Thursday, August 23, 2007

FEMA to Ridge: Ask Bush

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

Federal disaster aid for residents of Bay Ridge who were pummeled by the Aug. 8 tornado is being held up until President Bush, who is on vacation in Texas for the rest of the month, decides whether he wants to release the funds.

Gov. Spitzer formally requested disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday — and called for swift action by the federal bureaucracy.

FEMA inspectors did make their own damage assessments on Aug. 13 and sent a recommendation to the president. But the buck has stopped — and apparently stalled — there, according to FEMA spokeswoman Barbara Lynch, who said the rare tornado may not have generated enough media coverage to get the president’s limited attention.

“Higher-profile cases seem to move a lot faster,” said Lynch. “This situation didn’t get the media attention it warranted.”

Lynch said agency inspectors were “just flabbergasted” by the millions of dollars of damage caused by the tornado — whose 136 mile-per-hour winds destroyed or damaged hundreds of cars and dozens of homes in the area around 67th Street between Fourth and Seventh avenues.

But if the president shares that flabbergasted feeling, he hasn’t expressed it yet. A call to the White House was not returned by deadline — and Spitzer’s office hasn’t heard a thing yet, either.

“All we can do is urge the president to act,” said Paul Larrabee, a Spitzer spokesperson. “We are working to expedite this process and to bring the urgency of this situation to the attention of the White House.”

Residents waiting for aid better not hold their breath. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty applied for federal help after the very-high-profile bridge collapse on Aug. 1 — but the White House only released the funds on Aug. 21.

For Brooklyn residents rendered roofless by the storm, a three-week delay would be too long.

“This is ridiculous that help is so slow to come,” said Hassan Hakmoun, who last week was busy moving his relatives out of their damaged house at 339 Bay Ridge Ave. “We all pay our taxes, but the government doesn’t like giving it up.”

The president will remain on his Crawford ranch through August.

Beware of these boy SCOUTs

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

City Hall has unleashed teams of inspectors in Cushmen scooters with a mission to improve the quality of life.

But exactly whose life will actually be improved isn’t so clear.

The plan is ambitious. Mayor Bloomberg says the three-wheeled scooters will hit every block at least once a month to report on those pesky annoyances of city life (see news story, page 14).

But up high on this columnist’s list of pesky annoyances happens to be those three-wheeled scooters.

They don’t go fast, they clog up roads, and there are about a gazillion little scooters already employed by Traffic Enforcement officers wreaking havoc on residents.

In fact, the idea of more scooters continuously racing around the streets of Bay Ridge sounds more like an Orwellian nightmare than a kind-hearted blessing from the mayor.

Known as Street Conditions Observation Unit Teams (or SCOUT), the inspectors are already patrolling our community with handheld satellite-aided devices to transmit reports on litter, potholes, graffiti, and other quality-of-life problems directly into the 311 system.

You know, just in case the local cops, the fleet of traffic enforcement agents, the next-door neighbor who has 311 on her speed dial, and the seven cameras per city block miss something.

Simply put: residents have enough units observing us and don’t need more scooters.

But pols seem to believe there can never be enough sets of eyes, and wheels, even if residents already feel overexposed.

“SCOUT [will] improve the quality of life throughout this community,” said Councilman Vince Gentile (D–Bay Ridge). The Mayor, who dreamed up this scheme, agreed: “This new team will bring an extra set of eyes to our city streets. Whenever I’m driving through the city and I see a pothole or garbage on the street, I’ll pick up the phone and report the problem to 311, now we’ll deploy a team of veteran city workers to do the same.”

Great, but this sudden urgency for this new bureaucracy is questionable.

The mayor’s office found city streets to be at a record-breaking high, with 94.3 percent of streets rated “acceptably clean” in 2007.

In other words, streets are already historically clean, so then what exactly is the purpose of this new scooter patrol, anyway?

Some residents had their own ideas.

“Not one person I know wants more of these government scooters on the road,” said scooter-weary resident Phil Millard. “Only the politicians love these kinds of programs, but maybe at least at the end of the day, there really will be less trash and cleaner roads.”

Yellow Hooker isn’t holding his breath, but he does have some ideas of his own.

If there are any politicians sincerely interested in improving the quality of this columnist’s life, then the goal shouldn’t be more government scooters, but less.

