Katz highlights successes, challenges of first term
by Benjamin Fang
Feb 01, 2017 | 3627 views | 0 0 comments | 185 185 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In the last year of her first term, Borough President Melinda Katz used her annual State of the Borough address to lay out significant accomplishments under her leadership.

With her Friday morning speech at York College, Katz also delved into some of the challenges the borough faces and major proposals to solve them.

“As we continue to be the borough of growth, we can’t forget that we are – at our core – still the borough of families,” Katz said, evoking her signature phrase. “At the end of the day, it’s for the sake of our families, however and whichever way you define ‘family.’”

She listed many of the successes throughout her first three years at the helm, including repainting the New York State Pavilion, welcoming a new roof for Arthur Ashe Stadium, opening a new satellite office for veterans, and having a seat for every pre-k student in the borough.

While New York City’s population continues to grow, Katz noted that Queens had the largest increase of all five boroughs. Since 2013, when she first took office, the borough has seen a 5 percent increase in jobs.

Expanding on a point she made in last year’s address, Katz touted Queens’s “healthy share” in the surge in tourism. In 2015, she said, the economic impact of the industry in the borough was $8.3 billion, second only to Manhattan. That generated $1 billion in tax revenues for the city and 87,000 tourism-related jobs for residents.

She mentioned Long Island City, Flushing and Jamaica as three neighborhoods that have changed due to growth.

“The skyline is practically unrecognizable from a decade ago,” Katz said about Long Island City.

She highlighted some of the infrastructure her office has invested in to accompany those changes. In western Queens, Queensbridge Park got a new $6 million seawall, while Astoria welcomed a renovated playground. The $38 million Hunters Point Library remains in the works.

Katz also spoke about the revitalization of southeast Queens. In addition to the $153 million Jamaica NOW Action Plan launched two years ago, Jamaica recently won a $10 million grant from the governor’s office.

Soon, the borough president said, the area will also open the new 116th Precinct that Councilman Donovan Richards fought for.

Moving onto the Rockaway Peninsula, which she said was “fast becoming the city’s worst-kept secret,” Katz noted that 6.2 million visitors enjoyed the neighborhood’s beaches last year. But the area is still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, which badly damaged homes, libraries and the boardwalk.

On the “road to recovery,” Katz said 87 percent of the 3,600 residents eligible for the mayor’s Build It Back program have started reconstruction or received reimbursement checks.

“There’s still work to be done,” she said.

Despite the accomplishments, Katz also explained some of the challenges that come with growth. In addition to her grievances with Common Core and the city’s hiring process for principals, Katz pointed to school overcrowding as a major issue.

According to the borough president, elementary schools are at 119 percent capacity while high schools are at 111 percent capacity.

In just two years, the borough’s student enrollment jumped 15,000. To address the issue, Katz said Queens has welcomed 11 new schools. Six schools have also expanded.

Tackling a persistent problem in areas like Corona, Katz said they’ve gotten rid of 43 trailer classrooms in the last three years. Another 46 trailers are scheduled to be removed.

Another challenge ahead is rising rents and the lack of affordable housing. Katz said the rent in Queens is now outpacing both Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“It is without question that we must increase affordable housing inventory,” she said.

But she insisted that it must be done with the inclusion of women and minority businesses, as well as with prevailing wages.

Embracing the diversity of Queens, where nearly half of residents were born in another country, Katz pushed back at some of the immigrant-targeting proposals of President Donald Trump’s administration.

She said many communities face “tremendous uncertainties and fears about the future.”

“But we are, and continue to be, and are proud to be, a nation of immigrants,” Katz said. “Queens has your back.”

She recommitted to combating hate crimes with the District Attorney’s office and touted legal clinics and service fairs for immigrants.

The borough president then made her first major proposal: re-opening an immigration field office in the borough. The federal government previously ran a 48,000-square-foot office in Long Island City, but closed it in January 2015 due to a massive flood.

Katz, along with Congressman Gregory Meeks, now want the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to open an office in the Joseph F. Addabbo Federal Building in Jamaica, which already hosts the Social Security Administration.

Two other major challenges the borough faces are transportation and homelessness, she said. Calling Queens a “transit desert,” Katz said subways only reach one-third of the borough.

She called on both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to create a “comprehensive plan with a macro view” and a “citywide coordinated agenda” for transportation.

The ferries, subways, bus service, bikes, connections to LaGuardia Airport and even Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley’s light rail proposal should be connected.

“The bike lines in our neighborhoods can’t just end in the middle of some street, they need to go somewhere and connect throughout a larger system,” Katz said. “I ask again for DOT to issue a thorough, borough-wide suggested bike lanes proposal on which communities can comment.”

Katz also said she likes the idea of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), the proposed streetcar that would run from Astoria down to Sunset Park. But she recommended that it should extend its route to LaGuardia as well.

“These may be great ideas, but the city and the state need to figure out a way to coordinate all these projects, existing and new, so they make sense and work together,” she said.

Another issue where the city and state have disagreed is homelessness. The shelter count has topped 60,000, including 24,000 children citywide. The issue was front and center once again last year, with protests exploding in Maspeth over a proposed homeless shelter.

Katz said the crisis requires measures to prevent homelessness, expand shelter capacity and move people back into permanent housing.

“With the sharp rise in citywide homelessness, the city has increasingly resorted to using hotels – sometimes entire hotels – to house people, while giving little to no notice to the existing communities,” she said. “The impact of this in Queens has been substantial.”

With Comptroller Scott Stringer in the audience, Katz also recommended placing more homeless families in vacant public housing apartments. Stringer released a report last year detailing the vacancies that should be filled.

She also lent her support to Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi’s Home Stability Support (HSS) program, which seeks to curb homelessness by providing subsidies to help vulnerable populations.

Among Katz’s proposals was creating more public areas specifically for seniors. She wants to add “low-impact exercise equipment” for seniors to stay active.

“There’s no reason we can’t create senior park areas here in Queens to help our elders maintain their independence, dignity and health,” Katz said. “And we intend to fund that in this year’s budget.”

One last issue the borough president tackled in her address was Willets Point. She said despite spending $300 million demolishing and moving businesses, the area is still a mess.

“It’s still a blight. When we hosted the World Series at Citi Field, that’s the Queens that folks saw from all over the country,” Katz said. “Willets Point needs to be remediated and prepped for a cleaner future. At the bare minimum, clean it up.”

While the future of the neighborhood awaits the outcome of a lawsuit, Katz offered some ideas on what to build there, such as a new school, an eco-recreation center or more parking. She even floated the idea of creating a hockey and soccer stadium.

“Just imagine if we, the World’s Borough, hosted the World Cup or the Stanley Cup,” she said. “We should be unafraid to think bigger, bolder and more comprehensively.

“The market and the constituencies are here, we have needs, and there is inherent demand,” Katz added. “So why not when building the vision for our borough, let’s be brave.”

As she wrapped up her address, Katz ended with optimism. She said the borough has “nowhere to go but up,” noting that people still want to invest, build and stay in Queens.

When she puts her two young children to bed every night, she added, she wonders what the borough will look like when they come of age. She said she knows Queens is on the right track.

“We’ve taken stock of our challenges, but we’ve also recognized that in every challenge, with the right vision, there is opportunity and there is no limit for better,” Katz said. “So we can’t stop thinking about tomorrow. It’ll be here soon, and what’s clear for Queens is that it’ll be better than before.”
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