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Queens Chronicle

Year 2009 in northern Queens

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Posted: Thursday, December 31, 2009 12:00 am

Ground zero for the swine flu and surprise wins by Republicans dominated the headlines in northern Queens in 2009.

A trip to Mexico during spring break in April by a group of students from St. Francis Prep in Fresh Meadows had serious consequences. Many of the students contracted swine flu, which quickly spread throughout the school, city and country. Eventually it was labeled a pandemic, killing thousands of people around the world.

In the fall, Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced free swine flu inoculations for public and parochial school students and free clinics for older students and adults vulnerable to the disease.

In politics, Republicans cheered the success of candidates Peter Koo of Flushing and Dan Halloran of Whitestone for taking two Democratic seats in the City Council races. Koo will represent the 20th District, a perennial Democratic stronghold, while Halloran will represent the 19th District.

JANUARY

January started out with news of a new concessionaire at the popular Caffe on the Green restaurant on the Clearview Golf Course grounds in Bayside, and the closing of a long-established animal shelter in Flushing, Animal Haven.

Friendship Restaurant Group will run the upscale continental restaurant to be known as Valentino’s on the Green. The original concessionaire, Merissa Restaurant Corp., operated by Joe Franco, vacated the property on Jan. 31. Friendship Restaurant Group was not allowed to open until the contract with Parks was executed and the Comptroller’s Office registered it. Other delays in remodeling and permits have kept the restaurant closed and it is not expected to open until spring.

Animal Haven, a no-kill shelter on Prince Street in downtown Flushing, closed its doors after 41 years in the community to focus on its Soho location in Manhattan.

FEBRUARY

The new ice rink in Flushing Meadows Park opened in February, adjacent to the swimming pool. The rink meets National Hockey League standards and features a snack bar and party room. The old World’s Fair Rink, located on one side of the Queens Museum of Art, will be used for museum expansion.

The Fire Department sparked controversy in February when it announced that FDNY, due to budget cuts, would no longer man the security gate at Fort Totten in Bayside. Neighbors feared it would lead to crime and other security problems at the former Army base. Following demonstrations and intervention by area elected officials, it was announced in June that the FDNY would provide a temporary security detail using light-duty firefighters until July 1, when private security was hired.

MARCH

In March, Michael Trantel, 42, of Whitestone admitted he set the Lollipops Diner on fire the previous November after breaking in to steal cigarettes. The blaze destroyed the eatery and damaged several other businesses in the Whitestone Shopping Center. Trantel is now serving a seven- to 14-year prison term. The diner reopened five months after the fire.

APRIL

April was a busy month, led off by the opening of the Mets’ new home, Citi Field. The team lost its home opener and went on to have a poor season, but the new stadium was popular with fans, especially its variety of food stands, including the Shake Shack.

The city agreed at the end of April to turn eight acres of land at the defunct Flushing Airport into public parkland. In exchange, Community Board 7 voted unanimously in favor of moving five Willets Points businesses to the College Point Corporate Park. The old 40-acre airport, which closed in 1982, is the last undeveloped property in the corporate park.

MAY

The effects of the swine flu in northern Queens became apparent when the city started to close down public schools because of the large number of cases in May. The swine flu, unlike seasonal flu, hits children harder than adults.

Assistant Principal Mitchell Weiner of I.S. 238 in Hollis was one of its victims. He died on May 17. Several public and private parochial schools were closed temporarily as the swine flu spread.

JUNE

Four teens arrested for strangling a Woodhaven man on June 6 in Flushing implicated each other following their arrest three days after the murder. David Kao, 49, was sitting in his car when the teens allegedly overpowered him in a robbery attempt. They dumped his body a short distance away and stole Kao’s money and car.

A 17-year-old Fresh Meadows youth was charged in August with arson in the June 25 fire that destroyed 38 golf carts and part of the clubhouse at the Kissena Park Golf Course. Damage was estimated at $407,000. Christopher Casella, 17, of 58th Avenue, was charged with 39 counts of third-degree arson and one count of criminal mischief. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Casella was spotted on surveillance tape with two others, climbing over a fenced-in parking area where the golf carts were parked and throwing a liquid on them.

Also in June, C. B. 7 members agreed to site the new Police Academy in the College Point Corporate Park only if the NYPD commissioner agreed to enforce the parking regulations there. Other concessions were OK’d by the city and on Dec. 16, Mayor Mike Bloomberg led a groundbreaking ceremony at the site, which was a former impound lot. The first phase to be built on the 30-acre plot will cost $750 million and is expected to be completed in three years.

