Tragedy struck Queens during the holiday season, as a massive overnight fire burned down six Queens Boulevard businesses in mid-December. Twelve people, including seven firefighters, suffered non-life threatening injuries.
Fire officials battled the flame and smoke well into the day.
Among the stores destroyed were popular spots Sidetracks and New York Style Eats, both of which have been neighborhood favorites for years. The Romantic Depot, a lingerie store, had just opened a few weeks prior.
Sunnyside was left in a state of shock, but residents responded quickly. Business leaders started a GoFundMe campaign, with a goal of raising $100,000 to support the business owners and workers. In one week, the community raised more than $94,000, with more to come.
They hosted a resource fair for the former employees, providing help with applying for benefits and bringing in potential employers. Civic leaders then threw a large fundraiser that showcased the best of Sunnyside’s culture, food and drinks.
Sunnyside showed its strength and resilience in the aftermath of the horrible incident.
“It’s so unfortunate this is what is bringing the community together,” said Judy Zangwill, executive director of Sunnyside Community Services. “But the community rallied unbelievably.”
Amazon to open HQ2 in LIC
In a decision that will likely change the economic landscape of Queens forever, Amazon announced this November that it was coming to Long Island City.
The e-commerce retail giant will start off 2019 in the CitiBank building in Court Square, but eventually build out a four million-square-foot campus near the Anable Basin. The company plans to create 25,000 jobs over the next 10 years, with an average salary of $150,000.
Both the governor and the mayor, whose teams pitched and negotiated the deal, touted the project as the largest economic development boon in the city’s history. They hope to turn Long Island City into an economic capital and international tech hub.
But as soon as the deal was announced, enraged activists responded. From local elected officials like Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris to groups like the retail workers union and Make the Road, opponents of the deal have relentlessly rallied against Amazon.
In addition to the company’s reported worker mistreatment and displacement of longtime residents, critics slammed the deal, which includes up to $3 billion in tax incentives.
At a December hearing, the City Council also spoke out against the mayor and governor’s plan to sidestep the ULURP process, which would have given the legislative body a chance to veto the proposal. The council plans to have three more hearings on the deal next year.
Despite a Quinnipiac poll that showed New Yorkers generally favored Amazon’s HQ2, activists have not given up. Expect the showdown to continue well into 2019 and beyond.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseats Joe Crowley
The political story of the year is the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young Bronx native who shocked the world when she unseated longtime Congressman Joseph Crowley of Queens.
Ocasio-Cortez, a Bernie Sanders supporter who worked as a waitress and bartender to help pay the bills, employed a robust social media campaign and relentless ground game to win over voters. She painted the incumbent as out of touch in a changing and immigrant-heavy district.
Crowley was a rising star in Washington. He was seen as a top contender for speaker of the House, a political veteran who was well-connected and well-financed.
But Ocasio-Cortez’s message and platform, including Medicare for all, a $15 national minimum wage, tuition-free college and no corporate donations, appealed to the 14th Congressional District. The challenger won more than 57 percent of the vote in the Democratic Primary.
She became an instant progressive star. Her social media posts receive wall-to-wall media coverage, and she has become a frequent target for the right, ranging from how she dresses to her comments on foreign policy. Ocasio-Cortez, however, has also used her platform to make politics more transparent for a new generation of voters.
Despite losing his re-election, Crowley was chosen to keep his post as leader of the Queens Democratic Party. The Woodside native may be done with national politics, but he will remain a political player at home in Queens.
Anti-IDC challengers defeat incumbents
The Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) is gone for good.
In September, six of the former IDC state senators were ousted in the Democratic Primary, including two in Queens. Jessica Ramos defeated the late Jose Peralta, while John Liu bested Tony Avella twice, first in the primary and again in the general election.
The results were part of a blue wave that swept through New York. With additional victories on Long Island, the Democrats now have an overwhelming majority in the State Senate, and are poised to pass progressive legislation previously stymied by the GOP.
Ramos, a former mayoral aide and district leader, won by more than 2,000 votes. She campaigned on strengthening rent laws, fixing the MTA and increasing funding for public schools. As the incoming chair of the Labor Committee, she will also have a chance to oversee protections for workers.
The defeat concluded Peralta’s 16-year career in public service. He suddenly passed away one day before Thanksgiving, likely due to bacteria in his bloodstream. Peralta was just 47 years old.
On the eastern end, Liu vanquished Avella in a rematch of the 2014 race. The former city comptroller and councilman won by 1,287 votes.
Avella ran in the general election under the Independence and Women’s Equality party lines. In a four-way race with Vickie Paladino and Simon Minching, Liu emerged on top. He will now chair the Senate’s subcommittee on New York City Education.
Queens neighborhoods fight homeless shelter proposals
As the homeless crisis continues to spiral in New York City, Queens residents are seeing more and more proposals for shelters in their neighborhoods.
After the Maspeth protests prevented a full shelter from opening in their community, neighbors from Glendale, Ozone Park, College Point and Blissville are taking a page from their book.
In Glendale, residents balked at the idea of turning the manufacturing building at 78-16 Cooper Avenue into a 200-bed shelter. Councilman Robert Holden is now negotiating with the city to turn the facility into a much-needed public school.
Rumors then spread that DHS was looking at converting PS 9, a special needs school in Maspeth, into a shelter. Civic leaders have expressed opposition to that move as well.
Meanwhile, Blissville, a small section of Long Island City, received a third homeless shelter. Despite pleas from neighbors, who said the neighborhood lacks adequate resources and is already overburdened, the city went ahead with the shelter at 52-34 Van Dam Street for 154 families.
In Ozone Park, residents fought back against a shelter for 113 men at 85-15 101st Avenue. Local civic leader Sam Esposito even went on a hunger strike to raise awareness. It worked, and the city decided to look elsewhere for a shelter.
