Wednesday, January 7, 2009

First Post of 2009 - The State of the Forest Hills Union

Honorable Weiner, Councilmember Katz, Assemblyman Hevesi, esteemed readers from McMansions on 112th Street to the row houses on Manse - the state of Forest Hills is strong.

With a tough 2008 behind us, the residents of Forest Hills are looking at a bright future with the fundamentals in place to thrive in the years ahead. Our schools are solid but crowded. Our commute, once the envy of the outer boroughs, is getting bogged down by crawling express trains and no sane bicycle access to Manhattan. Our shopping district had some great hits in 2008, but some unfortunate misses.

We’ll start with the reason many of us moved to 11375. . .

Education:

While some argue whether overcrowding is detrimental to a child’s learning environment, there is no debate that 101 and 196 are packed. Parents are getting more vocal about it and that’s a good thing. With more families priced out of Manhattan and not ready for the car-culture of the suburbs, expect more kids to move in. They will be joined by local children priced out of the private schools making overcrowding an issue that won’t go away by itself.

The new school complex on Metropolitan Avenue is an excellent start – as long as it is locally zoned and properly enforced. Another promising development is the Red Apple School trying to get approved in the old Ethan Allen space. Red Apple schools, a Chinese-affiliated program, have earned high marks in other places of operation in NYC and there’s no doubt it would be a huge success. At this date, they are still getting disapproved on building plans. I call upon our local leaders to reach out to the Red Apple building applicants listed on the documents – easily found on ACRIS – and find out what is needed for a fast and legal building plan. Red Apple is only for 2 – 5 year olds, but with Pre-K 101 kids going into a lottery and kindergarteners getting sent outside the zone, our district needs relief now. Whatever the hold up is, fix it.

Our Commute:

2008 was a hard year for subway riders. When Long Islanders are beating you home, you start wondering what you’re doing here. It is essential to get those express trains moving faster. It should not take 45 minutes to go from Manhattan to Forest Hills on the express train. Let me make this clear – move your ass. If that means removing the seats except for handicapped/elderly, do it. Rush hour pricing like they have on the LIRR – start it today. If the problem is merely functional like the F train’s painfully slow switch to the tunnel at 36th St in Queens, fix that. It’s slowing up the whole line.

The E r160 trains are a welcome sight and word is the F will be receiving them soon as well. Let’s hope with them come new signal technology to decrease the time between trains.

LIRR complaints are minor, like consistent 5 – 10 minute lateness on certain trains or unreasonable ticket office hours (if it’s below 20 degrees, keep it open). In general the LIRR was good to Forest Hills in 2008.

Austin Street:

Though it receives less attention from our Community Civic than Metropolitan Avenue, Austin Street showed a lot of fight in 2008. For Rent signs are still too abundant, with some high profile spaces being vacant for too long. Annie Sez/Mandee’s and the stretch of stores between Dmitry and Latina Cabana are two of the biggest and the eyes of the community are watching them. Let’s hope the lag time is because the landlords are waiting for the right tenant to commit.

But we did welcome some outstanding new business and for that we should be proud. Oko and Yogomonster provide bright and clean environments for residents to have coffee or a frozen snack. Ripe is a smash. Even Broadway Bakery gets kudos for its new store a block east of its current one. Who don’t like redemption?

On a larger scale, the bar was raised when Bonfire Grill tore up The Wine Gallery and became an instant hot spot. A few doors down, Modus responded by transforming into The Tap House, a sports bar complete with burgers and wings. Restaurant Row welcomed the neon lights of Moca and the new steakhouse Aged is coming along very nicely.

For a town that consistently complains about its restaurant options, you can’t bitch about 2008. No we didn’t get an outer borough flagship like Grocery or Trattoria Lincontro, but progress was definitely made from 2007. And Metropolitan Avenue hit it out of the park when it came to restaurant openings.

Real Estate:

All of this is anecdotal and maybe people are struggling, but it seems like prices held up okay. Dips across the board, but you still can’t find an Archie Bunker in 101 for under 550K. Condos might be slow selling, but no firesales like many predicted. As long as you can own for what you’d pay in rent, you’re okay – and Forest Hills never got too crazy. The schools and commute will also prevent a major crash.

Co-ops would be wise to lower the down payment requirements however. What good does it do to make a young family and potential upstanding resident put down 25% of 400K (100K) just to make an offer. Are you really happier with the buyer who pays with all cash? Get with reality in this down economy and make it ten percent down like many Manhattan co-ops have done.

