Events of 2009 have put western Queens in the spotlight.
State Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona) hit city and state headlines repeatedly, both for assaulting his girlfriend, and for helping instigate a coup that left the state Legislature gridlocked for a month.
On the development end, projects now in the works should put Queens at the forefront of affordable housing efforts in the city — and dramatically change the appearance of the East River shoreline. The new residential towers at Queens West are soon to gain skyscraper cousins at the southern tip of Long Island City, and along the Astoria waterfront, warehouses are also expected to give way to apartment buildings.
Politically, the Democratic primaries drew attention to western Queens, leaving a seasoned incumbent unseated, a party favorite defeated and the City Council’s gay contingency doubled.
Here’s a look at those events and others that have shaped the year.
2009 began as a transportation nightmare for residents and businesses that depend on the 7 line. In the first week of January, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that weekend service would be suspended at several Long Island City stops due to track and signal repairs, leaving the area’s most direct connection to Manhattan severed.
Coupled with the closure of the Borden Avenue Bridge, the subway cuts left L.I.C. businesses smarting as customers dried up.
In mid-January, less than a month after assaulting his girlfriend, Hiram Monserrate was sworn in as a state senator. After a special elelction in February, his vacated City Council seat went to his former chief of staff, Julissa Ferreras.
February opened with a massive raid on the Queensbridge Houses in Astoria. Sweeping through 14 apartments, police discovered a cache of weapons and significant quantities of cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Fifty-nine people were arrested.
Around the same time, film studios in Queens began fearing for their livelihood, after the state announced plans to end a tax credit program for production companies. The New York State Film Production Credit, which allowed for a 30 percent tax break on shooting costs in the state, was largely credited with fueling the city’s production boom. Studios voiced concerns that its loss would drive filmmakers out of the Big Apple.
In late February, just after President Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation’s first black president, Ferreras bested three rivals to become the first Latina elected to borough-wide office in Queens.
Ferreras took her seat in City Council just over a week before Monserrate was indicted on six assault charges. The Queens district attorney accused him of slashing his girlfriend, Karla Giraldo, with a broken drinking glass during a late-night fight in December 2008. Monserrate pleaded not guilty on all charges.
To add more violence to the news, an East Elmhurst teenager, pictured with knives on various social networking websites, was arrested for stabbing a radio journalist to death in Brooklyn.
Briefly drawing attention away from alleged criminal activity, Monserrate took time in mid-March to criticize Con Edison after a manhole cover exploded in Jackson Heights, sending a plume of flames two stories high into the air. In just two and a half months, Queens had exprienced 13 similar incidents linked to the power company.
As if manhole flares weren’t enough to worry residents, an exterior staircase on a L.I.C. building collapsed in early April, sending a woman to the hospital and putting the building off limits to the 100 artists who rented studios there. The iconic 5 Pointz building, known for the colorful graffiti adorning its facade, was placed under a vacate order. After months of repairs, the Department of Buildings remained unconvinced that the building was up to par, and this fall the owner decided to shutter the artists’ studios permanently.
On the political end, April marked the beginning of the campaign season for City Council races. Candidates collected donations, laid out their platforms at forums and behaved so civilly to one another that it seemed as if races in western Queens might be spared from the usual levels of mudslinging. (The cordiality didn’t last).
Violence re-entered the headlines on April 27, when an NYPD criminologist was found dead in her Sunnyside apartment with a knife stuck in her neck. Her ex-boyfriend was charged with her murder.
May was marked by initiatives aimed at preserving quality of life in western Queens.
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) and the city’s Planning Committee unveiled a proposal to rezone much of Astoria, in hopes of curbing “out-of-character” development, especially in residential areas.
Community Board 2 complained vigorously of plans to construct a strip club in L.I.C. and appealed to the State Liquor Authority to bar the owner from serving alcohol. The owner said he was abandoning plans for a gentleman’s establishment, though he later put the proposal back on the table.
In an attempt to keep buildings and subways looking nice, the City Council passed a law making it harder to buy etching acid, a substance often used by graffiti artists to mark glass surfaces.
May was the only month in 2009 in which Monserrate did not appear prominently in the news.
Tax credits for films resurfaced in June, with the state proposing to keep financial incentives for production companies in place, but at reduced rates and with strict caps. Queens studios said the cuts, while less objectionable than total elimination of the credits, would still hurt the city’s film industry.
By the second week of June, Monserrate hit the headlines again — this time for teaming with a fellow lawmaker to overthrow the Democratic leadership in the state senate. He said the move to caucus with Republicans was meant to spur reforms in the upper body and bring important legislation to the floor, but Democrats blasted the senator for turning tail. Soon after, Monserrate switched sides again.
With Republicans and Democrats evenly split, the Senate blundered through a month-long stalemate, during which lawmakers locked each other out of the Senate chamber, blocked colleagues’ paths in sly attempts to reach quorum — and passed no legislation. Several laws with sunset provisions — such as the one giving Mayor Mike Bloomberg control over the city’s schools — expired.
While the state Legislature was busy getting nothing done, a private developer revealed plans to build seven skyscrapers in Astoria. The proposed development, slated for an industrial peninsula called Hallet’s Point, would include 2,500 apartments, along with a supermarket, community center and waterfront esplanade connecting parks to the north and south. The project, which requires a zoning variance to move forward, is set to go before Community Board 1 for a vote in January 2010.
Soon after the Hallet’s Point development plan was unveiled, the city announced it had purchased 30 acres of property at the southern tip of Long Island City and would be constructing a massive residential complex. The Hunter’s Point South project, which will include 5,000 apartments, a new school, a variety of shops and an 11-acre waterfront park, is billed as the city’s largest middle-income housing development since the 1970s. Three thousand units are being set aside as affordable housing.
