Photo: MIchael O'Kane
“What’s good for our families is good for Queens.”
That was the underlying theme of Borough President Melinda Katz’s State of the Borough Address on Thursday morning, and according to Katz, the driving force behind her term thus far in Queens Borough Hall.
Delivering her first State of the Borough Address in a packed Colden Auditorium at Queens College, Katz made sure to touch on almost all of the year’s hottest issues, from the Queens Library to airport noise to homelessness.
The issue that took the most of Katz’s attention during the nearly hour-long speech, however, was education.
The Borough President spoke highly of the schools in Queens, but said that their success came in spite of huge issues with overcrowding.
“Our school districts rank among the highest in the overcrowding rates across the city,” Katz said. “Some of our schools are at over 200 percent capacity. Yet our schools to manage some of the highest graduation rates and some of the lowest dropout rates in the city.”
In order to address this problem during her first year, Katz said her office worked closely with the School Construction Authority to identify underutilized spaces and turn them into classrooms.
By the end of this year, schools in Jamaica, Astoria, Corona and Richmond Hill will be able to completely do away with the trailers their students are currently taught out of due to a lack of classroom space.
More schools are on their way to trashing their trailers within a few years.
“We need to get our kids out of the trailers and into our classrooms,” she said. “Our kids deserve better, and we should demand it.”
Katz also spoke of a need for more space for full-day Pre-K, and did not hesitate to bash the Common Core State Standards, calling it a “common problem.”
The Borough President said that while she “agrees that we all need standards,” she often finds that her first grade son’s homework is too complicated to figure out.
“As a Queens parent, I feel in my gut that there’s just something wrong here,” she said.
For constituents, however, Katz said that her office received the most number of complaints about affordable housing, and specifically affordable housing for seniors.
“We need to keep our seniors close to home in the communities they’ve known for decades, and we need to make that option affordable,” she said.
In the past year, 65 affordable seniors-only units opened in Richmond Hill, another 52 in South Jamaica, 67 in Corona and Katz said developers are “chomping at the bit” to build affordable senior housing in downtown Flushing.
And for the rest of Queens residents, housing developments like Hunters Point South and Astoria Cove have added thousands of affordable units to the borough.
Surprisingly when it came to housing, Katz did not address the emergency homeless shelters that popped up across the borough throughout 2014.
She did bring up the issue of the growing homeless population in the City, but only mentioned her push for NYCHA to offer more public housing units to homeless families than the 750 they promised last year.
Katz touched on a few other major issues during the speech. She nodded to her work with State Senator Michael Gianaris and City Comptroller Scott Stringer to remove some of the Queens Public Library trustees and CEO Thomas Galante after years of questionable spending and hiding of the library’s finances.
She also mentioned Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent announcement regarding a new AirTrain he wants to install to connect LaGuardia to the 7 subway line and Long Island Rail Road, before delving into the negative impacts of airplane noise on many Queens communities.
“As much as our airports are economic assets to the region, we all know in this room that with it comes the need to mitigate the direct and detrimental impacts on the communities surrounding them,” Katz said.
Katz also acknowledged that there was “still a lot of work to do” for those still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but said that she was working with her office to streamline the Build it Back application process and expedite construction permit approvals.
She touched on Community Board term limits, saying she is “opposed” to them.
“I have great faith in our process and in our City Council members to make appointments that are truly representative of their specific neighborhoods,” she said.
The speech also included its fair share of positives for Queens during 2014. Katz noted that her office dedicated $2 million to improve business corridors in the borough and help bolster small businesses.
She touted the brand new ID NYC municipal identification card initiative, holding up her own brand new ID, and spoke excitedly about the $6 million investment going into restoring the famous World’s Fair Pavilion, in addition to the quarter of her capital budget that went to cultural institutions like the Queens Botanical Garden, Queens Theatre, Flushing Town Hall and Queens Museum of Art.
Western Queens is also looking into becoming a new technology hub in the City, according to Katz, through a task force she formed to create the “Queens Tech Strategic Plan.”
“By leveraging Queens ample space for growth in western Queens, its projected development and its proximity to the Cornell New York City Tech campus, we will steer our borough into the competitive lane of the digital age, and we can’t wait,” Katz said.
The goal behind all of these investments and initiatives, she said, is to get people to come to Queens and stay in Queens.
Tourism, Katz believes, is “one of the strongest tools for growth,” and last year Queens saw a huge boost in its national recognition, particularly when Lonely Planet named Queens the number one destination of choice for travelers in the U.S.
“They all agree that Queens is hot and on the move,” Katz said.
And once they get here, she said, she wants them to stay and raise their families here.
“In this great borough we call home, even with all of our diversity, we are reminded every single day that people at our core have much more in common than they do different,” she said. “We are about finding a better life for our children than we ever dreamed of having, and so we stand together in this determination to keep this a borough of families, for families.”
Many of the Queens residents in attendance were impressed with Katz’s speech.
Agnes Marshall, the daughter of former Borough President Helen Marshall, said she thought Katz was “fantastic.”
“I think she hit on all of the important subjects that concern Queens residents,” Marshall said.
Members of the Middle Village Adult Center all attended the address together. Fran Staples, a Woodhaven resident for over 60 years, listened to Katz speak for the first time and said she was “fabulous.”
“She’s very much into what’s going on today, and how we have to be up there,” Staples said. “The one thing I thought was wonderful was about senior housing. It’s a major thing. We really need to work on that more and more.”