Community Says No To Home Depot, Yes To Park

"Do we want a Home Depot?" was the question put forward by Juniper Park Civic Association (JPCA) president Bob Holden at a town meeting that was held on Thursday at PS 58 in Maspeth.
"No," the audience shouted back.
The meeting was the second of what promises to be many in which outraged residents of Maspeth, Middle Village and Elmhurst, as well as elected officials, came together to discuss the future of the former Elmhurst gas tank site.
Before the meeting officially began, JPCA members handed out signs featuring slogans such as "KeySpan to Maspeth: Drop Dead," "KeySpan Money Grab," and "KeySpan Too Big To Care." KeySpan officials were conspicuously absent.
The publics resentment comes in the wake of the companys decision to ignore the hold on negotiations to sign a deal to sell the site to The Mattone Group and Starwood Ceruzzi (MGSC), which plan to turn the now empty lot into a Home Depot, a self-storage facility and a bank none of which, residents feel, would benefit the community.
"I came here tonight because Im very angry," said Councilman Dennis Gallagher, who attended the meeting. "KeySpan gave us this deadline. They should have given the elected officials enough time to raise the money to put a positive use to this site. They never cared what this community wanted."
Also in attendance were State Senator Serphin Maltese and former Councilman Tom Ognibene. Other area politicians sent representatives to the meeting, and community celebrities Frank "Mr. Maspeth" Principe and Carl Berner, a Middle Village resident and an original member of the JPCA, also came to show their support.
"Im looking around here tonight and Im inspired," Gallagher continued. "We will not give up. We will fight and if that means going out and protesting, Im up for it."
In preparation for the long fight ahead, a number of organizations including the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce, the Maspeth Kiwanis, Maspeth Town Hall, and JPCA joined forces to create the community task force that sponsored the meeting.
"Anyone who says we cant win this fight doesnt know these organizations. Weve won other fights that have seemed hopeless," said Holden.
"Lets give them hell," yelled one resident.
According to speakers, KeySpan did not negotiate to sell the site to the highest bidder, opting instead to make a deal with the MGSC, the second highest bidder. The decision may have been linked with the contract, which goes into effect on December 31 and includes the statement: "MGSC shall indemnify KeySpan for environmental conditions on the site."
"The greatest liability faced by developers today is the potential liability for environmental clean-up," said former Councilman Tom Ognibene. "KeySpan saw a way out of it. There is something wrong with this deal and it disturbs me immensely. Why was KeySpan so afraid that they took the lower bid? Its a scam of the highest order."
Speakers echoed each others outrage. Both residents and politicians felt they had been scammed not just once, but twice: first when KeySpan pointedly ignored the communitys proposals for the site and then when they completed contract negotiations with the developers. Though KeySpan never took a survey, they maintained that there was no consensus in the communitysomething that the JPCAs survey showing the communitys overall desire for a park disproves.
But the outpouring of community concern has very little to do, in the end, with the nagging feeling that KeySpan is ignoring the wishes of the community that has supported it for almost a century. Instead, residents are worried about the potential lingering environmental and health effects of the site and the safety issues that will be raised when Home Depot comes to town.
Margaret Magnus, a member of both Community Board 5 and JPCA, expressed her fears that the overload of trucks and traffic that already plague the streets of Maspeth would just get worse.
"We already have major traffic problems and weve had people, both young and old, killed on our streets," she said. "We expect the traffic increase to be massive because of the Home Depot. We have a Restaurant Depot and a storage facility. From my perspective, its not the right thing to do at this time."
For 80 years, the massive gas tanks were painted and repainted with lead-based paint. Under the site, there is nearly 3,000 linear feet of pipe which may contain poisonous gas condensate that, over time as the pipes deteriorate, will leech into the soil and into the air.
"My number one concern is safety," said Patricia Hynson, a resident of Maspeth. "Its near a school and Im worried about the health of children. I dont think its safe. I really hope the rallies make a difference."
A number of future courses of action were proposed during the meeting. One resident suggested including a "No Home Depot" notice when paying KeySpan bills and another recommended switching gas providers. The task force announced that it has requested a full investigation of the site and medical testing of those living near the site. Alternate plans such as dividing the sites land between the NYPD, the library and the post office were briefly mentioned, but it was the park plan that continued to receive the most support.
Senator Maltese, who lives within five blocks of the site, expressed his desire that the site be turned into a park and summed up the feelings of the crowd.
"Our best bet is to seek a delay to make sure the site is safe," he said. "You have a united community. You have united public officials. Weve set all of our soldiers in a row and we have to protect our families and this community. Well stand together to fight this terrible intrusion into our community."

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