Dr. Jeffrey Kroessler, President, Queensborough Preservation League
Now York City's landmarks law lists only one Set of Criteria for designation. A site must have architectural, cultural, or historical significance, and be at least thirty years old. I wish that were all preservation was about, but more and more we realize this is about politics. Today the most important prerequisite is the approval of elected or appointed officials.
Why else is the designation of Fort Totten being held up? It was declared eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places a decade ago, yet the Landmarks Commission has not scheduled a hearing. Everyone concerned is waiting for a final disposition of the property, and then it will be designated only if it won't inconvenience the new occupants.
That's not how it was done with Governor's Island, which was designated a historic district in near record time a year ago; and a final use has still not been agreed upon. With Fort Totten, the Borough is acting as the owner, and the Commission is reluctant to designate without owner's approval.
If people lead,
That's why the Aquacade came down, of course. (By the way it's been a full year has anyone visited the slab? Is there even a plan?) Will the same fate befall Philip Johnson's New York State Pavilion from the 1964 World's Fair? As far as I'm concerned, it qualifies on historical, architectural, and cultural grounds. The only way that designation will not move forward is on the basis of political opposition. But who is the owner, the Parks Department, or the citizenry?
In fairness, this problem is cropping up in Manhattan also. The former Huntington Hartford building on Columbus Circle, now the home of the Department of Cultural Affairs, is currently up for grabs. Architects and preservationists are urging the designation of this distinctive 1965 museum by Edward Durell Stone, but the City is waiting to see if that is acceptable to the new owner. Again, it returns to politics and in this case politics is just a synonym for money.
Johnson's New York Pavilion and Stone's museum highlight another preservation issue: the protection of the city's modern architecture. Everyone recognizes the merits of a hundred year old building, but what about a forty or fifty year old structure? (Heck, in Queens we still haven't given our New Deal heritage the respect it deserves.) Our history didn't stop in 1945, and it's now urgent that we protect the best of our post-war architecture through landmark designation. Parkway Village and Fresh Meadows come immediately to mind. Those distinctive developments continue the borough's tradition of innovative model housing, and they are even more impressive along side the unimaginative, often ugly buildings which have been erected in recent years.
But on a positive note, we cheer the Landmarks Commission's attention to enforcement, highlighted by the arrest of Tommy Huang for his willful abuse of the RKO Keith's Theater in Flushing. And we can also cheer the imminent designation of Douglaston, the borough's third historic district. All that we count as evidence that the citizens of Queens embrace their landmarks, and if people lead, the leaders will surely follow.
Manhattan preservationist Anthony Wood wrote:
the real estate interests seeking maximum profits, the political appointees doing their master's bidding ... do not produce long-term vision and sound public policy. Those in power come and go but the damage they do may well be permanent. It may seem easier to remain silent than to raise such troubling concerns. Silence, however, is a luxury our city's past and future can ill afford.
Our communities are no longer silent. From Douglaston to Jackson Heights, from Woodhaven to Old Astoria, a new voice is being heard in Queens the voice of community preservation.
The Queensborough Preservation League is the alliance of Queens neighborhood preservationists. You saw us lead the fight for the Worlds' Fair Aquacade, R.K.O. Keith's in Flushing, and the Historic District at Fort Totten. We:
Assist community groups with neighborhood preservation in Queens.
Support landmark designation efforts throughout Queens.
Promote neighborhood quality of life issues in Queens.
Work with city-wide organizations dedicated to community preservation.
We are your friends and neighbors. We are on community boards, civic groups, neighborhood and community associations. We are people from all walks of life teachers, business people, retired seniors. We live work, and raise our children right here in Queens. We discuss ideas, share talents and offer support to each other in the common goal of community preservation. We are volunteers. We receive no compensation.
"The Telegraph," our newsletter, is a sensation with the public. "The Telegraph," is acclaimed and read by neighborhood preservationists throughout our city.