JULY

The big news in July was where Bayside Assemblywoman Ann Carrozza actually lives. The Daily News broke the story that Carrozza, a Democrat who has represented the 26th Assembly District since 1997, has been living on Long Island’s Gold Coast in a $1.8 million home in Glen Head since February.

In an interview with the Queens Chronicle, Carrozza said it was only a temporary measure until tenants moved from one of her properties and promised to be back by August, which she was. An attorney herself, Carrozza checked with two election law lawyers, who told her residency is based on the “subjective intention” of returning to the district within a fair amount of time.

But the actions did not sit well with Republicans and Carrozza admitted she may not run for re-election next year.

A brightly clad elephant plied Bowne Street in July as part of a ceremony to reconsecrate the Hindu Temple Society of America’s Ganesh Temple in Flushing. A $5 million expansion project is nearly complete. More than 5,000 attended the culminating program with the elephant.

A fire on the Throgs Neck Bridge on July 10 caused traffic nightmares, forcing the MTA Bridges and Tunnels to close the northbound lane to trucks and to eliminate access to the bridge from the Cross Island Parkway on-ramp. Firefighters say the cause of the blaze was a worker’s blow torch that ignited construction material. E.E. Cruz & Co., which was awarded the $96.7 million contract for work on the Queens side, will be held responsible for the fire and costs incurred. Service on the bridge was fully restored for motorists by Aug. 10.

The legendary Paul McCartney ended the month of July with three sold-out concerts at Citi Field. As a Beatle, he and the other members performed the first concert at Shea Stadium 44 years ago.

AUGUST

In August, the Glen Oaks Library closed to make way for a new, more efficient building. The branch, at 256-04 Union Turnpike, was demolished to be replaced by a $13.5 million building scheduled for completion in two years. Queens Library spokeswoman Joanne King said space for a temporary branch has been leased at 255-01 Union Turnpike, across the street.

August was the 10th anniversary of the West Nile virus in the United States, where its epicenter was College Point. The virus, spread by mosquitoes, first killed hundreds of birds before attacking humans. In 1999 there were 47 cases in the city and four fatalities, most of them from Queens. Since then, the virus has spread across the country and New York City has been the leader in preventing the spread of the disease by controlling mosquitoes.

For college students, the end of August means the return to school, and in Queens two dorms opened on the respective campuses. Queens College opened its first dorm, The Summit, followed by St. John’s University’s off-campus six-story facility in a residential neighborhood.

Neighbors of Queens College feared additional parking problems with dorm students parking in the area, but the CUNY school put in almost 200 new slots on campus. Jamaica Estates residents had opposed the St. John’s 485-bed dorm from the onset but since it complied with zoning regulations, there was nothing they could do. They objected to such a large building looming over their homes and that their quality of life would be affected by so many young people living in the neighborhood.

SEPTEMBER

September saw lively campaigns in City Council races for Districts 19 and 20. Yen Chou, an educator, won the Democratic primary in the 20th. Kevin Kim beat out his Democratic opponents in District 19. Both Chou and Kim were considered longshots, but the large field in both races is believed to have helped them.

Flushing residents were shocked to learn in September that federal authorities had raided three apartment buildings in the area that had been visited by a suspected al-Qaida operative. Najibullah Zazi, 24, who moved from Flushing to Denver, Colo. made a trip to his old neighborhood in what is alleged to be a terrorist plot to detonate explosives in backpacks at mass transit areas and sports venues around the city.

Zazi was arrested in Colorado and flown to New York where he was arraigned and is being held. Ahmad Wais Afzali, an imam living in Flushing, was arrested for lying to authorities about alerting Zazi to the investigation. He was released on bond and is being electronically monitored.

Also in September, the state Board for Historic Preservation voted to designate the iconic New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows Park as a landmark. It is traditional for the state to recommend its landmarked sites to the federal government, which automatically grants the designation. However, state and federal landmarking do not provide protection for such structures.

It does make it easier for entities — in this case the city — to apply for state and federal grants. The New York State Pavilion, built for the 1964 World’s Fair, has been deteriorating and the Parks Department has no definite plans for its future.

Nearby to the pavilion, the New York Hall of Science is undergoing a $25 million renovation to its original building from the 1964 World’s Fair. Work is expected to be completed in 2014, in time for the structure’s 50th anniversary. The project will include stabilizing and repairing the exterior, renovating and modernizing the interior and repaving and improving the terrace.

