Cash and Carry is expected to employ about 100 people in the 70,000-square-foot warehouse at the site. This is the first new building to go up on the 28-acre property.

The land, formerly the site of a copper smelting and pesticide plant, was listed as a Class 2 Superfund site, which presents a “significant threat to the public health and environment.” It was inactive until Sagres Partners purchased the land in 2001.

Progress was also made in the cleanup of Newtown Creek, which has been called New York City’s most polluted waterway. Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group who is suing several oil companies over their role in the creek’s contamination, also sued Maspeth Concrete Loading for dumping concrete, which changes the pH balance of water and kills fish.

In addition, Empire Transit Mix, a concrete manufacturer based in Brooklyn, pleaded guilty in federal court in May to illegally dumping concrete slurry into the creek.

Other major criminal cases included the end of a multi-million dollar gambling ring that was being run out of bars in Maspeth and Ridgewood. Seventeen members of the Genovese and Gambino crime families were charged with being a part of the ring, which allegedly brought in $12.5 million in illegal bets through the bars and a number of web sites.

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