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2007 – The Year in Review

January 5, 2008

Help for Area Parks 

In Van Cortlandt Park, in the north Bronx, work is underway to build an 11-acre water filtration plant. As might be expected, local residents are distraught about the loss of parkland. There are concerns, too, about the spiraling construction costs, the ear-splitting construction noise, and the health implications for the neighborhood – some say that the increased truck traffic may increase asthma rates.

Still, in this instance, one neighborhood’s loss is the rest of the borough’s gain. In return for housing the plant, the city has allocated more than $200 million to 70 Bronx parks and playgrounds over the next five year – an unprecedented sum.

In the central west Bronx, or Community District 5, the following are set to profit:                    

Roberto Clemente State Park (West Tremont Avenue and Matthewson Road)

Mount Hope Playground (Walton Avenue and East 177th Street)

Sedgwick Playground (Cross Bronx Expressway and Undercliff Avenue)

Washington Bridge Park (a new park adjacent to the Alexander Hamilton Bridge)

Regatta Park (just south of Washington Bridge Park)

Aqueduct Lands/Aqueduct Walks (a slither of parkland that runs from Kingsbridge Road to Tremont Avenue)

Several other playgrounds are currently getting makeovers, using funding sources separate from the $200 million slush fund. These include Half Nelson Playground (174th Street and Featherbed Lane) and Morris Mesa Playground (the north side of the Cross Bronx Expressway at Morris Avenue). Morris Mesa, formerly an empty lot, was once a sanctuary for drug addicts and prostitutes. Soon it will entertain a different type of clientele.



University Woods

Another park making headlines is University Woods, a three-acre plus forest in Morris Heights. It, too, has had problems with drug activity. Conditions got so bad that it has routinely been voted the city’s “worst park” by New Yorkers for Parks, a parks advocacy group. Some – notably Community Board 5 – are in favor of developing the land (condos is the latest idea). But there’s also a movement, led by Friends of the Woods (www.uniwoods.20m.com), to preserve it as parkland.

“University Woods has a lot of potential,” says Brandy Cochrane of Friends of the Woods. “It’s just not had an honest chance to blossom. For us to lose a piece of land that’s our natural backyard… that would kind of suck.”

In May, when the weather’s warmer, Friends of the Woods will resume their monthly cleanups. Also in May, on Partnership for Parks’ “It’s My Park! Day,” Cochrane hopes to put on a play, in both Spanish and English. At the moment, she’s thinking “Little Red Riding Hood.” The little girl would symbolize those who treat the park well, said Cochrane, who runs a theatre company. And the big bad wolf? He’d represent those who treat it mean.



Crime Falls, But Old Problems Die Hard

The 46th Precinct is one of the most crime-ridden precincts in the city. In 2007, for the second year in a row, officers made more than 10,000 arrests. That makes it one of the busiest, if not the busiest, precincts in the city.

But crime continues to plummet in the west central Bronx. In 2007, it was down 6.2 percent from the previous year (current figures don’t take into account the last day of the year). With the exception of the 42nd Precinct, crime dropped off more in the 46 than any other precinct in the borough. 

The biggest reductions were seen in burglary, down 12.3 percent, and Grand Larceny Auto, or motor vehicle theft, down 17.7 percent. Overall, in the 46, crime is down close to 25 percent since 2001, and an incredibly 80 percent since 1990.

None of this, of course, is any consolation to those who lost loved ones during the past 12 months. In 2007, there were 18 murders, the same as in 2006. Among those killed were at least five teenagers, a stark reminder that there’s still a long way to go.

To help counter violent crime, Operation Impact, which floods troubled neighborhoods with uniformed cops, will return to the 46 in 2008.



Need leadership at Community Board 5

In June, Community Board 5 elected a new chair, Bola Omotosho, a Nigerian-born doctor and businessman, who defeated the existing chair, Beverly Smith, by 16 votes to 4. He officially took over in September. Bola

“I love challenges,” said Omotosho, on taking the voluntary position. “It’s not that I’m particularly interested in politics. But when it comes to the welfare of fellow human beings, I feel I can make a difference.”

Omotosho has a number of goals. First and foremost, he said, speaking back in the summer, he wants to ensure the Board’s monthly meetings start and finish on time (going on the last few meetings, there’s still work to be done here).

Longer-term goals include revitalizing the shopping district along Burnside Avenue, and putting a stop to the slew of supportive housing facilities, such as homeless shelters, being built in the district. “The city uses us as a dumping ground [for these types of projects],” he said.