As the city planned new apartments, talk in Community Education Council 30 centered around ways to ease classroom overcrowding. The Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights asked for permission to open a high school, which would accommodate 500 new students.
August brought the announcement of several infrastructure projects in western Queens. The city unveiled plans to remake Queens Plaza, the jumble of roadways at the entrance to the Queensboro Bridge. The project includes redirecting roads to make traffic flow more logically, as well as creating park space and a bike lane.
The same week as the Queens Plaza project broke ground, Con Ed announced it was launching a pilot “smart grid” in western Queens, which would incorporate information and communication technology into the electric system so that customers — and the utility — could track how much power they use at any given time. The pilot would put 1,500 “smart meters” into homes and businesses, which the utility said would help customers save money and enable the power company to deliver just the right amount of juice to avoid falling short or wasting energy.
A few weeks later, manholes in Sunnyside flared (again) and power went out after Con Ed cables overheated.
In the weeks leading up to the Democratic primary, City Council races became ugly. David Rosasco, running for the District 26 seat, which Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) was vacating, was knocked off the ballot after Deirdre Feerick, who had the endorsement of the Democratic Party, claimed he didn’t have enough signatures from constituents to run. Rosasco and others accused Feerick of violating campaign funding rules by accepting free legal assistance and not reporting it to the Campaign Finance Board as an in-kind donation.
In that race and others, council hopefuls running on the Working Families Party ticket came under scrutiny because of the WFP’s connection to a consulting service several candidates were paying to run their campaigns.
In District 19, Ferreras (who was up for re-election after just a few months in office) and Eduardo Giraldo (who had challenged her the first time around as well) duked it out with dueling accusations. Giraldo accused Ferreras of being Monserrate’s crony. Ferreras supporters accused Giraldo of racism after he called on the community to donate blood, saying Latino blood was better for Latinos than black blood. He apologized, though even the New York Blood Center does seek racially specific donations at times.
District 25 had easily twice as many candidate forums as the other districts in western Queens, some of which resulted in bitter accusations. Incumbent Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) accused rival Danny Dromm of being a liar, and everyone else accused Sears of being ineffective and of pandering to real estate interests.
When the primaries rolled around, Dromm defeated Sears, becoming one of only four candidates citywide to unseat an incumbent. Jimmy Van Bramer bested Feerick despite her support from the Democratic Party. And — unsurprisingly — Ferreras retained her seat.
Nosing his way into the headlines yet again, Monserrate surprised everyone by waiving his right to a trial by jury, putting his fate in the hands of a single judge, William Erlbaum.
Monserrate’s trial began Sept. 24, with Assistant District Attorney Scott Kessler alleging that the defendant, in a jealous rage, attacked Giraldo with a broken glass. Monserrate’s attorney, Joe Tacopina, argued that Giraldo’s injuries were the result of an accident. Both sides referred to footage from a surveillance camera, which showed Monserrate yanking Giraldo through the lobby of his apartment building, to bolster their arguments. Giraldo said her injuries were accidental, though hospital staff who treated her said she told them she was attacked.
Monserrate was found guilty of a misdemeanor — but not a felony — on Oct. 15. The state Senate soon formed a committee to consider possible punitive action against him.
In L.I.C., the Queens West development, which is scheduled to gain four more highrises, experienced a setback when the state Department of Environmental Conservation discovered that its cleanup of contaminated soil hadn’t gone far enough. More than 80,000 tons of tainted earth had been excavated, and state officials thought the area was clean, but routine testing over the summer revealed additional contamination. So the DEC started round two of excavations.
In late October, a young Republican named Angelo Maragos reminded voters that not all elections in Queens are decided during the Democratic primaries. Running against Van Bramer for City Council, Maragos struck at his opponent with a series of negative ads, and the mudslinging began again on both sides.
Meanwhile, in District 22, Lynne Serpe put the Green Party in the spotlight, gathering $100,000 for her campaign against incumbent Vallone, nearly matching his war chest.
The general election brought no surprises: Vallone beat Serpe, Van Bramer beat Maragos and Dromm beat his Republican challenger, Mujib Rahman, leaving western Queens solidly Democratic.
On the state level, the Democratic Party turned against Monserrate and threw its support behind Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights), who plans to challenge the embattled senator next year. Peralta lost no time issuing forceful statements about the horrors of domestic violence.
Just after the election, Queens hosted its seventh anual international film festival in Astoria. Emerging filmmakers from around the world welcomed the exposure — but, as the Chronicle discovered, the woman running the festival is an alleged scam artist. Numerous individuals claim Marie Castaldo, the festival’s mastermind, owes them thousands of dollars for services they rendered — and some say she swindled them out of big bucks for film distribution deals that turned out to be phony.
Late in November, a brutal murder rocked Corona.Edna Herrarte and her 14-year-old son, Daniel, were discovered in their apartment Nov. 20 with their throats slit. The pair were stuffed into a closet and wrapped in plastic. The woman’s husband, Otto Herrarte, is the primary suspect and said he has an alternate personality who is responsible for killing his wife and son.
Lest 2009 have another month without mention of Monserrate, the freshman senator was sentenced to probation — but not jail — on Dec. 4. Using his most flowery language — including a reference to “the green-eyed monster of jealousy” — Erlbaum gave Monserrate three years of supervised probation, a $1,000 fine and 250 hours of community service, and said the defendant must also undergo a therapeutic counseling program. Monserrate is still not allowed to see Giraldo. The special Senate committee met for the last time this week to mull his legislative fate.
Further ruffling the feathers of some of his constituents, Monserrate voted against a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New York. Rallying in Jackson Heights and Corona in the week following the vote, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community criticized the senator’s move and threw their support behind Peralta.