For only $10.00 become a "Friend of Queens Preservation."This will cover your subscription to the next two issues of "The Telegraph,"You will receive news on Queens community preservation events and issues in 1997.
If you care about your community if you want your voice to be heard, then send your ten dollar (or more!) contribution. Join your neighbors as a "Friend of Queens Preservation!" Call or write to us. We are here for you!
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As a Registered Architect living in what's left of Victorian Richmond Hill I am alarmed at the attitude taken by the Department of Buildings regarding the scourge of illegal conversions that is eroding our neighborhoods. The attitude you project is exemplified in a recent article in the Bayside Times authored by Peter Lubetsy: when the Buildings Department is accused, by Patricia Dolan (Federation of Civic Councils of Queens), of treating this problem as a low priority, you answered with your contention that the problem is not as prevalent as some claim.
You stated, "You have all these civic leaders going on and on about this, but you don't see it reflected in the numbers," referring to the fact that the department only receives a few hundred complaints about illegally converted homes each year.
This statement obviates the degree that the Buildings Department "upper brass," as well as the Administration, is detached from our communities. What in your Department's opinion will it take just how many complaints per year do you deem sufficient? How many thousands, tens of thousands? How many deaths per year due to fires in these illegal fire-traps are we willing to tolerate? If your assessment of the problem is based solely on the number of "officially entered complaints," as it seems to be, then our neighborhoods are in serious trouble while your heads are buried in the sand.
Richmond Hill -- Count the Mailboxes!
Surely you are not suggesting that just because people aren't calling the problem doesn't exist. Many people are simply too afraid to send a certified complaint, they don't know the phenomenon is illegal, or they simply may not know the correct complaint procedure. Do you have an ad campaign to educate homeowners or residents about the phenomenon? Of course not! Please contact any of "these civic leaders" at your earliest convenience and they will guide you on a tour. I personally can guide you, and within one half-hour, be able to point out fifteen illegal conversions. And I would venture to say the majority are not "filed complaints."
From first-hand experience I know that there seem to be built-in safety features within the Buildings Department to keep the number of "official complaints" to an absolute minimum. When phoning in a complaint; citizens are told that, despite the fact that although their names will not be divulged, in order for the complaint to be "filed," they (we) must officially cite their name for the record. Without a complainant's name the phone call or letter is a wasted effort. To draw an analogy; can you image what this city would be like if the Police Department operated on a similar premise? The town would be rife with crime, with bodies piled galore, simply because no one would call for help for fear of retribution if they had to leave their name. My analogy is crude but warranted by your Department's laissez-faire track record regarding enforcement.
I assure you the problem is serious and epidemic. It is exacerbated by the Machiavellian and self-serving "system" designed by the Buildings Department to keep "official complaints" to a minimum. Ignoring the issue is this manner doesn't make the problem disappear. I walk through the neighborhood and drive through many others. Without even trying, I spot single family houses that have three, sometimes four doorbells/mailboxes!
Richmond Hill -- Count the Mailboxes!!
Certainly not all landlords are so unscrupulous that they rent out attics, basements, garages, and spare rooms, but there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of them out there. Since the Buildings Department is the sole appointed entity responsible for enforcing Building Codes as well as Zoning issues, it alone stands to protect the taxpayers from the unchecked chaos creeping its way into our neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, as the Mayor's new-found agenda in this election year seeks to further enable unscrupulous landlords to dissect their houses serves his political goals, it threatens to destabilize our communities by turning them into a dumping-ground for ill-fated housing. Although we are proud to be the melting pot we are so famous for, our neighborhoods can not be turned into a "quick fix" for a failed immigration policy and a non-existent housing program.
