The Civic Scene: Is St. John’s playing ball with community?

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I recently attended a general membership meeting, in the All Saints Lutheran Church on 164th Street, Jamaica, called by the Hillcrest Estates Civic Association so the community could be updated on the plans for the expansion of the St. John's University campus. What I heard was a litany of concerns very similar to the ones I heard in May 1998 in the very same place.

Many of the same people were there. Joseph Sciame spoke as a vice president for government and community relations for St John's. George Yee was there to speak, but he was no longer president of the Hillcrest Estates Civic. And Kevin Forrestal spoke for the civic, with many of the same residents in attendance there.

Actually, the university had listened to some of the complaints two years ago but now the impact of the construction of three six-story dorms was being heard, seen and felt. Homeowners directly under the dorms on 82nd Avenue west of Utopia Parkway, spoke of students driving around, hanging out, leaving beer bottles behind, crossing homeowners' properties to get to the dorms, talking loudly and even yelling at all hours of the night. Interestingly, three homeowners have already approached the school and sold their homes to it.

Sciame said he made sure the homeowners had the phone number of St. John's security and in some cases, even his own home phone, yet the homeowners were still disturbed. It was explained that when cars blocked homeowners' driveways, the NYPD was called and the cars were ticketed and towed away.

But Sciame told the civic members that there have been 45 suspensions and a large number of expulsions. He explained that now there is a student court to deal with student rules' violations.

The construction company was ordered not to start work until 7 a.m. but during the summer, trucks with prefab concrete slabs from Canada would pull in at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and keep their air conditioners running, or the drivers would just talk, which would disturb nearby homeowners. It may be that putting 2,800 students into a small campus may just not work, considering that only about 25 percent are there now in dorms and even so, there are problems of noise and trash.

Looking at a plan on display at the meeting, several residents were dismayed to see that more dorms were planned for the corner of 168th Street and the north service road of the Grand Central Parkway. Jack Leahy complained that the proposed six-story dorms would tower over the homes across the street. St. John's says it wants the U.S. Army Reserve to vacate the buildings just to the north of the site but the lease doesn't end until June 2006. If the Army leaves early, the dorms could be moved back. State Sen. Frank Padavan and Jeff Gottlieb said that they would write letters to ask the reserves to move earlier.

Actually, there is a large grassy area in the center of the campus, said Gottlieb, and dorms could be built there away from the surrounding communities, which say they want the school to stop building and consider the impact of the dorms and the students on community life. Sciame did say that it would take 14 months to plan for more dorms but he could not guarantee a hiatus in construction.

Asking questions and making suggestions at the meeting were: Padavan, who rushed down from Albany to attend the meeting, Gottlieb, representing Councilman Morton Povman and James Gennario, who is on Community Board 8 and lives in adjacent Jamaica Estates.

Residents on 170th Street were unhappy with the parking garage next to their street. The garage is designed to take cars off the street that sometimes block the homeowners' driveways.

Another guest at the meeting, John Grady, from the Department of Transportation, explained that putting speed bumps on the streets was a federal program designed to reduce the speed of cars near schools and that due to Padavan's intervention, 170th Street will be studied for possible speed bump installation.

Also discussed at the meeting was the recent disclosure, in the daily and weekly newspapers, that St. John's campus was being considered as one site for a minor league Mets team. Sciame said he just learned about this proposal in the newspapers. Why is the school keeping its P.R. man uninformed? One possible site for any proposed Mets stadium would be the parking lots on the southeast corner of the campus at Utopia Parkway and the Grand Central Parkway, but St. John's wants to buy extra land at Creedmoor for a baseball stadium, so why build on this small area of the campus and eliminate parking?

When I called Evan Goran, president of the Jamaica Estates Association, for his views on the stadium proposal, he said, "When there is a game now, the night lights bother the neighboring homes. They want to build a world-class school but don't have a world-class property."

There is a dialogue group that meets every couple of months, but things appeared on the proposed plans that were never discussed. Some homeowners want to meet with the board of trustees. While other people are concerned with the "world-class plans" for the school, I am concerned about the impact of all this building on the surrounding purely residential communities, which extend for miles around the campus.

The November 1999 Jamaica Chamber of Commerce Monthly Digest had a story about how "good the dorms would be for business." They claim a potential of millions of dollars from students and faculty, but at what cost to the quality of life for the homeowners and tenants? Who wants to answer that question?

GOOD NEWS OF THE WEEK: Our first snowstorm was met by plows and sanders on the main and side streets. The main streets, even with below-zero weather, were clear.

BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: The New York City Blood Bank goofed. When my wife and two youngest children went to give blood at Hillcrest Jewish Center, as they do every year, they were rejected for a full year because they had taken a cruise, which stopped at the Mayan ruins in Yucatan. Nowhere did we ever read that visiting Mexico disqualified you from giving blood. Too bad!

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