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Forest Hills streets trashed as Doe Fund, BID plans fail

Streets in downtown Forest Hills are getting dirtier now that money for the Doe Fund street cleaning organization has run out, and a proposal to establish a Business Improvement District along Austin Street has failed to come through, Forest Hills property owners said last week.

As of April 30, Doe Fund workers, who are homeless people hired by a non-profit organization, are no longer bagging trash and cleaning up streets in the commercial district encompassed among Austin Street, Ascan Avenue, Queens Boulevard and Yellowstone Boulevard.

On Monday morning, Austin Street was littered with paper cups, bottles, plastic bags, newspapers and other trash. Clusters of garbage pooled in murky liquid on the sides of the road. A garbage can on the corner of Austin Street and 71st/Continental Avenue was filled over the brim with trash.

Doe Fund services have stopped in Forest Hills because merchants and property owners failed to contribute enough money to pay for them, said Joel Mandel, the president of JSM Management Corp., who collected money for the cleaners and co-chaired the steering committee to try to establish the BID.

"Yesterday, I noticed there was dirt all over. It was messy," said Rosemary Cruz, a vice president of the HSBC branch on Continental Avenue, Friday. "You can see that there's major trash in the street. You're seeing big bags, things that normally would be picked up. Normally it would be very clean."

Doe Fund services in Forest Hills cost about $50,000 per year and were funded by voluntary contributions from merchants and property owners within the commercial district. This year Mandel, who volunteered his time to collect donations for the fund over a period of four months, was only able to collect $27,000.

"We're at the point where we haven't been able to collect enough funds to maintain the Doe Fund, and we have to discontinue it," Mandel said.

Doe Fund cleaners continue to work in other parts of the city, including downtown Flushing, the Hudson River Park in Manhattan, and Montague and Fulton Streets in Brooklyn.

Contributions for the Forest Hills Doe Fund, which was established 2 1/2 years ago, have decreased steadily from $45,000 the first year to $35,000 the second year to $27,000 this year, not because people do not like the service but because of the tough economy, Mandel said.

"The city raised real estate taxes 18 percent, insurance rates have doubled in the last year because of 9/11, and it's just been a lot of financial pressure on property owners and merchants that makes it harder and harder to collect for a voluntary program," Mandel said.

Mandel and Stan Markowitz, the vice president of leasing at Muss Development Co., had spearheaded a movement to establish a BID, partly because they were tired of spending their own time collecting money for street cleaning, holiday lighting and street fairs. They also favored the mandatory assessments of a BID because they thought the voluntary donation system led to a small number of businesses paying for services for the entire commercial district.

"There's only so much energy I can put into it. ... This year we collected (for the Doe Fund) from about 15 property owners out of 80 on the street and about 35 merchants out of about 300 on the street," Mandel said.

In order for the BID to go into effect, 51 percent of property owners within the BID area, which includes 73 landlords and about 290 businesses, would have had to give support for the idea.

While Mandel and Markowitz were optimistic five months ago that the BID would go into effect, it became apparent that the BID was not going to happen when a majority of property owners either rejected the proposal or failed to respond to letters asking for their approval.

"We had 20 owners and we needed 37, so we were a little bit more than half way there, but we felt we had hit the bottom of the barrel," Markowitz said.

Cord Meyer Development Co., a major property owner within the BID area, rejected the BID due to costs.

"We prefer not to burden the tenants or ourselves of any additional costs at this time," said Anthony Colletti, the chief financial officer of the company, which is headquartered on Queens Boulevard at 73rd Avenue.

Forest Hills resident Stephen Melnick, a vice president of an HSBC branch in Manhattan, spent his own time and money to gather a group of people to clean the medians and streets along a one-mile stretch of Queens Boulevard during two Saturdays last month. He said he was confident something would be done once conditions in the neighborhood start to deteriorate.

"I know what it was like three years ago. It was atrocious - really, really bad. You'd think that we were living in one of the worst neighborhoods in New York City," Melnick said. "With the Doe Fund it was night and day, a really good positive change."

Some merchants might show an interest in re-establishing the Doe Fund after they start getting violations from the Department of Sanitation for not keeping their curbs, gutters and sidewalks clean, Markowitz said.

Base fines for sanitation violations are slated to increase from $50 to $100 beginning on June 1.

"For some people, a contribution to the Doe Fund would be cheaper than the violations they get," Markowitz said.

Some merchants and property owners said they should not have to pay extra for an organization to clean the streets when they already pay city taxes.

"The real estate taxes are supposed to pay for the things that the BID is supposed to do," said Leonard Weiss, the president of Sylvan Parking at 112-41 Queens Blvd., a company that did not contribute to the Doe Fund.

"The street in front of each establishment is supposed to be cleaned by the establishment, so these people just better get out and clean their street," he said. "The road is supposed to be cleaned by the city."

Todd Reisman, the chairman of the Community Board 6 sanitation committee, predicted a long, hard summer ahead for downtown Forest Hills.

"It's a terrible shame that people in the community have to live with dirty streets," he said.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.

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