New Queens Warehouse Opens: How Will It Effect Two Streets?

by David Oats There was an eerie quiet in the always bustling lobby of Queens Borough Hall this Tuesday — a quiet that may last for quite some time.
Last Friday was the final day in which the big red building in Kew Gardens served as the home for the Queens Civil Court. On Tuesday the court — which includes the civil, housing, and small claims courts — moved into its gleaming new building in Jamaica.
The new structure will have a very definite impact on the judicial process in the borough, but it is also likely that it will have a profound impact on the commercial strip across the street on Sutphin Blvd. The once bustling street has declined in the last two decades with lower quality outlets and boarded-up or vacant storefronts serving as makeshift receptacles for garbage and as outdoor restrooms. The arrival of the new Civil Court should change that picture dramatically.
The court, which operates both day and night, will attract hundreds of people daily. The presence of additional police should bring a greater sense of security to the street. In addition, the lawyers, the judges, the court staff and the public involved in court cases, as well as jurors and prospective jurors will need to patronize local eating establishments, copy stores, newsstands, etc. The need for these businesses would bring back a new life and a new look to the depressed blocks.
Already the signs of change can be seen. A "grand opening" sign announces the arrival of a "Sir Speedy" copy center. Two corner storefronts have put up brand new exteriors with "For Rent" signs in the windows. The betting on the area appears to be they won’t be vacant for long.
Conversely, the move of the court from Borough Hall could have a big impact on the street opposite the building on Queens Blvd. The presence of all those people using and working at the court made many of the businesses along the street thrive for decades. Along the street are legal offices and supply stores, copy centers, a police equipment store and restaurants ranging from a Nathan’s, Romeo’s Ribs, salad bar luncheonettes, Italian restaurants and the famous Pastrami King deli. "We’ve taken a lot of people out of that area," one court official said, "when you consider we may have a thousand people during the day and evening coming to this court."
Any worries about a severe downturn in business on this part of Queens Blvd. should be tempered with the knowledge that later this year activity will return to the now empty and silent corridors that had housed the civil court.
Borough President Claire Shulman’s surprise announcement in her inaugural address last week was that she would turn Borough Hall into a "Queens City Hall." The myriad of rooms that were makeshift courtrooms for 30 years will become offices for a variety of city agencies that are currently scattered at various locations throughout the city. The Dept. of City Planning, Housing Preservation and Development, Environmental Protection, the Buildings Dept. and other expanded facilities for community use will be moved into Borough Hall Together with the second floor offices of the Borough President and her various departments the building should eventually "not only cut red tape, but it will bring our government and its programs even closer to the people it serves," Shulman said.
This week’s move from Borough Hall to Sutphin Blvd. should please those court watcher groups and others who had complained for years about the dismal and poor conditions that existed on Queens Blvd. Judges complained about having to put on their robes in crowded hallways where hundreds of people lined the halls in housing court waiting for cases to be called. Tenants were forced to negotiate —and sometimes argue and fight — with landlords and their attorneys in those drab and jammed corridors.
The experience for jurors was even worse. Down in the dark bowels of the building prospective jurors were forced into either a cavernous waiting room or in still more crowded basement corridors. Court officers had complained about seeing rats in the jury area.
One of the organizations which had campaigned for a new civil court house was the Queens County Bar Association and its president, Melvin Wolinsky, was clearly pleased with this week’s opening. "We’re excited about this. It should be comfortable for the public as well as for the bench and the bar," he said. He said it should provide better conditions for all involved and make the experience of being called to jury duty a far less uncomfortable experience.
Wolinsky had one complaint about the new court house. "We’re very disappointed that no provision was made to provide parking for the public. While there is an underground garage for the judges and court staff, they did not build a parking facility anywhere along or near Sutphin Blvd. for the use of the public. With the Supreme Court next door, parking was already a problem here.I think this was a major and unfortunate oversight," Wolinsky said.
Meanwhile the move from Borough Hall to the new building was done swiftly. After a full business day on Friday, cartons were loaded, furniture moved, records boxed and all of the components of the four parts that make up the Civil Court were transported to their new home in Jamaica. Over the weekend the staff of the clerk of the Civil Court set up everything in the new structure so that the court could open for business on Tuesday morning (Monday was Martin Luther King Day so the courts were not in session) without any hitches.
The move was made with such quiet efficiency that many people may still be unaware the change was made. At Borough Hall there are barricades in front of the hallways to the old courtrooms and large signs posted telling about the move. And opening day of the new court house was done without fanfare, no speeches or any kind of ceremony that normally accompanies the opening of a major new civic facility. Not even a press release was issued to mark the occasion. An official dedication is being planned for sometime in February.
Jeremy Weinstein, supervising judge of Queens Civil Court said, "The move went surprisingly smooth due to the employees who worked at moving files and everything else. We were able to conduct a full court schedule. It was even a little heavier because of the holiday the day before." He added that the court is "vastly different than the old location."
Weinstein’s statement is borne out with just one step into the block long five-story structure. The lobby is a vast marble entrance with large windows stretching upward where all of the floors above are visible. In the center is a large chandelier-like sculpture commissioned for the building. One of the first signs of change is the airport-like security entrance where every visitor must pass through a line of metal detectors manned by security personnel. It brings to mind the startling reminder that the court had no security when it was at Borough Hall. (In fact, to this day there are no metal detectors at the entrance to the headquarters of the Borough President.)
Computer screens built into the walls provide visitors with touch-screen information about the court. The chaos of Borough Hall has been replaced with such amenities as windows for people to pay fees, ask questions, set court dates, etc.
There are 18 bright paneled courtrooms on the upper levels and two large impressive courts on the main level. Jurors now have a handsomely decorated large waiting area right near the main entrance — it even has comfortable chairs.
On Wednesday, Queens County Clerk Gloria D’Amico toured her new jury section and told The Queens Courier the "facility is marvelous. I can’t wait for us to move in." The jury section will not open until later this month.
There is a sculpture garden which has four pool-like structures and two moving modern sculptures. On the upper levels the views are stunning as the structure’s five-story high columns and windows in every direction present an "optical illusion" that makes the entire courthouse appear mammoth and futuristic.

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