As highlighted in the series of articles featured in The New York Times this past September, the problem screams for resolution, and so do we. The trend of subdividing houses into illegal boarding facilities, renting out basements and attics not only reduces the aesthetics and quality of life in our neighborhoods, it also represents a physical threat to the unfortunate and illegal occupants. Do you think it a coincidence when almost regularly on the evening news reports of lives lost to fires are followed by images of wood-frame houses with charred attic apartments? These apartments, along with their basement counterparts which rarely conform to Fire or Buildings Department regulations are simply death-traps that are obviously tolerated by the City. And why should they conform to code? Will the city ever care, or check? There is no tangible track record to prove otherwise. Nor shall ten inspectors, peppered throughout five Boroughs, provide a viable solution. Ironically we seem to be enforcing "Quality of Life" statutes in this city but simultaneously turn a blind eye to real life-threatening hazards posed by illegal conversions.
It doesn't take an architect to figure out that these multiple apartments, with their sub-standard means of egress, place a high demand on electrical systems which were designed at the turn of the century for a single family. I fault the Buildings Department as well as the Fire Department of the City of New York for turning a blind eye on this deplorable phenomenon. Furthermore the landlords who are to blame plead a "manifest-destiny" of sorts with their property.
Richmond Hill -- Count the Mailboxes!!!
Jerry Rotondi, Committee to Save RKO Keith's of Flushing Inc.
"It was at the Queens Unity Day at the Reception House [in 1987] on Northern Boulevard, that my wife went up to Shulman and asked if she would be seeking further punitive damages against Huang. Shulman said, 'Don't you think this man has suffered enough? He has not been able to build for a year.' The borough president denied receiving several thousand names on petitions from the community urging her to save the Keith's. The petitions were sent by certified mail."
Dan Andrews, Spokesman for Borough President Claire Shulman
"She has come out and spoken in favor of the landmarked areas several times, but there is only so much you can do, especially if it is private property."
Hon. Claire Shulman, President, Borough of Queens
Jerry Rotondi, Committee to Save RKO Keith's of Flushing Inc.
I am a life long resident of Queens County and the President of the civic association of Kew Garden Hills. I was also the chairperson of the Committee for the Preservation of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Since trees know no borders and the need for parks in a congested urban society is important to the entire city, we urge that a substantial portion of the decommissioned Fort Totten site become parkland.
New York City's annual budget is about 32 billion dollars and its gross annual economic product runs into the hundreds and hundreds of billion of dollars. Another apartment house or complex; another mall or shopping center; another commercial development or a non- park city facility cannot and will not in the long run make a difference to the city or its finances. What will make a difference, and ultimately a financial one, is an investment in the eroded quality of life in this city. A new park and particularly one adjacent to a beautiful water way, will in our opinion, begin the sorely needed and long process of telling the people that quality of life is important. That trees, green space and a passive recreation area is more important that a trip to the bank by a real estate speculator.
In Fort Totten we have a golden opportunity and indeed the last chance in this city to create a new, important, and meaningful park.
We do not oppose some educational, veteran or disabled persons use of some of the existing structures in the park, provided it have no commercial aspects and be compatible with legitimate park use. Frederick Law Olmstead, the genius who created Central and Prospect Parks in the city and important parks in other cities and countries, said:
"The survival of our park system requires the exclusion from its management of real estate dealers and politicians and that the first duty of our park trustees is to hand down from one generation to the next the treasure of scenery which the city has placed in their care."
Unfortunately in this city Mr. Olmstead's admonition has for the most part has been ignored. Parkland has been the stepchild of our budgetary process when in fact it is the life blood of an urban society. Politicians have been too quick to give parkland away to private interests and are failures at creating new parks. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has taken property from Central Park. Shea Stadium and The United State Tennis Association were given large parts of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
Some years ago an attempt was made to build a Grand Prix auto race track in the Flushing Park, supported by a majority of our then elected officials despite overwhelming public opposition. More recently it was suggested Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx might be an available place for a new Yankee Stadium. If the Mets build a new stadium rather than returning the land to the park, it was suggested it become a convention and entertainment center. The plain truth is parkland must be preserved, enhanced and added to whenever and wherever possible.
