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Con Ed money could be used to green Astoria

Millions of dollars slated for western Queens communities affected by the 2006 blackout could be used for expanded open spaces, including community gardens; tree planting; and other environmental initiatives, according to individuals at last week’s forum held by North Star Fund, a nonprofit that will administer the funds from Con Edison.

More than 50 area residents attended the six-hour event held at the Greater Astoria Historical Society to give input on how to use $7.9 million won in a lawsuit filed by Western Queens Power for the People against Con Ed. It was the second listening session held by North Star, with the first being held the prior weekend in Sunnyside.

“This is an opportunity to re-envision an aging urban community to be more environmentally conscious and economically robust,” said Hugh Hogan, executive director of the North Star Fund.

Power for the People is a group of community residents that formed immediately after the nine-day blackout that darkened Astoria, Sunnyside, Long Island City and Woodside. The group, which includes about 1,000 residents, received $63 million in a settlement with Con Edison, $7.9 million of which has been designated for green projects.

“This is money for the community,” said Jeremiah Frei-Pearson, one of the founders of Power for the People and an attorney who lives in Astoria. “We need trees and green space.”

Power for the People and the North Star Fund have held two forums to get input from residents about uses for the settlement money.

North Star officials and residents said the money could be used for a variety of projects, including improving and expanding such open spaces as community gardens, planting trees in clusters — which would have helped decrease the heat residents experienced during the summer blackout — and green job training and creation.

“There’s not a lot of green space in our communities now,” said Sunnyside resident Alyssa Bonillo. “Street trees will help. When it’s that hot, the presence of trees would’ve helped a lot.”

Residents said they were pleased to use the money for community members who were irate at Con Ed for the blackout that happened during a heat wave.

“They had a system that was overloaded, and they chose to leave it on,” said Patrick Barnhart, an attorney from Sunnyside and a member of Power for the People.

For Bonillo, that spelled disaster for her. She spent five days with no power during one of the hottest spells of the year, as did many of her neighbors — including numerous elderly residents.

“I had neighbors who were 70, 80 years old and they went without air conditioning in dangerous heat,” Frei-Pearson said. “We were so angry, which is why we formed Power for the People. We showed if you stand up and fight powerful systems, you can win.”

Suggestions submitted by residents at the two North Star public hearings will be reviewed by a panel, including two members of Power for the People, one member from North Star, two experts in green infrastructure projects and one expert in urban forestry.

Hogan said they will issue requests for proposals around the end of May or beginning of June, after which applicants will have a couple months to put their proposals together. He said they will decide who will get the grant money by September.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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