2008-10-15 / Features

Dutch Kills Civic Association Holds Candidates' Night

BY THOMAS COGAN

In October, after months, nay, years, of disputation, the Dutch Kills rezoning plan arrived at its final destination, the City Council. There, it was approved in a way that left everyone dissatisfied but no one in despair. As one of the disputants, Chris Lundgren, of a 32nd Street residents' group, said at the monthly meeting of the Dutch Kills Civic Association in the cafeteria of St. Patrick's school: "Dutch Kills got a new suit, and now we have to take that suit to the cleaners and get it fitted right." He and his neighbors believe they still have work to do to keep themselves from being overwhelmed by high new buildings on streets to either side of 32nd Street, between 36th and 37th Avenues. But the residents and small manufacturers a few blocks away are able to turn from protest to examine the possibilities offered by their own settlements.

Still, when they heard an elected official promise during the meeting to bring together the mayor's office, the Planning Commission and other elected officials in an effort to please Dutch Kills even more, they cheered. Making that promise was Assemblymember Marge Markey, who arrived a little late but in time to participate in the evening's main event, candidates' night, which allowed Markey and her rival, and state Senator George Onorato and his opponent, to speak to a roomful of voters a few weeks before the election.

Senator Onorato, a Democrat, led off and let his audience know that he is a native of College Point but has lived in Astoria, the heart of his 12th state senate district, since he was five years old. He began his working life as a bricklayer (his father had been a stonemason) and at the time of his election to fill a vacated senate seat in 1983 was secretary treasurer of his trade's Local 41. Among the highlights of his quarter-century in office are a used car lemon law and one compelling doctors to accept Medicare rates. In the past several years he has managed to secure nearly $1 million in funds for local hospitals, schooling, the elderly and the arts. He warned his listeners, however, that this year he and fellow legislators will be forced to reduce the state budget—$121 billion—by $1.1 billion; and that a $6 billion deficit is foreseen over the next three years. When asked where the cuts were coming from, he indicated they would come from everywhere, unsparing, for instance, of funds dedicated to education and health.

Onorato's opponent, Republican Tom Dooley, a Long Island City native, is a retired city fireman and former U.S. Marine. "The problems we are having now are new problems, needing more than old solutions," he said. He expressed resentment at what he called the tearing down of old neighborhoods, implying that Onorato has done nothing to impede massive rebuilding projects. Though it wouldn't be built where an old neighborhood stood, the shipping depot that FedEx intends to build in Astoria, on land Con Edison is intent on selling, is to Dooley an example of what is crushing the people of the district. He proposed that the 20 acres at the core of the issue be converted to parkland instead, especially since the land runs down to the East River. He said that if sent to Albany he would be a presence at local meetings such as DKCA's as often as possible, "and not just before elections".

Markey's late arrival allowed her opponent, Tony Nunziato, to speak first. A Woodside native and resident of Maspeth for more than 25 years, Nunziato is demonstrably a community activist. He related several campaigns to the meeting, notably what he called his single-handed opposition to Phelps Dodge's proposal to spend $2 million cleaning up its abandoned smelter site beside Newtown Creek. He said a far greater amount was needed and this large American corporation could afford to pay it. In the end, his cause prevailed and the company paid $18 million. He claimed the Elmhurst gas tanks site as another victory. There, after the tanks were dismantled and removed, a private developer wanted to erect a "big box" store, but Nunziato and other activists protested and finally got parkland for the 6.5-acre site. He admitted he can be stubborn and irascible in pursuit of what he believes is the better way. "I love it when I'm called a dreamer," he said in reply to skeptics. Turning to the matter of the incumbent, he said that we are approaching the 10th anniversary (next May) of repeal of the commuter tax, calling repeal a disgrace that Markey voted for.

Being an activist in Queens, he

promised to be an activist in Albany.

Markey opened her remarks with a vow to phone the mayor's office the next day to get the process started to round up a panel of critical officials that can look at the Dutch Kills situation one more time and "make it better than it is now". She billed herself as a person "who knows the process" after 10 years in the Assembly. She traced her activism back to the 1960s, when she campaigned to get stoplights installed at several intersections where pedestrians had been killed by vehicles. She also worked to save the old police precinct headquarters building that became Maspeth Town Hall (Nunziato later became its president); she added that she is currently trying to revive Engine 261 and Hook & Ladder 116 on 29th Street in Dutch Kills. After working in the borough president's office for years, she ran for and won Joseph Crowley's Assembly seat in 1998, when he ran for Congress. She said the seniority she has acquired allows her to gain funds for her district—$150,000 in 2007, $125,000 in 2008—though she said she couldn't promise anything during the current fiscal crisis. She said anyone coming to the Assembly must become accustomed to its "tedious process". When votes come up, she said, one must be mindful of constituencies from Buffalo to Montauk Point, along with one's own district.

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