Finally, the latest battle is in College Point, where DHS plans to open a shelter for 200 men at 20th Avenue and 127th Street. Residents and elected officials have rallied against the proposal, and are looking into a lawsuit to stop it from happening.
Like previous years, 2018 was full of protests about homeless shelters, and 2019 will likely be the same.
Communities push for speed cameras in school zones
On July 25, speed cameras that caught and penalized law-breaking drivers in school zones went dark.
State lawmakers failed to renew and expand the life-saving program, despite the advocacy of families that lost loved ones to reckless driving in the city.
The numbers proved that the measure worked. According to city officials, 81 percent of drivers who received a speeding violation from the cameras never got a second one.
Speeding also declined 63 percent, and the number of pedestrians hit in these zones went down 17 percent. Still, that was not enough for the State Senate to pass a bill extending the program and expanding it to 150 more schools.
But in late August, just before the school year started, Governor Andrew Cuomo teamed up with the city to reinstate the cameras. He signed an executive order allowing the city to access DMV records and identify drivers for summonses.
The move is only temporary, but with Democratic control of the State Senate, street safety advocates will urge Albany to once again turn the cameras back on.
Clashes over Skillman/43rd Avenue and Queens Boulevard bike lanes
In 2018, New York City added more than 20 miles of protected bike lanes, but that didn’t come without a fight. In some cases, the mayor ordered the installation over the objections of the local community board.
On Queens Boulevard, many Forest Hills residents and businesses opposed the implementation of the fourth phase of the Queens Boulevard redesign between Yellowstone Boulevard and Union Turnpike.
Among their chief concerns was the loss of 200 parking spots, which opponents said will affect businesses. But street safety advocates argue that there have been zero fatalities on Queens Boulevard since the redesign, proving the lanes save lives.
Community Board 6 voted against the DOT plan in a 23-11 decision. Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, responding to constituent complaints, also dropped her support of the project.
However, the mayor’s office said the city will push through anyway.
A similar story played out in Sunnyside and Woodside over the DOT’s safety plan on Skillman and 43rd avenues. Citing a loss of 116 parking spots and fears about the safety of children and pedestrians, Community Board 2 voted down the plan.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, an avid supporter of bike lanes, initially announced he would not back the plan because it did not have sufficient community support. But after the mayor announced that the DOT will move forward with the plan, Van Bramer defended de Blasio’s decision.
Queens Street for All, a coalition of local residents and businesses, has not stopped organizing against the bike lanes. But the vitriol came to a head when local cyclists found tacks on the 43rd Avenue lane, which was quickly denounced by all parties.
QNU takes on the 82nd Street rezoning
With the popularity of Queens neighborhoods like Long Island City, Flushing and Jackson Heights on the rise, anti-gentrification advocates are fighting back against displacement.
One particular group, Queens Neighborhoods United, waged a successful campaign to stop the rezoning of 40-31 82nd Street, the site of the former Jackson Heights Cinema in Elmhurst.
Developers Sun Equity Partners and Heskel Group purchased the property years earlier, and planned to convert it into a 13-story, 120-unit mixed-use development with a Target on the ground floor.
But QNU, backed by soon-to-be state representatives of the area, convinced Community Board 4 to vote against the plan. After applying more pressure, the developers withdrew their rezoning application.
They could still build a 10-story, 77-unit development as of right, including the Target. After activists declared victory, they set out to legally challenge the zoning of the big box store, which they believe will crush small businesses in the area.
Even if the Target opens up, QNU pledges to boycott the store, and encourage neighbors to do the same.
“We’ll boycott it until it closes,” QNU member Patricia Chou said in July. “We will follow this all the way through.”
Kew Gardens merchants save their bridge
After a year-long effort to save the Lefferts Boulevard Bridge over the LIRR, Kew Gardens merchants finally scored a victory.
In July, LIRR President Phillip Eng announced that the MTA will repair rather than demolish the bridge. The repairs would cost about $1 million.
The deteriorating bridge, which the MTA has owned since the 1920s, caused many problems for nearby businesses, such as water leaks and roof problems.
Rather than fix it, MTA representatives initially wanted to destroy the bridge and build a high-rise tower instead. After pressure from elected officials and residents, the LIRR gave the bridge another look.
The MTA is now preparing bids for the repair work. However, merchants are not satisfied just yet. The Save Kew Gardens Coalition called on the MTA to commit to fully repairing the stores as well.
While their fight is not over, the business owners can rest easy knowing that their advocacy efforts in 2018 led to the saving of their stores.
Northern Boulevard deaths prompts changes
Queens Boulevard is no longer the “Boulevard of Death.” That distinction now belongs to Northern Boulevard.
The past year was a deadly one for pedestrians traversing the thoroughfare. In April, nine-year-old Giovanni Ampuero was fatally struck while crossing the boulevard with his mother, Karen Manrique.
He was hit by 86-year-old driver Juan Jimenez, who was arrested.
“I buried my son yesterday, it was the worst thing I think any parent can go through,” said Raul Ampuero, the boy’s father, at a rally later that week. “I tried to put on my happy face, but it was hard for me to do that.”
The next month, another pedestrian was killed. Carlos Gavilanes, 47, was struck by a car between 100 and 101 streets, police said. Altogether, four people have died on the corridor this year.
After calls for improvements by elected officials, advocates and community members, the Department of Transportation (DOT) decided to act. The agency hosted three workshops in October, focusing on different parts of the boulevard in western Queens.
The NYPD also stepped up enforcement, including cracking down on hazardous violations, failure to yield and speeding.
By next year, Northern Boulevard may also be redesigned to make it safer for all users of the street.