On the Channel 9 ten o'clock news on January 21, 1997, a Deputy Mayor ruled out a park for the Fort Totten site. This was in advance of a scheduled public hearing before the Fort Totten Redevelopment Authority set for January 22, 1997, to consider the public's views about the site. Did that mean that as far as Mayor Guiliani was concerned the hearing was a charade and the site's commercial fate sealed? It is this kind of political arrogance than has prompted us not once but twice, to vote for term limits.
The message is clear. We are not satisfied. The politicians can only think short term and do not care about the future and we do not trust them to protect the interests of the little people those who most need parkland.
It has been said war is too important to be left in the hands of generals and that is true. We say parkland is too important to be left in the hands of politicians and if there be any question about whether Fort Totten should become a park, we say put it on the ballot and let us have a city-wide referendum. [Emphasis added] We are confident it would be overwhelmingly approved. Mr. Olmstead, to whom I made reference earlier, once wrote a letter to the City of Boston concerning the creation of Franklin Park in that city. He quoted John Ruskin the renowned social reformer who said:
"Let it not be for the present delight, nor for the present use alone, let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think ... a time is to come when ... men (and women) will say: See, this our fathers (and mothers) did for us ..."
Will our children, their children and generations as yet unborn look at the Fort Totten site and say:
"See, this our fathers and mothers did for us and we thank them"
or will they look at this and and say: "See, this our fathers and mothers did for us and we hold them in contempt."
We prefer they thank us.
The Mayor says there is no money for a park. Nonsense! He has no trouble promoting a well over one billion dollar price tag for a new Yankee Stadium an organization that has been short-changing the city for years. The fact is availability of money is cyclical. There are times of plenty and times when there is less. If we don't have it now, we will have it later. If money is the problem, let the site sit 'as is' and do it piece by piece. But once we allow commercialization it will be the beginning of the end. The history of our park system tells one commercialization begets others.
Let us show the world New York City is not just a place for steel and cement, that it is not a place where peoples' souls are irrelevant but when the opportunity arises we are intelligent enough to see the big picture, grasp it and do the right thing. We know it will take many, many years, but let us make Fort Totten into a park future generations will thank us for. Indeed, since it is government property, why not make it a part of the Gateway National Park system? n
© Photo Landmarks of New York, Barbarale Diamondstein
The Battle of Ft. Totten
Fighting Tyranny from the Ramparts
Dr. Jeffrey Kroessler, Presdent, Queensborough
Editor's Note: Private interim users for the site have been approved. In response to concerns that the FTRA is awarding long-term interim leases of public property to private organization absolutely free, Adrian Joyce, FTRA Member and Chair of the Interim Use Sub-committee stated publicly at the April 29, 1997 meeting that the Fire Department and Defense Department will determine "fair market" rent for these users. The public has not been informed of specifics on these negotiations.
Dear Mr. Kroessler: I read your 'open letter' to the Fort Totten Redevelopment Authority, which was published in The Queens Courier.
Your letter first states that 'there were no public hearings, and the meetings of the FTRA were literally forced open.' To the contrary, I arranged for an initial public meeting on October 25, 1995, at which ... officials briefed the local community about the planned closure of Fort Totten, and answered any questions that they had about the base redevelopment process. A notice seeking permanent use proposals was published in June 1996, and groups were given over 5 months to prepare their proposals ...
A second public hearing was held on January 22, 1997, at which members of the public could listen to presentations of the interested groups, and also could provide testimony commenting on those proposals, or stating their general views on the future of the base property. Moreover, a third public hearing will be held this summer, after the FTRA drafts its redevelopment plan. Although it is true that the members of the public were not invited to attend the first several FTRA meetings, we produced detailed minutes ...
You also state that there have been "no opportunities for the citizens of this city to offer suggestions about Fort Totten, and no way for any informal ideas or requests to be taken into account." Individuals interested in providing informal comments have been encouraged to do so by simply writing to my office, and all such letters are immediately forwarded to every member of the FTRA for their consideration. And, of course, the January 1997 public hearing was yet another opportunity for the public to provide their comments on the future of the base.
