Council Member Elizabeth Crowley seems to think that she has what it takes to represent a large portion of Queens in Congress. But after working with her for the past 2 years on the St. Saviour's project, I can say with certainty that she possesses a leadership deficit and has no business running for higher office.
Just about all of her West Maspeth constituents came to this same conclusion after she made a really stupid move and ended up destroying everything we had worked on for the past 6 years.
Let's remember that Crowley falsely claimed during her 2008 campaign that she grew up in Maspeth when in fact, she grew up in a part of Middle Village just south of the LIE that was known at the time as South Elmhurst. She stretched the truth to get votes. It wasn't her first lie, as documented in previous issues of the Juniper Berry, and wasn't the last, as this article will explain.
Elizabeth Crowley hired the notorious Parkside Group lobbying firm to handle her 2008 campaign. Parkside had also been hired by the owners of the St. Saviour's property to lobby the city to rubberstamp a residential rezoning surrounded on all sides by manufacturing zones. Back when JPCA was in the middle of the heated battle to keep the church standing and prevent development of the site, Elizabeth was quoted in the Queens Ledger, July 5, 2007 supporting the owner's application for a zoning change. Her direct quote was, "A residential development helps fight the Cross Harbor Freight Rail Tunnel Plan. If homes were developed there, then the planners of the freight tunnel would have to take the residents living at this site into consideration. That area needs residential development."
This is the strange, convoluted and dangerous thinking that is a hallmark of Elizabeth Crowley. You have to wonder what kind of self-described preservationist and activist against overdevelopment comes out in favor of more housing in place of open space which the community is hoping to preserve – especially in a mixed use area that tends to flood heavily and lacks the infrastructure to support 93 additional units of housing.
In the Summer of 2007, you may recall that the Parks Department had told us that it had no interest in the site. This was because then-Council Member Dennis Gallagher arranged to have the close to 200 trees on the site razed and then asked Parks to tour it. They rejected it immediately, citing the cost of restoring the historic building and the damaged landscape.
After the church was removed in 2008, Parks realized that the site was now a blank canvas, and in 2009, the agency's attitude toward its acquisition began to change. They said they were interested in the property; they liked the location and would pursue a purchase if the elected officials raised the money for it. The agency negotiated with the owners, who asked for $8M. Over time, they lowered their asking price to $7M. In 2006, just before the real estate bubble burst, they had asked for $12M.
Parks said they could not pay above the appraised value of the site, which they estimated at ~$5.1M. They also suggested that a gap between what the City could legally pay and what the developer was requesting could be bridged by private funding. I took this as positive news and felt this could be accomplished if everyone involved worked toward the same goal and stayed on the same page.
"Council Member" Crowley
After she was swept into office on Barack Obama's coattails, Crowley made a 180-degree turn and promised to bring more parkland to Maspeth and specifically to fight for the St. Saviour's site. And really, what other large space was available to fight for? Just about every sliver of Maspeth already has a building on it. I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and to work alongside her to make this happen. I pushed her hard to raise money for the purchase. I also contacted Alex Rosa, chief of staff to Borough President Helen Marshall. Over the next two years, I hired consultants, worked the media, collected support letters from civic and parks groups, lobbied elected officials and the Parks Department and had a rendering of the project created so people could visualize what was possible. I worked very hard toward building momentum for the project, and it felt like things were heading in the right direction for the first time since the building had been taken down.
In the budgets passed in 2009 and 2010, Elizabeth Crowley and Helen Marshall had put $3.5M capital money aside in the Parks budget for purchase of the St. Saviour's site. It felt good to finally have someone put budget money where their mouths were. Progress was being made.
In May 2011, a rally was held at the St. Saviour's site by COMET, JPCA and Newtown Historical Society. About 100 people turned out for it, and Elizabeth Crowley stood front and center, saying, There is nothing I want more than to have a park at this site. The reality is with the upcoming budget, we can have the $5M in place that the City is willing to spend, and that's not a worry. I feel more optimistic than I've ever been about this location becoming a park. You may ask why I feel optimistic. Because the Deputy Mayor met with the owner, Maspeth Development, and said, The mayor wants this to become a park. The council member wants this to become a park. She then went on to name every elected official that was in favor of the park. We need to put pressure on Maspeth Development, she said. They've done enough harm to our community.
The condemnation question
One way to put pressure on the owners to sell would be for the elected officials representing the area to petition the City to use its power of eminent domain to acquire the site. Most parkland has been acquired this way. It would be for an uncontroversial public use, unlike the Atlantic Yards project where a private developer is profiting. In this case, the community would benefit, not a private party. The Parks Department even said that they would consider condemning the property, if necessary. In order to get them to do that, though, it would take pressure from our electeds. But Crowley was very uncomfortable with the prospect of coming out publicly for condemnation when I asked about it. Why? The City threatened to condemn the property that the Maspeth High School is standing on and the electeds had no qualms about that. In this case, it was clear that the owners of the property deserved no sympathy. As Crowley mentioned in her speech, they had harassed neighbors, stored dumpsters and operated a waste transfer station on the property illegally, endangered the safety of the community with their practices, tore down a couple of hundred trees and racked up scores of building violations.
