CHIPS DOWN ON RAIL LINE
Woodhaven Sees Battle Over Branch Plans
The ongoing debate over the future of a long-abandoned rail line and a straw poll on the issues to be addressed in the new year were the focus of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association (WRBA) meeting last Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Woodhaven-Richmond Hill Volunteer Ambulance Corps headquarters.
Ed Wendell, the WRBA president, stated that the civic group is facing an uphill battle in their opposition to both the redevelopment and reactivation of the Rockaway Beach branch of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), the defunct 3.2-mile stretch running through Woodhaven between Rego Park and Ozone Park.
Residents and civic leaders in southern Queens have called for rail service to be restored on the line, which last saw train service in 1962. Others in Queens, however, have called for the creation of a “QueensWay,” a combined bike path and nature trail.
After hearing arguments from both sides of the debate at a town hall meeting hosted by the WRBA last September, Wendell noted, the civic group opted to take a different stance on the Rockaway Beach line: to leave it be, but have the city regularly maintain it and remove debris to pro- tect property owners living adjacent to the branch.
“We asked those who would be disappointed in our decision not just to cast aside our concerns as selfish or NIMBY (not in my backyard),” Wendell said. “People were disappointed, and since then, critics had some not-too-kind words to say about our character.”
In particular, he took exception to one unnamed “elected official in the Rockaways” who referred to the WRBA’s attitudes as shameful, with members also called “let’s-donothings” at a recent meeting.
“To be called [that] in the wake of what this community did after Hurricane Sandy was more hurtful than disappointing,” Wendell added. “As we said, we made our decision that the best way to change Woodhaven’s collective mind is to make a more persuasive case about how our neighborhood would benefit from, or at least not be harmed by those proposals. For the time being, they’ve taken a different approach, and calling us names isn’t going to cut it.”
Earlier this month, the Friends of the QueensWay group pushing for the bike path/nature trail received a $467,000 grant from the state to conduct a feasibility study. Wendell told attendees that the civic group would be “dealing with some powerful and well-funded interests” in their efforts to protect homeowners and the community from negative impacts of both the QueensWay and, potentially, rail line.
To demonstrate what the group was up against financially, Wendell lined up a stack of poker chips—each one given a value of $5,000—totaling the amount of funds for the feasibility study and Community Board 9, which he noted has many proponents of the QueensWay project. That stack, he suggested, would go up significantly if railroad proponents and the Resorts World New York casino get involved in the debate financially.
Next to that stack, Wendell placed one chip, representing the amount of funding allocated by the city to the WRBA.
“It’s not even $5,000, it’s actually $4,000,” he said. “And we haven’t even received it yet,” Wendell added, tossing that chip over his shoulder.
“We’re wading into higher waters. We’ve had other battles that we’ve fought before. But this is a little bit different,” the civic president said. “Whatever this decision is, we’re going to have to live with it for the rest of our lives. ... We are the Davids in this battle against these Goliaths. We can’t let anybody push us around, tell us what to do and insult us while they’re doing it.”
Wendell urged Woodhaven residents and civic members to be “extremely cautious and skeptical” about both the QueensWay and the Rockaway Beach line proposals.
Straw poll on 2013 issues
During the session, attendees got a chance to vote in a straw poll to decide what issues the WRBA will seek to address throughout 2013. Each residents was provided with 10 straws, each counting as one vote, to place in 26 different cups representing key issues throughout the area.
A total of 460 votes were cast in the straw poll, and the most popular issue was opposing illegal conversions, which received 58 votes. Noise was second with 42 votes, followed by opposition to both the QueensWay and reactivation of the Rockaway Beach rail line (36).
Rounding out the top 10 list of WRBA issues for 2013 were efforts to get dog owners to clean up after their pets and area crime (both getting 29 votes), addressing water rates and fighting graffiti vandalism (both getting 26 votes), fighting for more police officers at the 102nd Precinct (24), combating gangs (22) and improving sanitation on the streets (19).
Legislators drop by
Speaking about the debate over the Rockaway Beach line, Assemblyman Mike Miller stated that he previously expressed his support of reactivating rail service south of Atlantic Avenue, where the line links up with the Flatbush Terminal branch.
He also commended the launch of the “No Way Queens Way” group by Woodhaven resident Neil Giannelli. He stated that the activist has taken “a good approach” to the situation, adding that residents should support him.
Miller also spoke about the recent passage of stricter gun control legislation signed into law last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The assemblyman told residents that he felt it was “a good bill to support,” adding that it not only included ammunition restrictions but also efforts to expand mental health care.
City Council Member Eric Ulrich came to thank the WRBA for their contributions to the relief effort following Hurricane Sandy. He also publicly lamented the school bus strike and the failure of the city Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to reach a deal on a teacher evaluation system.
The latter impasse, Ulrich noted, proves especially costly to the city’s students, as it resulted in the loss of $250 million in federal funds “that can go directly into the classrooms throughout the five boroughs.”
“For the people in this room, I don’t think we really care” about how the negotiations broke down, he said. “All we know is that they broke down, and we are losing out on money that now could go to other states, and that’s not right. Education was never supposed to be about the demands of the adults; it was supposed to be about the needs of the children.”
Ulrich additionally praised the WRBA for their efforts to put Woodhaven in one City Council district, noting that while he could not take an official position before the plan comes before a vote, “I’ve said publicly that I believe communities should be contained as a whole” within one legislative district.
Evelyn Cruz, an aide to Rep. Nydia Velázquez, introduced herself to the WRBA, as Woodhaven is now included in the lawmaker’s Congressional district. She invited the civic group to participate in an upcoming gun violence forum in another neighborhood in the district, East New York,” and that Velázquez is working to boost small businesses in the area.
P.O. Jose Severino of the 102nd Precinct Community Affairs Unit asked the public for their assistance in tracking down a bike-riding bandit responsible for 18 different robberies of older women on the streets of Woodhaven.
The pattern, reported on in last week’s Times Newsweekly, has been active since last October; Severino described the perpetrator as a Hispanic or black male between 18 and 24 years of age.
Anyone with information regarding the robbery pattern or the suspect’s whereabouts, or who witnesses such a crime in progress, should call 911 immediately.
Steven Forte has been named the new treasurer of the WRBA. Martin Colberg has also joined the executive board as the first vice president.
The next Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association meeting is scheduled to take place on Wednesday night, Feb. 20, at 8 p.m. at the Woodhaven Richmond Hill Volunteer Ambulance Corps, located at 78-15 Jamaica Ave. For more information, visit www.woodhaven-nyc.org.