Not to mention the fact that I could fill this entire paper with some real quality-of-life suggestions. Here’s one: how about buying flags to stick on the top of fire hydrants so that car owners won’t have to leave so much space on either side of the pump? With the flags, firemen will have an easier time finding the hydrants, and we can all get a few more empty spaces per block.

Yeah, it would look weird, but talk about improving the quality of life!

Matthew Lysiak is a writer who lives in Bay Ridge.

The Kitchen Sink
Congrats to Ridge residents Mary Luo and David Kang, who tied the knot last Saturday with a unique celebration that skillfully combined Asian and American traditions and cuisines. While The Sink is glad Dave got himself a first-class wife, we have to admit that we fear our columnist has lost a babysitter. Burning garbage can fires have appeared more prevalent this summer than any time in recent memory, at least according to one source, who says kids have been setting fires to the garbage near Owls Head Park, at Colonial Avenue near 67th Street. The source wants to remind residents that if you spot a can of flaming fire report it to the authorities. Here’s a group that doesn’t mind saying, “We told you so!” Bay Ridge Neighbors for Peace are planning a rally against Rep. Vito Fossella (R–Bay Ridge) for his support of the War in Iraq — which is in its fifth year and going pretty badly. A Dunkin Donut inspector recently contacted Chock Full of Nuts, located on Third Avenue near 79th Street, to speak with the owner about the scandal, broken in these pages, that the rogue Chock Full was buying day-old donuts from Dunkin and then reselling them. Thankfully, the java spot is now under new ownership and the reviews thus far have been thumbs-up. A car garage on 18th Avenue, between 87th and 88th Streets, just sold for $3 million. The 11,000-square-foot lot will be combined with other, previously purchased, adjoining properties, according to Massey Knakal Realty Services, the broker on the deal.

Ridge man keeps gaining by losing

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

A larger-than-life local figure’s losing ways has him halfway towards winning a huge cash jackpot.

Bay Ridge resident Will Millender, 26, recently embarked on a 10-week, 550-mile walk from Boston to Washington as part of the new reality show “Fat March,” in which 12 super-sized contestants lose weight to win cash.

The show’s filming wrapped up in July and Millender is back in Bay Ridge — but he’s sworn to confidentiality.

On Aug. 6, he was spotted at the Wicked Monk on Fifth Avenue near 84th Street, kicking back some drinks while watching his reality television debut.

It’s reality TV at its best. Unlike other weight-loss shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “Celebrity Fit Club,” contestants on “Fat March” aren’t battling each other but trying to become one big band of brothers.

If they stay together by the end of the walk, they share a $1.2-million pot — but every time someone drops out, or is voted out for slowing the others down, the pot is reduced by $100,000.

Predictably, the tall task had taken its toll on the oversized contestants.

By this week’s episode, the walkers had already marched the 230 miles from Boston to Times Square, but the group was down to nine losers.

But Millender was still on the march.

Millender told The Brooklyn Paper that ABC does not allow him to give interviews while the show is still airing, but those who saw Bay Ridge’s newest reality star say his weight loss looked dramatic.

“He actually looks like a different person,” said Bridget Lysiak (yes relation), who saw Millender strolling on 86th Street near Fourth Avenue. “The man could have easily lost 100 pounds.”

Millender weighed in at 474 pounds before the march. He was down to 424, a loss of 48 pounds, in the weigh-in at the end of Monday’s episode.

Of course, shedding those pounds in such a quick amount of time had its price.

“On top of a weird muscle pain in my chest area, I also had a bit of chafing under my belly which cause me an extreme discomfort,” lamented Millender on his blog at

“After a visit to the bathroom, the pain of that, combined with how I had been feeling for the day, caused an unexpected emotional outburst and subsequent blackout.”

Trial, tribulations, and even a slice of celebrity are nothing new for Millender, who has battled his weight for several years, and whose image can still be found on storefront posters across Ridge for his first place showing at the Fifth Avenue pizza-eating contest last June at Rocco’s Pizzeria (Millender was cheered to victory by a huge crowd that included a once-legendary eater, the now-slimmed down Borough President Markowitz).

He ate 10 slices in the regulation 12 minutes. The performance made him a legend.

“Fat March” airs Monday nights at 9 pm on ABC.

©2007 The Brooklyn Paper

Dyker hero lost in Deutsche Bank fire

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

The death of Dyker Heights firefighter Joseph Graffagnino in Saturday’s massive Deutsche Bank blaze horrified an entire city, and also turned a typically raucous Third Avenue bar into an impromptu memorial this week.