Note: According to the NYC Community Assistance Unit Web site, community boards have three formal roles: improving the delivery of city services, planning and reviewing land use in the area; and making recommendations on the city budget. To inquire about becoming a board member of CB5 call (718) 364-2030 or e-mail brxcb5@optonline.net.



Carrión Drops Mayoral Bid

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión spent 2007 positioning himself for a 2009 mayoral run, but the former teacher sent shock waves through the city’s political establishment when he announced in mid-December that he would instead be running for comptroller. Carrion

Politicos say Carrión’s decision most directly benefits current comptroller Bill Thompson, the only other minority candidate. It was widely believed Thompson, who’s black, and Carrión, who’s Puerto Rican, would have fractured the kind of minority coalition that either would have needed to win.

Carrion immediately becomes a formidable force in the comptroller’s race, with a $1.4 million war chest and the highest profile of any of the other candidates. Joining Thompson in the mayoral race will most likely be Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Congressman Anthony Weiner.

Those likely to be in the running to replace Carrión as borough president (Carrión will step aside at the end of the year, because of term limits) include City Council Majority Leader Joel Rivera and Assemblyman Ruben Diaz, whose close friendship will be tested if neither backs down. Other possibilities include Council Member Helen Foster and State Senator José M. Serrano.



Foreclosure Crisis

This fall, when west Bronx homeowners began losing their homes at an increasingly high rate to foreclosure, housing advocates pointed to a half decade of subprime lending practices, which left borrowers with high monthly payments they simply couldn’t keep up with.

The entire nation began feeling the pinch as housing groups scrambled to cobble together resources to reverse the foreclosure trend. Advocates blamed mortgage companies and big investment banks, saying the two worked in tandem to push subprime loans on borrowers, many of whom could have qualified for prime loans with lower interest rates.

Housing groups say government remediation efforts have fallen short and more resources are needed. Shockingly, there is only one counselor in the entire west Bronx doing foreclosure counseling. Homeowners stuck with bad loans and facing foreclosure simply don’t have anywhere to turn for help.

But in late December, Greg Jost of University Neighborhood Housing Program, reported on the West Bronx Blog, that the mayor, City Council and the nonprofit Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project (NEDAP) had formed the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, a new nonprofit that will “fund a major expansion and coordination of counseling and referral services, legal assistance, loan remediation, preventive outreach and education, training, research and advocacy around subprime lending and mortgage foreclosures.”

So, early in 2008, help should be on the way. To access assistance under the new program, just call 311.



A Tale of Two Community Centers

Mount Hope Housing Company’s new community center, at 175th Street and Townsend Avenue, is scheduled to open in the spring.

Meanwhile, plans for another community center in the abandoned Hebrew Institute Yeshiva building on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulavard, continue to stutter and stall. Kips Bay

In March, we reported that it would open in the summer of 2008. That’s now been pushed back to early or mid-2009. The 30,000-square-foot building, vacant for more than 30 years, will have to sit empty and idle a little while longer.

“Things are taking longer than we expected,” said Daniel Quintero, executive director of Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club, the organization behind the center. “There are many pieces to this puzzle.”

Specifically, there have been problems with fund-raising and building plans. Design plans for the first floor, for example, encroached onto a neighboring property, said Quintero, and they had to start again.

But, Quintero insists, things are moving ahead. The necessary funds – $12 million – have been raised. And Kips Bay are hoping to close with Housing Preservation & Development, the city agency that owns the building, later this month, said Quintero. Construction will start in February or March and take 12 to 14 months.

When up-and-running, the center will serve 350-450 kids a day. It’ll boast a gymnasium, and a game room with pool and ping-pong tables. Youngsters will also benefit from tutoring and college preparation resources.  



Gonzalez Trial Stalls

State Senator Efrain Gonzalez’s pending trial on fraud and corruption charges is still pending after pre-trial hearings were postponed twice in 2007.

In the fall of 2006, Gonzalez was charged with mail fraud. Three months later, federal authorities heaped on several more serious charges for allegedly bilking $423,000 in state funds and using the funds (mostly local grants, so-called member items, that were supposed to go to local organizations) to pay for his own personal expenses.

In March, Gonzalez’s lawyer, Murray Richman, said he needed more time to go through the mountains of evidence against his client and the judge postponed pretrial hearings, the precursor to a trial, until November. Then, in November, that date was pushed back again, this time until April.

Gonzalez, who represents the 33rd Senate District in the west Bronx, has indicated he intends to run for office again next fall when he’s up for re-election, but rumors are swirling about who might replace him if he resigns or is convicted. Longtime Bronx politician Pedro Espada, Jr. recently moved to Bedford Park and said he wants to run for something, possibly Gonzalez’s seat.



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