You next complain that "there was no program attached to the Requests for Proposals", that "anyone could have suggested anything," and that the FTRA "should have included a list of features generally agreed to," such as "public access, recreational facilities, housing, environmental concerns." The FTRA followed the procedures for soliciting notices of interest that are mandated by federal law and regulations, and those procedures do not provide for the FTRA to impose such limits on the notices of interest. Nor do I think that such restrictions would have been advisable...
Your letter next asserts that there has been "no mandate that the property become a historic district." For your information, a representative of the Landmarks Preservation Commission made a presentation to the FTRA in early 1996, and I led several Commission staff members on a tour of Fort Totten at the end of the year. The Commission is very interested in the possibility of landmark status for portions of the base, but they have indicated that they want to wait until the final reuse plan is released before undertaking a formal review of the issue. [Emphasis added] Finally, you state that we should have followed the process that is being followed for Governor's Island. Governor's Island, is not a BRAC closure, and so different rules apply...
Innocently eating a burger, we overhead some city officials having lunch at a nearby table and discussing investigations into contamination at Fort Totten. " ... what we're concerned with is the perception," one official told another. "You know the story about Lindsay. There was a snow storm in an election year and Queens didn't get plowed. Lindsay lost the [borough] because people in Queens VOTE. You can do that in the Bronx or Brooklyn, but not Queens. What they [upstairs] are worried about is perception."
Seems the word is out, and we think we should be proud. It is a mark of our effectiveness, Our elected officials know we care and they know we don't forget. We vote. We aren't afraid to fight for a better borough and our collective memory is a long one.
The sole mission and purpose of the Conservancy will be to preserve the environmental and historical treasures of Fort Totten for future generations, with as little development and commercialization as possible.
The conservancy will seek, but will not be dependent upon, contributions and grants. The Conservancy will lease the property for $1 per year, and will be responsible for the maintenance of the property.
The Conservancy will preserve the environment, and preserve and restore the Old Fort and other historical structures.
Non-profit historical societies and/or historical preservation organizations
would be provided office and/or archive space in existing buildings of
below-market rental rates, in exchange for consultation services to be provided
to the Trustees of the Conservancy;
Environmental organizations would be provided office space in existing buildings for below-market rental rates, in exchange for consultation services to be provided to the Trustees of the Conservancy;
Non-profit cultural organizations;
Bicycle, rollerblading, rowboat, and canoe rentals and sales concessions;
A concession for an environmentally sound ferry land if feasible;
A concession for a bait and tackle shop and, if feasible, a fishing pier;
A parking lot concession;
Concessions for one or more snack bars and/or restaurants;
Baseball, basketball, and soccer little leagues;
A souvenir and book shop
Craft shops and art galleries;
A swimming pool; and
A qualified historical society or organization to operate the Old Fort as a museum, and to preserve the Fort Totten museum.
Editor's Note: This is one of 32 proposals received by the Fort Totten Local Redevelopment Authority. The Queensborough Preservation League does not endorse any proposal.
Fort Totten is indeed a treasure.
New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern
Fort Totten ... is a unique and irreplaceable resource with commanding views of Westchester and Long Island, tree-shaded rolling acres, wetlands, marine life, nesting birds, other wildlife, special natural features and historically and architecturally significant buildings ...
Former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch
We see Fort Totten as an educational, architectural, geographical and botanical asset as well as an historical site of national significance, and feel very strongly that it must be preserved for the public.
Lucille Helfat, Chairperson,
New York State Northeastern Queens Nature and Historical Preservation Commission
The Leggett-Fish Mansion, one of the most superb mid-nineteenth century structures left in New York City, was unceremoniously torn down in March of this year. This General Grant-style structure, which dominated the cliff on the point of Whitestone for 150 years, was demolished by the Mattone Corporation, a real estate, construction and law outfit run by Joseph (Daddy) Mattone. Initially, Bob Tramunti, head of the Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Association, had called for its preservation, but within a week of issuing that statement, he issued another, saying that he was "satisfied" with the work that Mattone would be doing. The 25 acre site, which has a half-dozen other nineteen century houses was formerly a country club owned by the Catholic Church. It will now be developed with luxury condominiums for the elderly. Mattone stated that the Fish house was "dangerously deteriorated" and was unfit for restoration. Mattone is involved in over $120 million worth of projects in Queens which include superstores in College Point and an $80 million Magic Johnson cinema in Jamaica. He is also on the Fort Totten Redevelopment Authority, the governing body that decides who will get the 90 surplus acres at the fort.