Crowley's excuse for not supporting eminent domain was that it made the acquisition more expensive. Why was she so concerned about cost, when other communities outside her district were getting extravagant new parks that her constituents were ultimately paying for? Unfortunately, whenever the subject was broached, all that others and I received from Crowley were excuses as to why the project couldn't get done. It was very frustrating, to say the least.
The Big Lie
Less than 2 months after our rally, Crowley's chief-of-staff, Lydon Sleeper, told the Times Ledger newspaper and me personally, that another $1.1M had been allocated by the council member toward the St. Saviour's effort in the June 2011 budget bill. That would have brought the total amount of money to $4.6M, just $500K short of the goal. We soon found out that allocation was a total fabrication. Other newspapers quoted Lydon saying that the money was actually for renovation of the Middle Village library. When questioned about the obvious lie, he said the money could be reallocated for St. Saviour's if necessary.
Lydon insisted that he and the council member spent more time working on St. Saviour's than any other issue and that it was her top priority. But some information I uncovered made me wonder just how truthful that assertion was.
Every year, Community Board 5 holds budget hearings and then its members rank what they believe to be the top priorities for the district. I FOILed (Freedom of Information Law) the ballots that CB5 submitted for 2010. CB5 did not want to release the records and fought my request tooth and nail. Why would they be trying to hide public information that I was entitled to have? Finally, my attorney pried the information out of them. By far, the most interesting revelation found in the ballots was that Elizabeth Crowley's sister, Patricia Crowley, voted the St. Saviour's project dead last. Why would she do that considering that this was allegedly her sister's top priority? Why would a Queens community board member want to see warehouses rather than a park in one of the communities she represents, so much so that she ranked the renovation of Brooklyn subway stations ‒ outside the confines of CB5 ‒ a higher priority than a park for Maspeth? This discovery again raised questions about Elizabeth's commitment to the project.
Around this time, NYC Park Advocates President Geoffrey Croft was in talks with Parks Department officials regarding St. Saviour's and was told point blank that the pressure the agency was receiving to complete the project was coming from community groups like JPCA, NYC Park Advocates and Newtown Historical Society and not from Crowley or any other elected official.
ULURP becomes a priority
At this point, Parks said that they were willing to start the 2-year ULURP process without having the project completely funded, but that an additional $50-70K of budgetary expense money or private money would be required to do it. Unfortunately, there was no leftover expense money in the budget. I suggested a series of private fundraisers headlined by elected officials to raise the cash. After all, they have no problem raising millions of dollars for their campaigns, so $70K should have been a snap for them. They know who the deep-pocketed donors are, and their names can attract big money. I cited a similar effort in southeastern Queens where the elected officials teamed up with non-profits to raise money for a park.
Our electeds, taking their lead from Crowley, declined to participate.
Crowley and Assembly Member Marge Markey insisted that Waste Management, a garbage hauling company located in the West Maspeth/ LIC area, should donate the entire cost of the ULURP as restitution for the negative impact they have on the area. However, neither of them bothered to contact the company to ask for their involvement. Instead, I contacted them. I was told that if a letter from the Parks Department could be obtained indicating the expected timeline of the project, specific cost involved and a firm commitment to seeing the project completed, then Waste Management would donate and help us fundraise among other businesses. Since she is a member of the City Council's Parks Committee, I asked Crowley to obtain the letter. She refused.
Crowley kills St. Saviour's
Last November, three days after my wedding, I received a phone call from Elizabeth Crowley expressing concern that the capital money she allocated during past budget cycles toward St. Saviour's could be used by the Parks Department for something else outside of her district. She then told me that she spoke with officials at Martin Luther High School about a vacant parcel of land owned by the school at Maspeth Ave and 61st Street and that the school was interested in selling it to the City for a park. The site is about 1/3 the size of the St. Saviour's property. Elizabeth assured me that she would continue to work toward creating a park at the St. Saviour's site, and that the Martin Luther site was not intended to be a replacement for it, but in addition to it. She said she just wanted to be assured that her money was used for something in her district soon lest she lose it. Since Maspeth only has 12 acres of parkland and by the city's own calculations, it should have 88 acres, I agreed that going after both parcels was the correct thing to do.
That day, I contacted two former presidents of the Queens Civic Congress about what was transpiring and was basically told that my council member didn't understand how the budget process works or how to properly protect her allocated funding. One of them reached out to the finance office of the City Council in an effort to have them sit down with Crowley and guide her through the process. But, alas, it was too late.