Graffagnino, 33, died alongside Robert Beddia, 53, in the fire at the crippled financial building near Ground Zero,which has been empty since the 9-11 attacks and was being taken down piece by piece to minimize the spread of toxins.

Graffagnino, who lived in Dyker Heights, had been tending bar at the Salty Dog just hours earlier.

This week, the memories flowed.

“Joe spread so much joy to everyone he met,” said friend and co-worker Bekim Leka. “The guy always had this smile on his face and it became contagious.”

The bar, which caters to firefighters, hung black-and-purple memorial bunting in honor of Graffagnino, and flowers started gathering at the ad-hoc memorial.

“Everyone just seemed to start gravitating here,” said Leka. “We have had other firefighters and friends coming in and out.”

Copies of the daily papers, with covers featuring pictures of “Joey Bots,” were scattered over the bar. The replica fire truck, usually filled with children at play, now served as a haunting reminder to the perils of the job.

“Joe was seriously the nicest guy you could meet,” said a friend, John Malloy. “I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true, I honestly don’t think I ever knew a nicer guy.”

Graffagnino was an eight-year veteran who leaves behind his wife, Linda, a nurse he married in 2002. He worked out of Ladder Company 5 in Greenwich Village.

Monday would have been his 34th birthday. Instead, his funeral was Thursday at St. Ephrem’s Church on Bay Ridge Parkway.

©2007 The Brooklyn Paper

Inspectors in scooters to hit the street

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

Mayor Bloomberg has unleashed a fleet of satellite-guided, scooter-driving inspectors on city streets to target trash, potholes, and other banalities of urban living, City Hall announced last week.

These roving investigators, called the Street Conditions Observation Unit Team (or SCOUT), ride around with Blackberry-like devices to transmit reports on litter, graffiti, potholes and other quality-of-life problems directly into the 311 system.

The teams started fanning out on Aug. 6 — about 10 days before the mayor unveiled the $1-million program at a press conference last week.

“The program will give the mayor’s office an opportunity to see first-hand the quality-of-life conditions that impact every neighborhood in the city,” said Jeff Kay, director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations. “With inspectors in the field, we can provide city agencies with a real-time snapshot of those conditions, and ensure they take appropriate action.”

Local pols lauded the idea of more eyes on city streets.

“I look forward to working with the teams,” said Councilman Vince Gentile (D–Bay Ridge). “Street inspectors are good because they are an extra set of eyes and ears. Before, the city would rely on citizens to report potholes, dangling street signs, graffiti, overflowing street garbage, etc. Now the city taking a proactive role in keeping the streets clean.”

The 15 inspectors, on loan from other city agencies, are expected to each cover 20 miles and make up to 200 reports per day, according to the mayor’s office.

The busy teams don’t have the pleasure of handing out fines; City Hall says the goal is simply to hold agencies accountable to their customers, the public.

Local politicians praised the initiative, but a handful of civil-liberties-minded residents questioned the logic of having more eyes on the street, not to mention the increased congestion that would be caused by the scooters.

“This is an awful idea,” said resident Phil Millard. “First, the mayor pushes a commuter toll to decrease congestion, and now he is sending scooters out on the streets to drive around all day looking at things.”

©2007 The Brooklyn Paper

Verrazano fix-up zoom$ along

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

That is the message of one local pol after the recent announcement that a local construction project might actually be completed ahead of schedule.

Construction work on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, originally scheduled to be completed in March, 2009, will now be completed by next September, six months ahead of time — and it’s all because Rep. Vito Fossella (R-Bay Ridge) urged the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to add cash incentives into the rehab contract.

“I asked the MTA to add incentives because I was confident it could speed up the completion of this project,” said Fossella. “I am delighted the MTA followed up on my suggestion.”

The incentives prove the widely held adage that money matters. According to the MTA, the revised plan will add $6.2 million to the $58.8-million project, but the money will only be spent if the job really does get shortened from 21 to 15 months (barring extreme weather conditions).

The contractor will use this incentive to add additional workers for extra shifts, which is welcome to news to the already congested nearby communities.

“That is great,” said bridge commuter Mark Lillmars. “Now only if they lowered the toll, too, then I’d do a little dance.”

Construction began last June, when one lane in each direction on the Bridge was closed to allow for a rehab of the lower level exit ramp, the complete removal and reconstruction of the roadway, parapet wall and utilities, and rehabilitation of the steel beneath. Already, the work has led to congestion on the bridge that has spilled onto the streets of Bay Ridge.