A well-maintained, attractive farmhouse on the corner of 31st Avenue and 81st Street in what was originally known as Trains Meadows is facing a questionable future. Located just outside of the Jackson Heights Historic District, it was most likely built around 1855 by someone of modest means. Old maps show the residence was part of a small hamlet of Germans and possibly blacks for the settlement included a "Colored Church." Perhaps the last remnant of an early African-American community, this modest house is for sale. Located at what was a critical junction between two old farm roads Trains Meadows Road and Old Bowery Road it is at a diagonal to the current street pattern.
Nearby, is the remnant Jackson Mill Road. Not on modern maps, this rural path, with trolley tracks still embedded in its dirt roadbed, glides past back yards and gardens. Arched by enormous trees of ancient age, it is one of the last examples of a rural Queens all but vanished.
If you are interested in preserving the farm house or county lane please contact this publication.
The New York Landmarks Law established the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and laid the groundwork for the range of protections accorded to individual historic sites and districts.
How did such a balanced, effective law pass over all the forces arrayed against it? The framers prevented a series of' debilitating concessions and kept the heart of the law intact by creating the LPC with few enforcement powers other than cumbersome ones through other city agencies.
We now see an increasing volume of problems which sometimes create the impression of unfairness in enforcement, when the problem is really an inability to enforce. And then ... came the designation of a large section of an entire garden city: the Jackson Heights Historic District.
Leaders and people in the garden city of Jackson Heights demanded clear, specific, detailed, strong, fair and consistent standards on a violation-by-violation basis.
Given their small staff and limited resources, the LPC is being overwhelmed by violators. Chairman Jennifer Raab understood the problem clearly almost from the time of her appointment by Mayor Giuliani. She appointed attorney Mark Silberman to head a newly created Enforcement Department. What had not yet been figured out was how to enforce. Now they have a solution to bring order and a higher level of fairness.
The bill is almost finished. Preliminary presentations have been given to informed interested individuals and preservation organizations.
The PC has been forthcoming in fixing two flaws in the preliminary summary of the program:
1) Paving of open garden and planting areas will be specified as a serious violation. The Commission understands that integrated open spaces and planting areas are crucial to the sense of place for which certain districts were designated. This includes Riverside, St. George, Jackson Heights, and by mid-year, Douglaston.
2) The appearance of a compliance loophole for private homes is removed. Potential violators will not be able to seize upon a loophole to do what they want. Exceptions can only be made by department heads.
Pending the final language in the bill, this legislation appears to be a long-overdue winner. It is strong, specific, clear, fair and democratic. If it says what we expect, it deserves our strong vocal support.
Today, one-family houses are an endangered species in Queens, and across New York City. Profit-hungry landlords are transforming homes into rooming houses in so many of our communities. Fighting illegal conversions is truly a preservation issue [Emphasis added] and not just in designated historic districts. Such illegally over-occupied homes over-populate these communities. Jackson Heights has its share of illegal conversions, but Richmond Hill, a landmark-worthy community of large, older homes, is under siege. Our housing stock, designated or not, is worth preserving, as is our quality-of-life.
The illegal conversion of private homes and also apartments, for that matter is becoming an ever more serious problem. Illegal conversions stress already strained city services, result in overcrowded schools, are a fire and health hazard for both residents and neighbors. and undermine the quality of neighborhood life. [Emphasis added] Worst of all, owners of illegal conversions rarely report the significant rental income from homes which are in reality now small apartment buildings. They are paying less than their fair share of real estate and income taxes. Queens residents are well aware of this problem.
