Thursday, October 25, 2007


Your minding your own business when suddenly a major university announces that although it has denied the story in the past in fact it is building a huge dormitory right in the middle of your neighborhood.

That's what happened to some folks in Queens and they are fighting back.

The dorm is slated for residential Henley Road in Jamaica Estates, a neighborhood of one- and two-family homes which residents and officials say lacks the infrastructure to support such a large building.

Last Saturday pissed off neighborhood residents protested in the streets just outside St. John's University (see picture). Prospective students and their family’s attending the "Open Day" were greeted by the protesters who shouted “Father Harrington shame on you,” and, “St. John’s is a bad neighbor.”

The protesters said St. John’s walked all over residents, acted in secret and took advantage of a loophole in zoning laws.

A leaflet distributed at the demo says, “There was something fishy about the way the plans (for the building) were pushed through.” It claimed that the dorm would overburden the Jamaica Estates community, exacerbate the lack of parking, create noise, crime, kill the water pressure, overwhelm the sewage system causing flooding, destroy the quiet residential lifestyle and cause property values to decline.

Sounds swell.

Rossel Pririe has lived in the area for 15 years. He told the Queens Chronicle that Henley Road was nice and quiet. “St. John’s is trying to destroy it, they have no heart.”

Marilu Velasquez another protester said, “We pay a lot for our houses.” Fran Lieu, former zoning chair for Jamaica Estates Association added, “They just walk right over us.”

Now you'd think the University would have had the courtesy to, at least, include the neighborhood in the discussion.

They didn't. Not until the deal was done were community members even told it was actually happening. They'd heard rumors, they'd asked for answers, they'd said they weren't interested in a dorm on the block. After long-standing representations to the community that the private college would not “build” off-campus student residences, the university entered into a 10-year lease for the dormitory building on Henley Road which will house some 485 students in 66 rooms...and then they let their neighbors in on the discussion.

At that time Kevin Forrestal, President of the Hillcrest Estates Civic Association fumed to the Queens Courier, “Once again, St. John’s has kept its development plans secret. I regularly attend their ‘discussion group’ and they kept us in the dark. This construction is clearly inappropriate and their position is inexcusable to any rational person."

Now you and I probably wouldn't object to have some college kids around, but these are older and often retired folk who've been living quietly for years. They're not so sure they're ready for prime time and anyway, we'll say it again, no one bothered to even ask.

Universities which so often pride themselves as liberal institutions who want to be nothing but good neighbors too often historically forget that policy when it comes to expansions. Remember Colombia University back in 68? I do. Back then Colombia was constructing a new gym in Morningside Park -- the barrier separating Columbia from Harlem -- with a "back door" on the Harlem side. This offended many people. What followed is history that you should know. Students at Colombia took over buildings and battled not just their administration but rioting cops as well.

I wonder if today's students at St. John's know that history.

I wonder if they care?

The following is from the Queens Chronicle.

St. John’s Dorm Project Halted By DOB Order
by Jillian Abbott , Chronicle Reporter

In a move that is certain to embolden neighborhood activists, the city Department of Buildings issued a stop work order this month for a controversial 485-bed off-campus dormitory for St. John’s University students.

“All permits have been revoked, and no work can take place at the site,” said Carly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the buildings department. She added that a new permit to create a shoring system that would ensure that the site complies with safety standards was recently approved, but has not yet been issued.

The original plans were self-certified by Ramy Isaac, who was recently described in New York Magazine as the “go-to guy” for illegal East Village apartment enlargements — including, in some cases, additional penthouses on existing buildings. Following a buildings department probe into his work, Isaac voluntarily surrendered his right to self-certify building plans in April.

But by the time he gave up certification privileges, he had already submitted his plans for the Jamaica Estates dormitory.

The city, after receiving a high volume of complaints about the proposed Henley Road dorm over the summer, decided to audit Isaac’s plan for the residence hall and found that it did not comply with building codes and zoning resolutions.

The agency then issued a “Revoke Pending” order requiring Isaac to address inspectors’ concerns about the structure. But the architect failed to respond, prompting the agency to issue the recent stop work order, an agency spokeswoman said.

The prohibition was welcomed by elected officials, civic leaders and Henley Road residents, who continue to hold regular meetings to brainstorm new ways to stop the construction.

“I only hope it (the stop work order) is permanent,” said a community leader who asked not to be named, “but they (developers) have a way of getting around the codes.”

Much of the local anger about the dorm, which the agency approved on June 11, has been directed at the university officials who had consistently denied they were even planning the off-campus facility until they actually signed the lease on Aug. 7.

In light of these earlier denials, it remains unclear how the architect could have received a permit to build such a large dorm in a residential area unless he had secured a previous commitment from university officials to lease the property for 10 years. (The city requires stakeholders to make such a commitment before it approves community facilities.)

When asked about the recent stop work order, Dominic Scianna, a university spokesman, declined to comment. He later suggested consulting the developer, not the university, when pressed for details.

Meanwhile, community leaders are incensed by what they call evasive responses by St. John’s officials, whom they believe are privately aiding developers, while publicly distancing themselves from the project.

Critics are also suspicious about the fact that one of the listed owners of the Henley Road property is David Belt, president of DBI Construction Consultants. Belt has worked closely with the university on past construction projects.

“Is it too much of a leap of faith to say that St. John’s has their fingerprints all over this construction application?” asked a civic leader, who asked not to be named.

“David Belt was also a force in the construction of the St. Thomas More Church,” he said, “their DaSilva Hall at the Staten Island Campus and the Capital Expansion Program at the Hillcrest Estate campus.”

According to the latest plan, the new dorm would house 485 students, supply 80 parking spots and have less supervision than most on-campus dorms.

In recent years, students living in on-campus dorms have been cited in hundreds of incidents for drinking and unruly conduct — and state Sen. Frank Padavan worries the same problems will arise at the off-campus site.

He wrote to St. John’s President Father Donald Harrington again, drawing his attention to liquor violations, drug violations and a sexual misconduct incident on the campus. Padavan fears this might be even worse at an unsupervised off-campus dorm in a residential area.

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