2013: Change Comes To Queens

Term Limited Honorees

The Queens Tribune honored four term-limited Queens officials in November, thanking (from left) Councilman Leroy Comrie, Borough President Helen Marshall and Councilmen James Gennaro and Peter Vallone Jr. for their years of service. Photo by Ira Cohen

COMPILED BY STEVEN J. FERRARI

New Mayor, BP Elected

 Former Councilwoman Melinda Katz was victorious in her bid to become the new Queens Borough President, surviving a contentious primary. Photo by Ira Cohen


Former Councilwoman Melinda Katz was victorious in her bid to become the new Queens Borough President, surviving a contentious primary. Photo by Ira Cohen

Much of 2013 was spent focusing on the race for New York City Mayor, with Michael Bloomberg’s time as Mayor ending after three terms at the helm.

Very few people expected Bill de Blasio to emerge victorious when his campaign kicked off in earnest last year. The Public Advocate spent much of the year trailing fellow Democrats Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner and former Comptroller Bill Thompson, all hoping to win the September primary.

Backlashes against Weiner and Quinn helped de Blasio surge in the polls as the primary approached, and the future Mayor avoided a run-off with Thompson by snapping up more than 40 percent of the vote. Thompson held firm at first, declaring himself still in contention for more than a week before conceding.

On the Republican side, former MTA head Joe Lhota had a much easier time, establishing a commanding lead early over his closest challenger, businessman John Catsimatidis, and taking the primary.

The easy win did not translate to votes in November, however, as de Blasio was considered the favorite over his Republican challenger throughout the race. On Nov. 5, de Blasio and his family celebrated a decisive win.

In Queens, the race for Borough President was a contentious one, with a Democratic primary that frequently went negative.

A number of Democrats threw their hats into the ring for the position, including City Councilmen Peter Vallone Jr. and Leroy Comrie, State Senators Jose Peralta and Tony Avella and former Councilwoman Melinda Katz. In the end, only Katz and Vallone remained campaigning, although Avella dropped out too late to have his name taken off the ballot.

The majority of Queens elected officials backed Katz, who spent a good chunk of her campaign attacking Vallone for what she called his more conservative tendencies. The strategy resonated with voters, a majority of whom backed Katz in September. She then went on to a decisive victory in November against Republican Tony Arcabascio, who was unopposed in the September primary.

Long-Time Leaders Leave

After 12 years in office, Borough President Helen Marshall and Queens City Councilmen Leroy Comrie, James Gennaro and Peter Vallone Jr. were required to step down due to term limits.

Marshall, who served in the City Council and the State Assembly before she occupied Borough Hall in 2002, said in an interview with the Queens Tribune in November that she was looking forward to taking a break after decades of public service. One of her last major acts as Borough President was to introduce the Forum at Borough Hall, an area that can be used for meetings and other events at the Kew Gardens building.

Gennaro and Vallone continued to push through legislation in the City Council as their days in the legislative body came to an end. Gennaro was instrumental in the passage of a bill raising the legal smoking age in the City to 21, along with restrictions on e-cigarettes. Vallone worked on a bill that would punish animal abusers, creating a registry for those charged with the crime. Neither Vallone nor Gennaro have announced their plans for life after the City Council.

Comrie, on the other hand, already has a new job lined up. He will join Katz’s administration as her deputy borough president.

Gennaro has been replaced by former Assemblyman Rory Lancman; Comrie’s district will be represented by union leader I. Daneek Miller; Vallone’s district in Astoria went to former Gennaro staffer Costa Constantinides.

Another local leader stepping down from his position was Comptroller John Liu, who chose to run for Mayor over seeking another term. His beleaguered campaign included the arrest of two campaign aides and being denied matching funds from the Campaign Finance Board because of the appearance of impropriety.