Two days later, I received the following e-mail from a Daily News reporter: I'm working on a follow-up St. Saviour's/new park for Maspeth story and was hoping you might want to weigh in. Crowley is looking at an alternate site for the park. I explained what I was told by Elizabeth, but the reporter stated that the Parks Department insisted that St. Saviour's was knocked off the table permanently by Crowley's decision to pursue the Martin Luther project instead.
Crowley went from being more optimistic than she's ever been about the park she had worked on for 2 years, to shrugging her shoulders and giving up 6 months later.
The consequences of this decision were dire. The Newtown Creek funding that we had a chance to receive was now no longer an option, and neither was an offer from the State DOT to build a park at the St. Saviour's site as part of the Kosciuszko Bridge project. The DOT had indicated that if the City were to purchase the property, the State would build the park. Now that money will go toward something else.
No one in the community has heard from Crowley about either project since November, when she embarrassed herself and damaged the Maspeth community by trying to take the path of least resistance. She releases the same canned statement to the press every time she is asked about it which basically goes something like this: Eminent domain is expensive and difficult and Martin Luther High School is a willing seller.
After the Daily News debacle, I asked Crowley to write a letter to the Parks Department to reiterate her support for the St. Saviour's project; to make clear that it was still a priority and to press the city to use eminent domain. I even wrote a draft of the letter to make it easy for her. She refused to sign it and said through the press that she would send her own letter.
She never did.
And that is how a series of stupid moves killed a very viable project.
Here we are, 3 years after Crowley assumed power and 6 months after her decision to nix the St. Saviour's project, and Maspeth still has no park. Martin Luther does not seem to be the willing seller that Crowley claimed it was, and the St. Saviour's property has 4 monstrous ugly warehouses sitting on it. The church, which was to be rebuilt at All Faiths Cemetery, is also in jeopardy as the electeds have failed to get their allocated money released which had been earmarked for preparation of the site, and the owner of the trailers that the building is stored in wants the use of his containers back. Since November 2011, it's just been one failure after another.
All these years of the St. Saviour's fight, it was believed that the main obstacles to getting a park were the Mayor and the Parks Department. But that actually wasn't the case. The reason there are warehouses on top of what should have been a park is due to the lack of political will by our local representatives. She could have capitalized on the momentum, employed some out-of-the-box tactics and delivered a home run, but when the going got tough, Liz just gave up. She has since scrubbed every reference to St. Saviour's from her campaign website, as if the whole thing never happened. The entire time, she was feigning interest in the issue to keep certain people quiet.
Maspeth and Middle Village are under constant attack by developers, railroads, city agencies and schemers. Elizabeth Crowley's congressional campaign was kicked off with her stating that Queens needs strong representation in Washington. I can't disagree with this. But we also need strong leadership here on the home front, and it is abundantly clear that Elizabeth Crowley has been a miserable failure at that. This is the result of electing someone with no real experience and no prior community involvement.
And lest you think that Crowley reserved all of her incompetence for one neighborhood, please realize that her 2009 promise to clean up the intersection of Fresh Pond Road and Metropolitan Avenue has thus far been an empty one and the Glendale community has yet to see a playground that Crowley supposedly put money aside for 3 years ago.
Let's compare the efforts of Crowley and a very motivated council member from Jackson Heights, who moved mountains to get a park for his constituents.
Crowley vs. Dromm
Danny Dromm was elected in 2009, a year after Crowley. He took office in January 2010 and hit the ground running. One of his goals was to add more parkland to his district. In 2 short years, he amassed $4M toward the purchase of the Garden School's schoolyard by lobbying the borough president and county delegation, which each have their own pool of money to distribute.
He asked the Parks Department to look into acquiring the Garden School site as an extension of Travers Park, which is located across the street. Like Maspeth, Jackson Heights suffers from a dearth of park space while its population continues to increase.
To make a long story short, Dromm kept up the pressure on the school and the Parks Department and made it happen. He not only helped broker a deal for the property, but he also arranged for a company to donate their services for the ULURP to prevent further cost and delay. He was not shy about mentioning eminent domain, which may have been part of the reason that the school decided to sell to the City rather than to a developer. And on top of all that, a complicated bridge loan was worked out with a land trust so that the school would not have to wait until the end of the ULURP to use the money from the sale. Now that's what a real representative can accomplish. If only Maspeth had someone like that advocating for its needs.
Most people are under the impression that the name Crowley is synonymous with power. After all, Elizabeth's cousin, Joe, is a multi-term congress member and a Democratic kingmaker. But it has become clear that the Crowley name actually means nothing when it comes to bringing home the bacon.
Elizabeth Crowley still has time to make me eat the words you have just read. She can take up the mantle of St. Saviour's once again and deliver on her promises. I challenge you to do that, Elizabeth, and I pray for Maspeth's sake that you will. But the more likely scenario is that you'll just continue to ignore the problem and hope it goes away, in which case we'll make sure you go away in 2013.