The circa-1661 Bowne House in Flushing officially became part of the city’s Historic House Trust in September. The move will enable the society to keep running the historic house and be responsible for its contents, but the HHT, under the Parks Department, will oversee the structure.

Plans call for restoration work to begin next year on the house and expansion of the garage into a visitors center. Officials hope the buildings can be opened in 2012. Restoring the wood-shingled house will include a new roof, timber framing, siding and painting at a cost of $2.3 million. The visitors center will be used for programs, staff offices and storage. The price tag for that is $1.7 million.

OCTOBER

The 7,000-square-foot, $5 million Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center opened in October on the campus of Queensborough Community College in Bayside. It was built as an addition to the Administration Building and uses some of its space as well. The new facility replaces cramped basement quarters in the college’s library where the center was located for more than 25 years.

A hate crime against a gay College Point man in October caused outrage throughout the borough. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is gay, led a contingent of speakers at a press conference outside New York Hospital Queens in Flushing where Jack Price, 49, was recovering from the brutal beating carried out by two men on Oct. 9. Price, who was able to identify his attackers before being put in an induced coma, has since recovered.

His alleged attackers, Daniel Rodriguez and Daniel Aleman, have been arrested and face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

The state Department of Transportation announced in October that the six-year Whitestone Expressway project will be completed by December. The $177 million undertaking began in 2003. It was supposed to have been finished in 2005, but problems arose due to a lack of American-made steel, which has been in short supply.

The goal of the project is to eliminate unsafe driving conditions caused by the current weaving pattern on the expressway and to replace the outdated and heavily used Bascule Bridge over the Flushing River, which was built in 1936. One of the completed aspects is the addition of an exit ramp at Linden Place. In addition, two U-turns were added at Linden Place and College Point Boulevard. As promised, the roadway work was completed at the beginning of December.

NOVEMBER

Republicans were thrilled with the November City Council elections in Districts 19 and 20. Koo, a Flushing pharmacist and philanthropist, won by 5 percent of the vote, with the help of several Democratic leaders. Halloran, also won by about 5 percent of the vote, besting Kim, who had worked for Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-Queens, Nassau) before running for office. It was considered one of the dirtiest and most contentious campaigns in recent memory.

Kim’s promoters started the smear campaign by publicizing the fact that Halloran heads a pagan religion, a revelation that was printed by a weekly newspaper with ties to Kim’s campaign consultants. After the piece appeared, Halloran acknowledged he belongs to a pagan group, but said religion has no place in a political campaign and that the story was printed in a biased way. In it, Halloran is described as the first atheling, or king of Normandy, in a branch of the Theod faith, a pre-Christian heathen religion.

Both sides traded accusations. Kim was described as not having voted for almost 10 years and just moving into the district.

Work began in November to remodel the Meadow Lake Boathouse at Flushing Meadows Park. It is one of a few relics left from the 1939 World’s Fair. The $6 million project is expected to take 18 months to complete and includes adding a bathroom, winterizing part of the building and installing a new dock.

Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis) announced in November he had decided to run for his brother Mark’s Assembly seat. Mark Weprin ran for David’s City Council seat earlier in the month and won. David Weprin did not seek re-election but instead ran unsuccessfully for city comptroller in the Democratic primary.

Some who oppose the switch are calling the brothers’ decision cynical and an attempt to continue the Weprin political dynasty. The Weprins’ father, Saul, served as Assembly speaker until his death in 1994. The governor is expected to call a special election to complete Mark Weprin’s one-year term in February or March.

DECEMBER

Controversy over a LED sign with brightly lit moving letters outside Bayside High School continued in December. It was erected in the fall and neighbors say it’s a distraction. The principal turned off the sign at night but Community Board 11 is looking into its legality. A spokesperson for the Department of Buildings said such signs are illegal in residential neighborhoods.

It was announced in December that Alley Pond Environmental Center in Douglaston is expanding. The city will install six modular units adjacent to the current building at a cost of $7 million. The original structure will be gutted and redesigned. Work is expected to begin next August and take a year to complete.

The distinction of Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows as being the most popular and overcrowded high school in the city was highlighted by the Queens Chronicle in December. The current enrollment of 4,500 is crammed into a building that was constructed for 1,800 to 2,000 students, according to Principal Musa Ali Shama, who has headed the school for a year. But with a dedicated staff and engaged students, Shama says the school is flourishing.

Although the Department of Education refuses to cap high school enrollment, Shama is working with the agency to bring the enrollment down at Lewis for the next couple of years to a more manageable 3,700 to 4,000 students.

Welcome to the discussion.