Last December, the Jackson Heights Beautification Group held a Town Hall Meeting to discuss the illegal conversion problem and to build a framework for solving it. Elected officials and the representatives of numerous City agencies (buildings, fire, finance, etc.) attended. All were asked what their role was. and, more importantly, how they could work together to solve this serious problem. Richmond Hill also held a similar meeting last year, and this issue is well known to community boards across the borough.
In just a few short months there is real progress to report. Borough President Claire Shulman's office has drafted excellent legislation to combat this problem. Shulman has worked worked closely with Mayor Guiliani and council leaders to secure their cooperation. In addition, City Councilman Thomas Ognibene is also working on legislation which may result in significant real estate tax increases for property owners of illegally converted homes. While there is still a long way to go, it is heartening that some attention is finally being paid to this issue. In order to have the wheels of justice move faster, it is crucial that you express your opinion on this issue to elected officials, your community board, and City agencies.
|The issue is very basic. Why should a property owner be allowed to turn his home into a quality-of-life destroying fire-trap, contribute to the destruction of wonderful old communities, not report rental income, and pay less than his fair share of real estate taxes? Illegal conversions are a threat to all neighborhoods, especially those which are landmark worthy. Landlords who add entrances, remove "high maintenance" architectural details, and attach unauthorized extensions, rob our communities of the historical and architectural recognition they deserve and the sense of place we expect.|
Back in June of 1996 the word came that the Landmarks Preservation Commission had cut a deal with the notorious Tommy Huang, de facto owner of the RKO Keith's, allowing him to renovate the storefronts in the theatre but outlining no meaningful consequences if he violated the law and the agreement. A hearing was scheduled for July, and the Committee to Save the RKO Keith's, fearful that the commission would slip one through during a holiday week, started getting the word out.
On Friday before the hearing, an inspection at the theatre changed the whole picture.
The inspection revealed hundreds of gallons of fuel oil in a pit in the basement, the presence of friable asbestos (the dangerous, loose kind) and possible Freon. City Buildings, Fire and Environmental Protection Departments personnel were joined by NYS Department of Environmental Conservation people. Guys donned moon suits to go in. The Buildings Department issued their second Vacate Order on the theatre in late August, this time forbidding entry by anyone because the environmental violations were "imminently perilous to life."
Huang was ordered to clean up the hazards using legally defined procedures. In July he submitted a legal affidavit that he had done so. A July 19 inspection showed this was false. DEC required Huang to admit to an act of perjury.
Huang denied he was the owner, that Yeh Realty was, and he didn't know who those principals were. The company turned out to be headed by Soo Yu Yeh, his mother. Perhaps Mom didn't tell him.
Over 40 preservationists showed up at the LPC hearing and the Commission decided that all violations needed to be remedied before proceeding with the agreement.
A week before the tenth anniversary of Huang's Labor Day 1986 closing of the theatre Keith's was reported broken into and city officials found evidence of "illegal activity within the theater." Unidentified debris from the building was placed in nearby dumpsters. In fact, a neighborhood theatre watch has documented dozens of times the rear doors were open, lights were on in the building, etc.
Anthony Galioto, an official of Yeh Realty, was arrested twice for violating the Vacate Order and entering the building. He was led away in handcuffs.
Once he was entering the building with an unlicensed plumber. Just checking the pipes, he said ... in a building where the water was shut off years before.
In October it was discovered that friable asbestos had indeed been removed from the theatre ... in a manner that violated the law in almost every way. Unsuspecting Central American day laborers were hired, and given simple, hardware store-style face masks. They proceeded to remove the asbestos by hand ... and to unload it into open dumpsters standing on the street, where the dust could rise unimpeded. No one knows to where the asbestos was ultimately removed. The day laborers are being sought by the City's Human Rights Commission in concern for their health.