Our Politicians:

An abysmal year for our leaders, no other way to put it. They forced upon us the extended term limits that everybody voted against twice. We getting a senator nobody voted for appointed by a governor nobody voted for, backed by a billionaire mayor who changed the law. Years from now, it will be known as one of the darkest times for democracy in New York history and the fourth estate has been depressingly silent.

In 2009, I implore you, vote the bums out.

Options are starting to come in. I’ve been emailed several press releases from potential city council district 29 candidates. Joseph Nocerino, Mel Gagarin, Bob Delay have sent me nice notes and political veterans like Karen Koslowitz and Michael Cohen have expressed interest. We will be focusing on this race throughout the year.

Culture:


Forest Hills was one of the few zip codes that put lack of culture as one of our biggest problems in a recent NYC survey and the respondents are dead on.

With plenty of places to get your nails done or eat a frozen yogurt, where does someone go do see live music before 10pm? Or after 10pm for that matter? Where are the readings at Barnes and Noble? Why is the only free activity for little kids in this kid-bursting neighborhood a day at the big-kid-packed Austin Street Park? Why is the only theater in Forest Hills a church basement in Glendale?

Whether it’s the Spiderman 3 premiere which was embarrassingly held in Astoria over Forest Hills, or the lackadaisical attitude I received when inquiring about our Summer Streets or public plaza participation, there has to be a more aggressive authority to bring culture to Forest Hills.

Let’s work with local business like Young Chef’s Academy or Belle Arti to offer some kind of one-off class so you don’t have to sign for a full semester – much like the Harry Potter parties the Community Bookstore has in Park Slope. Let’s commission the Queens Artists group on Metropolitan to paint over one of the LIRR overpasses – get a band and invite kids to help. Let’s get creative. Let’s close down 71st Rd. on Sundays – or Austin Street for Summer Streets. Let’s have a rock concert.

Finally, a word has to be said about the terrible job the West Side Tennis Club has done. In 2007 they hosted two excellent tournaments and welcomed the public with open arms. T-shirt give-aways, radio station appearances, and kids activities. This year they had one tournament, and it was awful. No sponsor tents, no music, no fun. Just a small metal grandstand in the blaring August sun and a jug of water. It obviously wasn’t meant for spectators and to have world class players on empty and silent court was embarrassing to witness and I’m not even a member.

West Side Tennis Club listen up. Being exclusive is great and all – but tough times are coming. Please finish getting a corporate sponsor for that beautiful but decrepit stadium and have events there. Doesn’t have to be the Beatles and Hendrix like the old days. Whether it’s tennis or the New York Pops or Fleetwood Mac, an open air stadium five minutes from the express subway and LIRR is absolutely f’king priceless. Not to mention you have hundreds of thousands of LIRR commuters passing it daily to see a big bright logo. If you can’t sell that to Jet Blue or Chase, than you couldn’t sell a dollar for fifty cents.

Communication:

Our community board, civic group, elected officials, and local businesses all stink at communicating with the public. I created this blog for that purpose and the only people who email me are Katherine Thome and Steven Melnick – and I promote their causes. I’ll find out about the Taste of Forest Hills three weeks after it happens or the children’s day picnic at Flagpole park that happened last month. There very well might be a ton of cultural events going on, but no one knows about them.

It says a lot when a bowling alley in Flushing named Jib Lanes gets more Forest Hills promotion than a Forest Hills event.

The Future:

We Forest Hills residents are in a great spot. Our schools are top notch and I’m proud to send my kid to one of them. The LIRR is a 12-minute shuttle into Penn Station. And if you miss the 8:25, just walk up a block to the express subway. The East Side Access project will give us yet another transportation option.

We also have a great look, but that needs to be defended. We fell asleep in Cord Meyer and that’s pretty much gone, as is 72nd Avenue.

We have to do a better job in working with developers and explaining why boxy office buildings and monster houses are not the draw. Heskel Elias gets it. You can build something like the Duane Reade/Staples building or renovate the Ann Taylor space to make it a modern reflection of its tudor past. And there’s no question it will enhance the value of the surrounding area.

We have a lot of work to do, we have to fix the overcrowding in our schools, speed up our express subway, host more cultural events, and protect the beautiful but threatened look of Forest Hills. But the great news is infrastructure is in place for all if it as is an intelligent, caring populace.

Thank you and may Bloomberg bless Forest Hills.