He told the Tribune last month that he is still contemplating his options for the future. Liu was replaced by former Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

Others Face Charges

One of the more shocking incidents of 2013 came when State Sen. Malcolm Smith and Councilman Dan Halloran were brought up on fraud charges, linked to Smith’s attempt to get on the ballot for Mayor as a Republican.

Dan Halloran (left) and State Sen. Malcolm Smith were arrested in April on fraud charges.

Dan Halloran (left) and State Sen. Malcolm Smith were arrested in April on fraud charges. Photos by Ira Cohen

The unlikely pair were arrested on April 2, along with four others, including Queens GOP vice chairman Vincent Tabone, Bronx Republican chair Jay Savino, Spring Valley Mayor Noramie Jasmin and her deputy, Joseph Desmaret. The FBI investigation alleged that Smith and Halloran were attempting to bribe officials to allow Smith to appear on the ballot as a Republican.

Smith and Halloran are still waiting for a court date where, if convicted, they would face up to 45 years in prison for the alleged offenses. Both denied any wrong-doing, and neither man opted to step down from their elected office, although Halloran chose not to run for re-election and was not a prominent presence after the arrest.

Halloran’s decision not to seek another term set off another contentious election cycle in his Council District, with attorney Paul Vallone emerging over several other Democratic opponents in the September primary.

Vallone came under fire from a united front of his opponents, who complained of misleading mailings from Jobs For New York, a PAC supporting Vallone. The protests from his opponents were not enough, however, and Vallone went on to face – and defeat – Republican Dennis Saffran in November to take Halloran’s seat.

Smith continues to serve as a State Senator, although he was stripped of any power within the legislative body, and was removed from the Independent Democratic Conference.

Queens Teen Named Spelling Champ

 Arvind Mahankali, a Bayside student, won the National Spelling Bee.


Arvind Mahankali, a Bayside student, won the National Spelling Bee.

A Bayside Hills teen made knaidels a little more popular in Queens, spelling the word to win the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

Arvind Mahankali, 13, a student at Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School, spent his summer vacation being honored by elected officials and local leaders after he brought home the top prize in the annual spelling competition.
In recognition of his victory, Ben’s Best Deli in Rego Park honored Arvind by placing the “Arvind Knaidel” on its menu.

Continued Recovery From sueprstorm Sandy

Parts of Queens devastated by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 spent the year waiting for help to arrive. And while some parts of the Borough affected by the storm were able to get back on their feet in the months after the storm, others have struggled to put the pieces back together.

Homeowners and business owners in Southern Queens – especially portions of Howard Beach and the Rockaways – were still waiting for federal recovery funds to pay for repairs a year after the storm hit the area. Some leaders described the situation they were in as “uncertain,” while elected officials pushed for measures to ensure that a future storm does not cause as much damage as Sandy.

Despite the economic setbacks caused by Superstorm Sandy, a recent report from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli praised how strongly Queens recovered from both the storm and the economic recession that preceded it.

DiNapoli said in a Dec. 13 stop to Silvercup Studios in Long Island City that employment in Queens is at a record level, with a fast-growing population that has a consistently-low unemployment rate.

Soccer Off Sides, USTA Aces upgrades

One of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s preferred legacy projects, a proposed Major League Soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, came under heavy criticism from civic groups who wanted the park to remain free from that kind of major development.

Queens residents protested a proposed soccer stadium for Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Queens residents protested a proposed soccer stadium for Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

While the soccer organization touted the jobs that the stadium would bring to Queens, others countered with arguments about loss of parkland, congestion from cars looking to get to games and the bad precedent it would set for future loss of land. An even greater uproar was caused with the announcement that the City would lease the parkland to a billionaire for just $1 per year.

Warring factions put up signs in English and Spanish in the surrounding communities – most notably Corona, Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst – alternately calling to “Bring MLS To Queens” and to “Protect Our Parkland.”

MLS announced that the new team they hoped to bring to the City would be named the New York City Football Club, and would be a joint operation with the New York Yankees. As the year drew to a close, the talk about a soccer stadium in Queens shifted to the Yankees’ home borough in the Bronx, although MLS continued to keep its plans close to the vest, as no official plans have been announced.