On March 7, Tommy Huang was declared a fugitive from the law after failing to answer charges that he allowed the heating oil to leak. After a five month investigation the NYS Attorney General concluded that Huang had submitted a false instrument: he had lied when he submitted the certificate saying he'd purged the tanks of 10,000 gallons. Yeh Realty was also indicted. So was Galioto, who turned himself in. Huang surrendered to the 109th Precinct on the 10th and was arraigned before Justice Pearle Appelman in State Supreme Court, pleading innocent. He was released on $10,000 bail. The charges carry maximum penalties of four years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
This was the point at which Assemblyman McLaughlin called Huang "Flushing's Public Enemy #1." Not covered in this indictment was McLaughlin's charge that the Fire Marshall assigned to investigate the RKO arson in July 1990, Dennis Fink, aided Huang's attempts to waive agreements between the developer and city agencies. Internal city documents and sources reveal a highly cozy and highly questionable relationship between the two.
These developments were in part due to City Councilwoman Julia Harrison, who has been working for ten years to get the city to fulfill its responsibilities to protect the public, and the theatre, from Huang's tender mercies. Not a word has been heard from BP Shulman. Maybe she'll be his chief character witness.
[Mr. Huang's counsel is Norman Rosen, of Previte, Farber & Rosen counsel also for the Queens Chamber of Commerce. Joseph Previte is past President of the Chamber.]
... When the lights went out at the RKO Keith's on Labor Day in 1986, no one could have guessed that the closing of a movie palace, whose popularity had begun to ebb in in 1970's, would give rise to one of the longest and fiercest neighborhood battles in the borough.
... On one side was Thomas Huang, who bought and closed the theater in 1986 in the hope of reopening it as a combination shopping center, movie multiplex and hotel. In less than a decade in this country, he has brashly assumed the quintessentially New York City role of empire builder. The more than 100 residential and commercial buildings he erected in his corner of Queens allowed him to stand next to Reagan, Bush and D'Amato in photographs that now hang on his office walls ...
On the other side, stood some of Flushing's old-timers, most of them white, who contend that despite the $3.4 million Mr. Huang paid, the RKO Keith's belonged, in some sense, to them, too. ..
"They're really not helping Asian people," Mr. Huang said of local politicians, "You can see this neighborhood, the Asian people put down money, work very hard. You have a lot of stores opened by Asian people, working 24 hours. And they bring money." The Asian immigrants, few of whom are registered voters, have "zero" political pull, Mr. Huang added.
The RKO Keith's also suggests the political role nostalgia plays in Queens in a way it no longer can in Brooklyn or the Bronx. ... In Queens, old-timers and newcomers are on the same blocks. And nostalgia can be used to conjure up an enchanted past or to label someone as hopelessly out of touch. Ethel Chen, [a Democratic district leader,] said, "Now that an Asian has taken it over, they just criticize. They just bring negative views. They never have any proposals. They don't want change. But the reality is, we have changed." Although Mr. Huang was derelict, she said, in not maintaining the building, Mrs. Chen added that his critics were too envious to acknowledge his pivotal role in Flushing's rebirth. Mr. Huang was a prominent builder by the time he bought the RKO Keith's in 1986.
Mr. Huang said elected officials had consistently impeded his attempt to revise his renovation plans according to city requirements. "In America, talk is cheap," he said. "People can point and say, 'You don't do that, you don't do this,' and keep talking. But doing is different." ... Huang never considered selling the site. "That location is gold!" he said.
Editor's Note: Although Mr. Onishi's story ignited a firestorm of public outrage in Queens, the New York Times has refrained from printing the community's response. The New York Times has not reported on Mr. Huang's arrest.
People from Queens have come to expect that our image is too often manufactured by and created in the personal agendas of those who live outside our communities. This article takes its place next to Archie Bunker and the proposed Queen Catherine statue as glaring examples of this problem.
"The Telegraph" will examine this problem in future issues. The public is encouraged to comment.
Return to The Telegraph, Spring 97Table of Contents
Go to The Telegraph, Spring 1997 Part 2
last rev. 7/19/97
by David Goldfarb