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Pols broker delay in sale of Keyspan gas tank site

Keyspan Energy has agreed to delay the sale of the now-vacant property in Elmhurst where two towering gas tanks once stood, leaving time for public officials to find a way to buy the land so they can devote it to a community use.

Robert Catell, Keyspan's chief executive officer, told a coalition of public officials at a meeting Friday that he would put off the company's efforts to sell the property until the end of the year.

"The plan is for each of us to look at our respective budgets and to see if we can raise the money to purchase the land from Keyspan," said state Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth), speaking on behalf of the politicians who represent the community around the site: City Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), Councilman Dennis Gallagher (R-Middle Village) state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale), and U.S. Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) and Anthony Weiner (D-Kew Gardens).

Public officials hope the property could be transformed into a park.

The 6.5-acre plot, which sits in Elmhurst on the edge of its border with Maspeth, has been the subject of intense community interest ever since the decades-old gas tanks were torn down in 1998. Bounded by Grand Avenue, 57th Avenue, 80th Street and the Long Island Expressway, the plot is one of the last significant pieces of land still vacant in the community and has a market value of about $11 million, Markey said.

"We have to fight for this property as strongly as we can because it is one of the last large pieces of land in our area," Markey said. "This is prime property. It would be wonderful if we could do this. Hopefully, the power of the people will speak."

Last year Keyspan solicited proposals from developers interested in buying the site, who offered ideas ranging from housing developments to retail. But many community leaders were adamant about the site not turning into a big box-style store like a Home Depot. Even a plan to build a YMCA community center alongside a shopping mall drew criticism from neighbors who contended the area could not support such extensive development.

Community concern about what would become of the site mounted to a boiling point late last year when a realtor representing Keyspan faced an angry backlash from local residents as he explained options for the property at a meeting of the Juniper Park Civic Association.

At that event a number of politicians publicly vowed to fight any development plans that ran counter to the community's interests, and the ensuing conversations with Keyspan officials ultimately led to the delay that was just announced.

Although Keyspan always promised that at least some of the property would be devoted to a community use, the additional time leaves open the prospect that the whole tract could come under public control.

But Keyspan officials still stress their first obligation is to their rate-payers.

"Ultimately, however we dispose of the land, it's going to have to be in keeping with the ultimate benefit of the rate base in general," Keyspan spokesman Ed Yutkowitz said. "I think approximate market value is still going to have to be a major consideration."

Now community leaders want to devote the upcoming months to wading through the possibilities and coming up with a concrete plan that will satisfy Keyspan's neighbors.

"We do want to convene some meetings and talk about the site," said Robert Holden, the president of the Juniper Park Civic Association. "We don't want to just put it on hold and then a year from now or eight months from now they decide to make it a huge mall."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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