The good news also comes as an unexpected relief for residents who have grown accustomed to expecting the worse from local construction projects, such as a water and sewer line project at 92nd Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway that was supposed to be completed in one year, but took 18 months, said Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Community Board 10.

“And minor work continues [on that project] to this day,” she added.

©2007 The Brooklyn Paper

Gentile trashes Sanitation

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

Councilman Vince Gentile (D–Bay Ridge) scored a huge victory in his war against the Department of Sanitation last week when the city tightened the rules regarding how recycling violation summonses can be written.

The move comes after months of back and forth between the city and Gentile, who has complained that enforcement agents were giving tickets for minor violations, like putting a single soda can in the trash rather than in the recycling bin.

As a result, Gentile introduced legislation barring inspectors from handing out recycling summonses unless the alleged litterbug had at least five recyclable items in the regular trash. Each item also must be listed on the actual ticket.

“Now if that requirement isn’t followed, we will use their own protocol to [get these tickets] dismissed,” said Gentile. “We don’t think someone who accidentally puts a newspaper or a can in their regular trash, should be punished. It’s excessive.”

But the good news came a few months too late for some residents.

In March, residents of 73rd Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues returned from work to discover litter summonses. One woman even got a ticket for a dirty driveway — even though she didn’t have a driveway!

The Department of Sanitation declined to comment on the new rules.

Ridge gang attack may be racial

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

Two men were attacked outside the V-Lounge, a popular Eighth Avenue nightclub, on Aug. 17 in a case that may have been racially motivated, police said.

The two victims, who are both black, told cops that they were standing alone when a large group of Asian men approached them outside the club at 1 am.

At some point, one of the men pulled a club and knocked the 26-year-old victim in the head while his pal, also 26, was attacked by glass bottles, according to police.

The thugs fled into a silver Mercury, and the wounded club-hoppers were treated at the scene for minor injuries. Only later were questions raised about the gang’s violent motivations.

A witness told police that the apparent ringleader of the gang, who was described as a 5-foot-11 Asian man with a heavy build, dark black sunglasses and slicked-back black hair, ordered the others to inflict pain.

“If you are my brothers, you will get them,” a witness reported hearing.

The victims were not robbed, and the senseless violence was the first of its kind at the club, which is between 62nd and 63rd streets.

Beep approves Century 21 lot

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

Borough President Markowitz signed off on Century 21’s plan to turn an old bowling alley into a six-story parking garage for 279 cars on 87th Street.

The lot could help ease parking congestion during daytime shopping hours and also at night, as Century 21 has promised to allow local restaurants to use the lot for valet parking, freeing up space on the street.

In addition to the parking garage, Century 21 hopes to add a level of retail space on 87th Street and plant six trees on the roof, according to architect David Nicholson.

The proposal needs a zoning change before it can procede, hence the Borough President’s approval last week.

The site, which is between Fourth and Fifth avenues, was once home to the Mark Lanes, a popular bowling alley.

The City Planning Commission will vote on the application within 60 days before it advances to an expected approval by the City Council.

Beep approves Depot

By Matthew Lysiak
The Brooklyn Paper

A plan to build a new Home Depot and 214 units of housing atop a vacant Bay Ridge railyard moved a step closer to reality after gaining the approval of Borough President Markowitz last week.

Markowitz gave his support to developer Andrew Kohen, who needs a rezoning so he can build the profitable residential units in the complex, which would consist of an 11-story residential and office building plus the 100,000-square-foot Home Depot.

Markowit’z approval did come with strings, however thin. He required that Kohen set aside 20 percent of the units as “affordable,” install a traffic light and crosswalk at 62nd Street and Eighth Avenue, and participate in a traffic study after the center opens. Kohen has already promised to do all of those things.

The borough president’s approval follows a recommendation by Community Board 10.

Opponents say Kohen is trying to build too much housing on the site, but the developer said housing is needed.

“Unless people stop having babies and looking for jobs, then we need development,” said Kohen.

The developer still faces a few more hurdles. The City Planning Commission has 60 days to vote on the rezoning application before it advances to the City Council, where it is backed by Councilman Vince Gentile (D–Bay Ridge).

“It will bolster the area, spruce up the surroundings and provide significant employment and housing,” Gentile said.

Even if City Planning rejects the proposal, the project would still go ahead if the Council and Mayor Bloomberg approve it as expected.

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Lysiak exposing the lack of security at the Towers pipeline