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Prostitution claims draw protesters to motel

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On a warm Sunday afternoon only a block away from the East River shoreline, a motel with a checkered past drew shouts of protest from a community fed up with the prostitution that has plagued their streets for years.

“We see this as a base of operations for some unsavory activities,” state Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood) said of the Q-Plaza Motel in Long Island City, where more than two dozen neighbors marched this week beneath the gaze of numerous television cameras.

But later that evening, the motel’s night clerk watched the footage on television and questioned the legitimacy of the accusations — that the motel is harboring prostitutes under his own watch.

“We have nothing to hide at all,” said the clerk, an immigrant who manages the motel from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. six nights a week to finance his daytime graduate studies. “I do not allow such things. I do not compromise my future with such ridiculous things.”

The owner of the motel could not be reached for comment.

The Q-Plaza Motel sits directly south of the Queensboro Bridge at 42-11 Vernon Blvd., across the street from two power generators that stirred community outrage when they were installed there last year.

Rising on the other side of the bridge are the brick-faced buildings of the Queensbridge Houses, a public housing project with more than 3,000 apartments and a large population of children.

An enigmatic mix of industry, stores and housing, the neighborhood surrounding Queens Plaza has been a haven for prostitution for as long as most residents can remember. But part of the neighborhood was recently rezoned to allow for higher-density development, and public officials have stepped up the effort to eradicate quality-of-life crimes from an area with a promising future.

Police and the Queens district attorney cracked down on Queens Plaza prostitution late last year by arresting a group of pimps who allegedly forced women to walk the streets.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly held a news conference in Queens Plaza earlier this month to launch their own citywide quality-of-life initiative. At the rally Nolan announced legislation to combat prostitution by increasing penalties for repeat offenders.

The Q-Plaza Motel has a history of quality-of-life crimes itself, having been shut down by a court order in 1998 for permitting prostitution on its premises, Nolan said. But the motel reopened in 1999, and the community has barraged her office with complaints ever since.

“The Police Department needs to go in there,” she said. “There needs to be a real understanding of just what’s going on there.”

People say the street outside is often littered with condoms, and individuals loitering around the premises intimidate residents passing along the street.

“If you look at the place, it’s got barbed wire. What is that telling you?” said Jerry Walsh of the Dutch Kills Civic Association, which covers the neighborhood directly north of Queens Plaza. “The clientele they’re pulling are off the street.”

But the nighttime clerk tells a different story.

Although he recognizes the prevalence of pimps and prostitutes loitering in the surrounding streets, the clerk — who asked not to be named — said he refuses to allow them access to the 25-room motel.

“I’ll just confront her and say you can’t come here,” he said of any woman he suspected of prostitution. “If I know somebody’s doing wrong, why should I give a room?”

The rules hanging on the motel walls back him up, indicating repeatedly that “management has the right to refuse service” if illegal activity is suspected.

The barbed wire, meanwhile, was put up to protect patrons’ cars from vandals and thefts, he said.

On Monday night, a man who was staying at the motel for two weeks with his wife and son said he had not noticed any prostitution in the establishment.

“My experience is really nice,” said the man, who moved to the city from upstate New York and was waiting for his apartment to become available. “I have no complaints.”

City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside), who spoke at the rally, said afterward that people’s complaints about the motel are only symptoms of the widespread quality-of-life crimes that are rampant in the area.

“To me, it’s not an issue about the motel. It’s a problem of the prostitution in the neighborhood,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “That needs to be eradicated.”

Regardless of the role played by Q-Plaza, the quality-of-life complaints remain pressing concerns in a neighborhood that has already seen considerable redevelopment and is being eyed as the city’s next central business district.

“People’s first impression of Queens will not be of drug dealers and prostitutes and squeegee men,” Gioia said. “Our side of the bridge will be over the next decade transformed into a place that is as nice as the other side of the bridge in Manhattan.”

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

Updated 7:01 pm, October 10, 2011
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