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The Civic Scene: Issue of race plays role in CB8 vote on houses

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The Jamaica Hill area was rezoned down to allow only single or two-family detached residences on Oct. 13, 2004 to stop the creation of multi-story multi-apartment buildings where there had been one-family houses. The builders and many of the new residents are from Bangladesh, where large families and cultural beliefs create demand for large houses, as could also be said for earlier immigrant groups. Some of the new residents are investing in the old houses to make money, which is the American way, even though it has often despoiled our environment.It is interesting that Queens Borough President Helen Marshall has created a Congress of two different religious, racial and culturally diverse members from each community board. There were four present at the CB 8 meeting when this issue was discussed. I know that the congress is a place to address different holidays and customs, but I don't know if the application of customs to community zoning and construction is ever examined.The civic and its members want to maintain their community the way it is. They don't want large cement and brick buildings with paved-over lawns filled with cars and lacking grass, trees and flowers, a multitude of garbage and recycling cans, and more vehicles with pollution and noise. They also don't want large buildings which may take years to build. Some developers just don't have enough cash so they delay the building for years and the neighbors are stuck with fences, debris, noise and sometimes construction at illegal times because the builder hires illegal workers.The owner of the property in question brought a number of South Asian Americans to testify for him (plus a lawyer and financial backer, who were both white). They argued that they had the right to a better life, they should be able to build and tap into the American dream. They were quite eloquent except for the one or two who tried to use the race issue, saying they were being picked on. The Jamaica Hill civic also heard people who testified as to why the owner should not be permitted to complete the buildings. The irony was that the president of the Jamaica Hill Community Association is Deborah Ayala, whose ethnic background is part South Asian.The owner purchased the property in May 2001. The area was rezoned on Oct. 13, 2004. The owner claimed that the cement for the foundation was poured prior to the rezoning, which would make it legal. There was no permit for the second three-family house. The owner claims that a lot of money had already been spent. But Sean Walsh of the Queens Civic Congress, an umbrella group of civic associations, argued in a letter to the Board of Standards and Appeals distributed to the CB 8 board, that the companies who poured the cement and lent the owner money are business associates (or even family) so their testimony was not good proof.Ayala had papers claiming that the owner has or had owned dozens of properties and is not just a novice immigrant being hurt financially. Regretfully, she did not make copies to be given to the CB 8 Board members and this point was lost and belittled when I brought it up.It is interesting that the Queens Civic Congress held its meeting on the same night the Zoning Committee of CB 8 held its meeting. Sean Walsh had said that a civic really has to hire or obtain professional people to help it. Photos have to be taken during the progress of the building as evidence as to dates of activities. Sean commented that the builders hire professionals to go to the Board of Standards and Appeals so the civics should also have a professional guide them and speak for them. When the BSA sees a professional, it thinks twice about the ramifications. In his letter Walsh has written that the applicant has legal and accounting expertise and thus assumed the risk of building without a valid permit. She left an 85 percent completed buildings, thus shifting the risks to the neighbors.People who care about their communities have to think carefully how they fight to protect their new zoning because speculators will try to break it with all kinds of excuses and tricks.Good news of the week The issue of stores having signs only in a language other than English is being addressed by bills introduced into the state Legislature. The bills would require English on signs giving store name, address and names of the owner(s). The reasoning is that this is an English-speaking country and emergency vehicles responding to an emergency can't find the location they are looking for.Bad news of the week Many residents of Community Board 7 are unhappy that the board leaders did not let them know that New York Hospital, formerly Booth Memorial, was given permission to use part of the Kissena Corridor parkland for parking while they build additions to the hospital. It seems that the Parks Department and New York Hospital had made this deal without telling the community. I had warned about such violation of parkland land in a recent column. What happened to the concept that parkland is inviolate? The Kissena Park Civic is livid. The Queens Civic Congress has taken a stand against this action. They also had a representative from Save Our Parks in the Bronx, which is fighting giving an exchange of parkland to the Yankee Stadium, to their last meeting.

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