A look back at the stories that shaped Queens in 2015
Dec 29, 2015 | 34012 views | 0 0 comments | 171 171 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Police escort the body of Police Officer Randolph Holder, a Queens native who was killed in action in Harlem. His funeral was held in Jamaica.
Police escort the body of Police Officer Randolph Holder, a Queens native who was killed in action in Harlem. His funeral was held in Jamaica.
State Senator Tony Avella and community leaders rally outside the former Pan Am Hotel in Elmhurst calling on the City to not make it a permanent homeless shelter.
State Senator Tony Avella and community leaders rally outside the former Pan Am Hotel in Elmhurst calling on the City to not make it a permanent homeless shelter.
Mysterious fires in Forest Hills may be the work of a serial arsonist.
Mysterious fires in Forest Hills may be the work of a serial arsonist.
Remember the furry little critter that had Middle Village buzzing for a day back in April?
Remember the furry little critter that had Middle Village buzzing for a day back in April?
Mourning the loss of heroes in blue

The city lost two officer in 2015 in Brian Moore, killed in the line of duty in Queens Village, and Randolph Holder, a Rockaway native killed in the line of duty in Harlem.

On May 2, Moore and his partner approached Demetrius Blackwell after noticing something suspicious in his waistband. The suspect pulled out a gun and fired shots at the officers, shooting Moore twice in the head. The 25-year-old cop died two days later at Jamaica Hospital. He was honored in December with a street co-naming.

"It’s never easy to be at these events,” said Commissioner Bill Bratton at the ceremony. “We all wished that we did not have to be here and we wish that the events that happened a number of months ago had not occurred, but we must continue to ensure that we will never forget.”

Holder was killed in Harlem, but had deep roots in Queens. He was killed on October 20, when two housing officers in Harlem heard a shootout and called for backup. When Holder and his partner came across suspect Tyrone Howard on a 120th Street walkway, Howard pulled out a gun and fatally shot Holder.

His funeral was held in Jamaica, where officers and the community were able to pay their final respects.

“He represented the best of our society,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the funeral. “He represented our immigrant tradition. He represented our tradition of trying to make this place better for everyone and made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Furry fiend terrorizes Middle Village

A wild coyote on the loose may not have been the biggest and most impactful story of 2015, but it was certainly the cutest. And for a bizarre day back in April, all eyes were on Middle Village as the creature made even the most accomplished crooks look like rookies at escaping authorities.

The coyote, whose presence spurred rumors of school lockdowns and brought annoyance to some community members for a day, spent a full 24 hours eluding his captors before he was finally taken into police custody.

Jordanys Gomez, who lives on Penelope Avenue, said he had never seen a coyote in the six years he’d lived in the neighborhood. But he said that he believed he had seen the coyote, or another one, in his backyard the night prior.

“I saw something strange running around the backyard,” he said. “Next thing I know something runs away. [That animal] looked exactly the same color as this coyote.”

Earlier in the year, coyotes were spotted in Battery Park, Chelsea and stalking roofs in Long Island City.

One Middle Village resident, who did not wish to be named, didn't understand all of the hoopla that surrounding the strange spring day.

“I don’t believe America,” he said, shaking his head. “I really don’t. All this junk for a coyote.”

Queens Public Library hits highs and lows in 2015

Depending on who you are, 2015 was either a great year for the Queens Public Library system or an awful year. On the positive front, patrons of the library, thanks to an influx in funding, can now visit any library in the borough six days a week. Across the borough, it was a cause for celebration.

"For the last six years as a council member and for 11 years prior to that as a staff member for the Queens Library, I have always believed in the importance of having six-day library service because it meant so much to me as a child," said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer.

But not everyone was celebrating the accomplishments of the library system in 2015. Comptroller Scott Stringer released a bombshell audit that detailed abuse of library funds from embattled former library executie director Thomas Galante. Galante responded to the report with a lawsuit.

Galante's lawyers argue that the library lacked a valid reason for terminating him and that the tactics utilized prior to his discharge were done in bad faith.

According to the audit, Galante and other executives allegedly spent over $300,000 on prohibited personal items. Some of the purchases discovered in the audit included Apple TVs, tickets to see Maroon 5, trips to Disneyland, alcohol at casinos, a private smoking deck outside his office, and airline upgrades.

“The audit tells a cautionary tale of what happens when there’s no oversight,” Stringer said at a press conference in Astoria this past July.

Amtrak crash takes the life of Rockaway resident

The Amtrak train derailment tragedy in Philadelphia that killed eight and injured some 200 passengers also hit close to home. Justin Zemser, 20, was among the eight who died in the fatal crash. The Rockaway native was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and class valedictorian at Beach Channel High School.

Queens elected officials praised Zesmer as an inspiration to the community. Council members Donovan Richards and Eric Ulrich remember edhim as an intern at both offices.

“[Zesmer] showed great commitment and initiative as an intern in our office, well before he dedicated his life to our country by joining the U.S. Naval Academy,” Ulrich said in a statement after news of his passing. “He was a rising star that will be greatly missed by the Rockaway community.”

Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder called Zesmer the best his community had to offer.

Queens had another connection to the Amtrak crash. The train’s engineer, Brandon Bostian, lived in Forest Hills. The Washington, D.C. to New York train was reportedly traveling at twice the speed it was supposed to.

Elected officials debate MoveNY toll plan

The controversial MoveNY plan, which would add tolls along the four East River bridges and 60th Street corridor while decreasing prices for tolls already in place, divided elected officials across in the city, including in Queens.

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer announced his support for the proposal in October, saying it could alleviate massive congestion in his Long Island City district.

“We’ve seen massive congestion problems both on the subway cars and platforms of the 7 train themselves and in the run up to the Queensboro Bridge,” Van Bramer said. “That’s why I am saying now we need to focus on this investment into our mass transit. The Move NY plan is the best and most responsible way to get us there.”

