Overcrowded schools, infrastructure improvements,
and restoration of New York State Pavilion were among the issues discussed
On every level of government, an annual “State of” speech is an opportunity to highlight an agenda with examples of what was done and the challenges that lie ahead. On Friday, January 26, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz outlined her vision at her State of the Borough address, which took place at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria. “This past year has challenged every single person in this nation to reevaluate what it truly means to be an American and what that means to us as individuals,” said Katz.
After acknowledging her elected colleagues on the city and state level, Katz welcomed the borough’s Community Board members, who are appointed by her. “In my first term, we made a concerted effort to move the Boards toward a healthier balance between long-time experience, which is why we shouldn’t have term limits for community boards, and fresh perspectives. Over 30 percent of all my appointments in the last four years are new. That’s 249 individuals who began serving, for the first time ever, on a Community Board.”
Although Community Boards are advisory and their members are unpaid, they are regarded as the lowest and most local level of government, a voice of the community before agencies and elected officials. As the borough’s diversity can be quantified by ethnicity and geography, having younger members also contributes towards making these panels more representative of the population.
Another place where representation matters is the census, which determines the number of Congress members for the state. “Another census undercount in New York is not an impossibility,” said Katz. “But we have so much at stake here in Queens: federal resources for infrastructure, for health services and for our schools; representation by our local elected officials; and more.” In the past two census counts, New York’s Congressional delegation was reduced in favor of Florida and California, whose population growth exceeded that of New York.
“As such, I will convene a committee this year comprised of leadership from the borough’s diverse communities, across faiths, civics, races, genders, and cultures,” said Katz. “It will be called the Queens Complete Count Committee, and it will be charged with strategizing and maximizing participation in the census count in 2020.”
On the borough’s infrastructure, Katz touted expanded public library branches that reopened in the past year in Queensboro Hill, Elmhurst, and Kew Gardens Hills. Around the coastline of Queens, the subsidized ferry service has exceeded ridership expectations, with stops at Rockaway Park, Astoria, and Long Island City. Within Borough Hall, the city’s Department of Veterans Affairs opened a satellite office so that clients do not have to take the long trip to downtown Manhattan.
Where there is still much work to do is education. Katz noted that in her first term, 77 trailer classrooms were removed across Queens, but it still remains the borough with the most overcrowded public schools. “Most other boroughs are below capacity, but we exceed capacity at 108 percent. Our schools haven’t kept up with the growth of our families,” said Katz. “Queens receives the lowest amount of funding per pupil than every other borough. So we have the most kids, but get the least amount to educate per kid.”
Looking at the future, Katz made 2030 the benchmark year for a list of long-term goals. These include a complete elimination of trailer classrooms, upgraded libraries serving as “hi-tech anchors for the growing families of their communities,” and the new 116th police precinct for neighborhoods on the borough’s eastern edge. Transportation items on Katz’s wish list that must clear feasibility studies and secure funding include new stations on existing LIRR branches, ferry service to LaGuardia Airport, and protected bike lanes stretching across the borough.
Then there’s one more item, visible to millions of motorists and airplane passengers, neglected by previous borough presidents but a personal mission for Katz: the New York State Pavilion. The arena and observation set built for the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park was abandoned in the 1970s, its condition having greatly deteriorated. Under Katz’s leadership, a task force was convened, the arena’s crown was repainted, and tours are provided of its interior. “By 2030, the New York State Pavilion is an illuminated, fully-restored structure, featuring an open-air performance space under the Tent of Tomorrow.”
By then, Katz will be 64, but she also recognized that she may not live to see all of the items on her wish list. She referred to her sons as the beneficiaries of a better Queens in the years ahead. “When I put Carter and Hunter to bed every night in the very same bedroom that I grew up in, I’m confident that we are building here something better, something brighter, stronger for the future generations that we may never even get to meet.”
By Sergey Kadinsky