Another proposal for development in the park was met with final approval this year.

The United States Tennis Association’s proposal for expansion met with some opposition at first, with civic groups slamming the USTA for not giving back enough to the community. Seeking less than an acre of parkland for renovations, the tennis organization negotiated to give back more parkland to the City and help to establish a conservancy for the park in order to gain approval.

Shortly after the plan was agreed upon, the USTA announced that it would construct a retractable roof over its main courts in Arthur Ashe Stadium, a $100 million project that is expected to be completed by 2017.

Willets Gets Green Light

Another one of Bloomberg’s legacy projects took a few steps closer to becoming a reality, when the City Council approved a plan to bring restaurants, retail and entertainment venues and housing to Willets Point, an area that has vexed Mayors for decades.

The approval came in the face of a number of protests from elected officials, civic groups and business owners. The various auto body businesses within Willets Point’s famed “Iron Triangle” looked to legal means to keep them from being forced out of their homes, to no avail. The City began the process of evicting the businesses in the fall, offering to help pay rent of a new location, though many of the businesses wanted to move as a group.

After the businesses leave the area and before construction can start on the project, the land will need to be remediated for hazardous materials that have built up in the area over the decades. The remediation is expected to continue into 2015.

Another aspect of the plan that drew criticism throughout the year from protesters was the delay and diminishment of public housing within the proposed development. Designs changed significantly since the plan’s original approval in 2008, and many chided developers for putting off the creation of affordable housing until the end of the project. The housing units are contingent upon building new ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway, which will not be completed until 2024.

5Pointz Painted Over

A haven for graffiti artists was at the center of a legal battle that questioned whether the work created by the artists was protected, while the owner of the building sought to put up two new hi-rises.

 The “Graffiti Mecca” at 5Pointz was painted over by owner Jerry Wolkoff in mid-November. Wolkoff and the graffiti artists have been fighting over his plans to develop two new hi-rises on the site. Photo by Ira Cohen


The “Graffiti Mecca” at 5Pointz was painted over by owner Jerry Wolkoff in mid-November. Wolkoff and the graffiti artists have been fighting over his plans to develop two new hi-rises on the site.
Photo by Ira Cohen

The Wolkoff family, owners of the iconic 5Pointz building in Long Island City, hoped to develop two new hi-rises on the site of the “Graffiti Mecca,” which would require demolishing the building where he has allowed artists to hone their craft for more than a decade.

While Jerry Wolkoff offered the artists space in the new hi-rises to tag as they saw fit, the artists balked at the offer, eventually declaring that they would not be happy with anything less than what they have now.

To avoid a prolonged public skirmish, the Wolkoffs decided to paint over the graffiti on the building in the middle of the night in mid-November. However, a decision from the judge hearing the case indicated the Wolkoffs may be liable for the destruction of the work.

The legal battle over whether the artists had protection under the Visual Artists Rights Act may continue into 2014, but no official timetable for the building’s demolition has been set.

Autistic Teen Goes Missing

Posters seeking missing teen Avonte Oquendo were put up all over the City in hopes of finding him safe. Photo by Trisha Sakhuja

Posters seeking missing teen Avonte Oquendo were put up all over the City in hopes of finding him safe.
Photo by Trisha Sakhuja

On Oct. 4, an autistic 14-year-old student named Avonte Oquendo was captured on camera running out of his school in Long Island City, Public School 277. The young child’s disappearance set off a search that continues to this day, nearly three months after he went missing.

Police sweeps of New York City expanded into New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester and parts of Upstate New York. With posts on social media sites, people from all over the world have posted the teen’s photo in attempts to help the family find their missing child.

Last month, Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, set up a new headquarters for the search, located at 21-81A 24th St., Astoria. The family also set up a Facebook page, searchable under “Official Help Find Avonte,” to distribute and collect information.