But most politicians, especially from northern, southern and eastern Queens, came out against the plan. Borough President Melinda Katz released a statement calling the plan unfair to residents who lack public transportation options and are forced to get into cars.

“It is fundamentally unfair to charge residents a fee to travel within one city. It is certainly unfair to the families who live in the transit desert of Queens, as it would land lock our borough,” Katz said.

The statement was signed by numerous state senators, assembly and council members.

Fight over Queens homeless shelters continues

Last year’s top story was the introduction of homeless shelters in several Queens neighborhoods and the backlash they generated from the local communities. The Westway Inn in Astoria, the Pan Am Hotel in Elmhurst and a proposed permanent facility at 78-16 Cooper Avenue in Glendale caused residents to speak up in opposition.

This year was no different. In January, Astoria residents voiced their displeasure with Women In Need, the management company in charge of the former Westway Inn facility that is now an emergency shelter.

In Elmhurst, elected officials and residents continuously called on Comptroller Scott Stringer to reject the contract converting the Pan Am building into a permanent shelter. He rejected the contract three times.

Now, opponents of the plan want the emergency shelter to be phased out entirely and for the city to stop pursuing the contract with shelter operator Samaritan Village.

“As I have said, it is imperative that we address the needs of the homeless in our city, but those in shelters deserve to be housed in a clean, safe and well-maintained environment, and this facility is not that,” Congresswoman Grace Meng said.

The back-and-forth battle over the proposed Glendale homeless shelter raged on this year. The Glendale-Middle Village Coalition filed an Article 78 proceeding to challenge the environmental assessment conducted by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), but a judge ultimately rejected the petition.

The issue will undoubtedly arise again in 2016, as the city attempts to address the homeless population in New York City.

Mysterious arsonist burns down Forest Hills homes

One of the unresolved mysteries of 2015 is the Forest Hills arsonist who torched down several home construction sites in a span two months.

Authorities are still searching for the man who, according to police, walks onto a construction site, ignites flammable objects and then walks away from the property. Seven fires have struck Forest Hills since October 20.

Police have released video of the suspected arsonist, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when walking away from the fourth fire on November 25.

Residents say they are fearful about which house may be set ablaze next.

“It’s frightening that there is someone out there who is not afraid of taking a life with fire. It’s devastating to our neighborhood,” said Joann Ciorciari, a member of Community Board 6 for 20 years and a resident of the neighborhood. “Somebody is going to get seriously hurt and the person doing this better watch out. When he gets caught it’s not going to be pretty.”

Cops have already caught a copycat arsonist in December. His actions were not related to the string of arsons that happened before.

Community boards reject Mayor de Blasio’s rezoning plan

One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most ambitious plans since taking office has been to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years. One way to go about it is changing neighborhood zoning.

When officials from the Department of City Planning presented the city’s rezoning amendments to Queens officials in early April, it was met with skepticism. Many residents and elected officials feared the changes would lead to neighborhood overdevelopment.

“These sweeping changes to zoning regulations would effectively erase many of the protections that our civic organizations and community boards have fought for years to obtain,” said Councilman Paul Vallone at a Bayside rally against the plan. “This plan will undoubtedly result in taller, larger and bulkier buildings that are out of character with our neighborhoods and many others throughout the city.”

The skepticism manifested into outright opposition. In November, representatives from Queens’ 14 community boards met at Borough Hall to vote on the proposal. Queens became the first borough in the city to reject the Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) zoning text amendments by a vote of 12-2-6.

By the end of the year, most community boards throughout the city had rejected the city’s rezoning plan, dealing a blow to the de Blasio administration’s affordable housing goals. The members of the City Council will have the final vote on the mayor’s plan.

Hit-and-run deaths strike pedestrians

When Mayor Bill de Blasio implemented his Vision Zero initiative, his goal was to reduce traffic-related injuries and deaths. This year saw about 50 fewer fatalities and 1,800 fewer injuries, according to statistics from the Department of Transportation.

In fact, the numbers for traffic injuries and deaths in 2015 are the lowest in more than six years.

However, this year’s headlines were still filled with car crashes, pedestrian deaths and calls for improved street safety. Elected officials often called for changes at dangerous intersections in their districts.

One particular issue Queens politicians focused on was hit-and-run incidents. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer sponsored legislation last year to penalize drivers who flee the scene after a collision. By the end of this year, the NYPD Transportation Bureau revealed that of the 38,000 hit-and-run crashes this year, 4,000 crashes resulted in injuries and 31 resulted in death.

In response, Van Bramer sponsored and passed legislation to stiffen fines for repeat hit-and-run drivers.

“The NYPD’s shocking statistics really show just how important it is for our city to punish the 4,000 people who hit another human being with their vehicle this year, left them to die on the street and thought they could get away with it,” Van Bramer said.

Court decision puts brakes on Willets Point West Mall

The debate over redeveloping Willets Point, including building a “mega-mall,” took a big turn in 2015. After a first court decision decided in favor of developers and the city to build a shopping mall, a judge ruled in July that developers would first need approval from the state.

The New York State Appellate Court heard arguments from both sides in April. Opponents of the mall argued that the property technically belonged to the parks and required approval from the state legislature to give away public land to a private company. Developers said creating the mall would “improve trade and commerce,” which would help finance the larger plan to fund environmental remediation and redevelopment of Willets Point.

Ultimately, the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff. State Senator Tony Avella, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who ardently opposed building the mega-mall, applauded the court’s decision.

“Today’s decision sends a message loud and clear – our parks are not for sale,” Avella said. “The fact of the matter is, this land was intended to be parkland, not the development of a shopping mall.”
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