Borough President Helen Marshall presented her vision for Queens’ future on Tuesday, vowing to build new homes and schools, redevelop parks and libraries and improve the local economy through an increased focus on tourism and commercial development.
Taking center stage at Queens College’s Colden Center for her second State of the Borough address, Marshall unveiled several broad development initiatives; the centerpiece being a long-delayed plan to build a 70,000-square-foot swimming pool and ice skating rink complex at Flushing Meadows Park.
With the foundation for the building already in the ground, construction on the project stopped abruptly two years ago when building estimates skyrocketed from nearly $33 million to approximately $44 million.
However, with the city’s economy taking steps toward improving, Marshall said that she was able to allocate an additional $4 million for the project. Mayor Bloomberg, who sat in the second row for the address with the project’s original advocate, former Borough President Claire Shulman, will contribute an additional $5 million. The remaining $2 million outstanding was trimmed, officials said, through tweaking the design plan.
“A spectacular building will serve the recreational needs of the entire borough in this state-of-the-art pool and ice rink complex,” Marshall said. “It will be a showpiece in the park, and no doubt, a center of international activities during the 2012 Olympics.”
The design phase of the complex will now be completed by the end of 2004, with construction pushed back to the summer of 2007.
The redevelopment of Flushing was another central component of the borough president’s speech.
She called on Governor Pataki to create a Development Authority to produce a new generation of development at Willets Point. The 55-acre area, currently home to dozens of junkyards and second-hand auto parts distributors, would be converted into a mixed-use district of commercial businesses, hotels and a public park. “Willets Point is a vast, underused area that has true development potential,” Marshall said.
The borough president also announced that plans would be unveiled in the coming weeks for the development of 17 acres of land formerly occupied by Flushing Airport.
Other highlighted expansion plans include the refurbishing of the Hall of Science, new offices, apartments and a senior center for the RKO Keith’s Theatre and a new atrium and reception center for the Queens Theatre in the Park.
The borough president said that increasing Queens tourism is one of the key components to her “Marshall Plan” for Queens. In addition to widely heralded events such as the U.S. Open, Queens recently played host to the statewide NAACP convention and members of the National American Bus Association.
“It is obvious that Queens needs its own convention facility to capture a larger share of visitor dollars and to provide for the needs of our existing businesses as well,” she said.
Marshall also announced plans to place a retired “Redbird” subway car outside Borough Hall, which will be utilized as the new Queens Tourism Information Center.
With the AirTrain rail system finally up and running, Marshall said she is working to improve the aesthetics of the Jamaica station, enhancing it with an artistic theme which would highlight Queens’ rich jazz heritage.
Elsewhere in Jamaica, she announced that the Van Wyck corridor at Sutphin Boulevard and Archer Avenue would be upgraded with additional landscaping and greenstreets.
Turning her attention to aviation, Marshall asked to be appointed to an oversight board which will determine how best to allocate $50 million, which has been earmarked for those communities impacted by the borough’s two airports.
However, while rail and air travel have shown some signs of economic growth, bus service has lagged behind. Still reeling from the strike of 2002 and with an MTA takeover far from finalized, Marshall said the city needs to act quickly to provide better bus service for Queens’ 2.2 million residents.
“We do not have enough buses, and many that we have need to be repaired, better maintained and put back on the road,” she said. “The bottom line is that the bus riding citizens of Queens need and deserve new buses.”
School construction remains the borough’s most daunting long-term task. Marshall noted that while 10 new schools opened in Queens last year, the borough remains more than 20,000 seats short. The classroom crunch, she said, was obvious during a recent visit to Queens Vocational High School in Long Island City, where students have neither a gym nor a lunchroom.
“A new addition is being built as we speak,” she said, “but there are thousands of other students waiting with no relief in site. Until this shortage of seats and adequate facilities is rectified, we are doing a great disservice to the children of our borough and our future.”
While finding locations to build new schools has long been a hurdle for Queens legislators, housing opportunities have been far more ample.
Marshall touted the completion by the New York City Partnership of 38 two-family homes in Jamaica, noting that the ground will soon be broken for 56 more homes.
In addition, 98 assisted living housing units for seniors will soon be built on the site of the Variety Boys and Girls Club in Astoria, while hundreds more residences will soon be built on Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills, at Queens West in Long Island City and on the grounds of the former St. Anthony’s Hospital in Woodhaven.
However, with residential construction comes the threat of overdevelopment. Marshall said over the past year, North Corona and Holliswood have been downzoned, protecting them from construction out of context with the neighborhood.
Her office is now looking at other neighborhoods, such as Kew Gardens, Richmond Hill, Bayside, Rosedale, Maspeth, Bellerose and Woodside for future downzoning.
Among the borough’s highest accomplishments over the past 12 months, Marshall noted, was leading the city in overall crime reduction. While the figures were primarily encouraging, she added that trouble spots remain, in particular, the 103rd Precinct which had the city’s highest murder rate.
Marshall also took time to honor three Queens servicemen, NYPD officer Rodney Andrews and firefighters James O’Shea and Thomas Brick, who were killed last year on active duty.
And, while the tone of the address was positive, the borough president reserved her harshest language for Astoria Energy, which was granted preliminary approval to subsidize the cost of a proposed power plant using Liberty Bonds. “It is outrageous that these monies, earmarked to help our city after 9-11, can be diverted in this way.”
In the morning’s most heartwarming moment, Marshall welcomed to the stage David Sookhoo, a five-year-old Jamaica boy stricken with leukemia.
Advised of David’s condition, John Belzer, founder of “Songs of Love,” a Kew Gardens-based organization which writes songs for hospitalized children, penned a special melody about the bright-eyed child. Then, with cameras taping for an upcoming segment on “60 Minutes,” the crowd of several hundred joined a stirring sing-along.
While the dozens of elected officials in attendance were buzzing about projects for their districts following the speech, it was the announcement about the swimming pool and ice rink which drew the most chatter.
“It seems to be on the fast track to becoming a reality and schools like Archbishop Molloy could use it for swimming,” said Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. “I believe one shot in the arm for Flushing Meadows is a shot in the arm for the borough as a whole.”
Bloomberg, who took the stage at the end of the ceremony and was presented with a bright orange bathing suit for use in the new Olympic-size pool, said funding projects in Queens are a wise investment.
“This is the place where people want to live,” Bloomberg said. “And, companies want to come here because this is where they’ll be successful.”