2017-02-15 / Front Page

Katz Queens Chamber Of Commerce

By Thomas Cogan

At the Queens borough president’s annual breakfast, sponsored by the Queens Chamber of Commerce and held last week at the La Guardia Marriott Hotel, Melinda Katz, introduced as the nineteenth holder of that office, said the breakfast is a yearly highlight with her.  The fact that this year’s event was a sellout, with tables placed wall-to-wall in the hotel ballroom, should endear it to her even more.  It must have contributed to the chipper attitude evident throughout her recitation of Queens’s successes, though she also made a contrasting reference to local problems in need of solution, including proper transportation to all parts of the borough.  Questions followed, covering such topics as a “highline” for Queens, capital plans for schools and even a request for a comment about President Trump’s immigration restriction order.

One of her early observations was that that the population of Queens gained nearly 17,000 between the last census in 2010 and mid-2015.  Expansive talk followed.  She said that skylines all over the borough, particularly in Long Island City, would be “not recognizable”  a decade ago. Queens has become a leading tourist destination, rather than a mere drive-through to Manhattan or outer Long Island from its two airports.  It could be the diversity of population is a draw.  “Come to Queens,” she said, “and I’ll show you 10 countries in an hour.”  Such diversity apparently brings in a lot of relatives and tourists, prompting what she claimed were 18 new hotels in recent years, with 34 in the pipeline.  The one bound to become the best-known is the TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy Airport.  She called it “a huge investment but totally worth it,” if this conversion of the old Trans World Airlines terminal helps restore the prestige of JFK as a first rate and accommodating international airport. 

She said she is on the design commission for both airports.  The other, La Guardia, is now the subject of a public-and-private redevelopment project, with

unification of its terminals as the goal.  It’s not an easy plan, since La Guardia’s spare space is non-existent, so all redesign and rebuilding has to be in place.  All, that is, except for the Airtrain, for which a request for proposal (RFP) on construction was made just the day before, she said.  This path to and from the airport has its vital link between La Guardia and Willets Point, where connection could be made to the Long Island Railroad station located there.  It might link also to the No. 7 elevated station, but, she said, at the moment the No. 7 line is “sort of a bad joke,” with detours, slowdowns and shutdowns while repairs are being made, seemingly perpetually.  “Stay tuned,” she said, for further developments. 

Speaking of Willets Point:   apart from possibly providing a link to the Airtrain, it has struck her for more than a decade, before Citifield replaced Shea Stadium, that the auto wrecks and battered repair shops there are an eyesore to be seen by visitors who come from far away to view baseball or tennis and then return home with the impression of Queens as spectacle and squalor side-by- side.  Current litigation might be impeding plans to change the situation for the better, but she hopes for the time when it can be changed. 

Turning to the mayor’s, or Economic Development Corporation’s, Sunnyside Yard Facility Study, also released the day before, she said only that Amtrak is upgrading facilities in the 110-year-old railroad yard.  A complete description of the study, the bulk of which proposes ways to build as many as 11,000 residences on platforms over the wide swath of railroad tracks, “would take hours” to review, she said; so again, stay tuned.  She brought up a problematical transportation item, the lack of sufficient subway coverage in Queens, the largest-landed borough.  The subway and elevated lines cover only one-third of Queens but she thought the coming of ferry service to the waters north and south of the borough would provide something remedial.

As for the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, she’d rather call it the Queens-Brooklyn Connector, or QBX.  Under any name, she insists, it must service the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public houses in Queens, they being the Queensbridge, Ravenswood and Astoria Houses.  Aware of complaints about it that have arisen, she demands both service for NYCHA and a thorough explanation of the proposed trolley system to the involved community boards that would pass judgment on it. 

The question period was led off by Vicky Schnepps, who asked about a Queens “highline” or parkland to be built on an old and unused railroad track bed in Richmond Hill and thereabout.  The borough president preferred the name Queensway, rather than adopting a Manhattan name, especially when the Queens parkland is not elevated.  She said a railroad might be revived there; a park might be established; or perhaps nothing would be done, especially if the corridor’s relative remoteness and isolation is seen as a safety hazard to those trying to enjoy it.  (QCC Executive Director Thomas Grech later announced there would be a meeting about Queensway Tuesday, February 28 at the chamber’s headquarters in Bulova Center.)

The capital plan for schools was brought up, the inquirer saying that much pre-kindergarten schooling suffers from a lack of classrooms.  Katz acknowledged the problem of crowdedness but added that in recent years a total of 43 trailers, having served as temporary classrooms, were removed when actual schools were built to replace them.  Searches for unused buildings where classrooms could be installed temporarily are made constantly, since they’re certainly better than trailers.

The question about the president’s travel ban drew groans from those who apparently didn’t think it germane to the meeting, but the borough president was ready to answer it.  She called Queens “the blueprint for the rest of the country,” and said that seeing a certain consequence to the presidential order, the many travelers held up at Kennedy Airport, she went there to talk to the lawyers—30 to 40, she estimated—who were counseling them.  She said they were doing “a yeoman’s job.”

On Queens Day in Albany this year (date to be determined) she and her team will be lobbying hard in behalf of the borough, for which she said she was “all in.”  She said further that she hopes her two daughters, currently five and eight years old, will eventually live and raise their children there.


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