Re-Inventing Fort Totten:
By ANGELA MONTEFINISE
Its 120 beautiful waterfront acreage on the Long Island Sound and come Feb.1, Fort Totten is expected to officially be City land, but first it will face a showdown with the Queens Womens Center and still-unanswered questions about who will help with the cost of building maintainence.
January 15 will be D-Day for the Queens Womens Center, which has been asked to vacate its building, but has sent the clear message that they dont plan to move.
Their story began during the transfer process, when the FDNY was chosen to manage Fort Totten and lease land all over the base to not-for-profit organizations. The Queens Womens Center, a not-for-profit organization, leased land from the FDNY in 1996, but requested space in a building that is now slated to be part of the FDNY training facility. All other not-for-profits received space on land promised to the Parks Department.
Because the FDNY needs all of its Fort Totten land for their facility, the Center received an eviction notice in late November. They have been given an extension, but their deadline to be out now stands at Jan. 15.
While Center President Ann Jawin complained that she was being "thrown off the land without an explanation," Borough President Helen Marshalls Press Secretary Dan Andrews said, "All of the leases stated very clearly that they were temporary. No one was guaranteed space on the land after the transfer. The Fire Department needs that land. If the Center leased land from the Parks Department section of Fort Totten, it might have been allowed to stay."
However, Laird explained that the Queens Womens Center would not fit into the Parks Departments guidelines. He said, "There is a law, established in the early 1900s, that says any organization occupying parkland must have something to do with parks. The Queens Womens Center does not . . . It doesnt matter how well-intentioned a group is. If it doesnt have to do with parks, it cannot be on park land."
But Jawin is not giving up.
She has already started a letter-writing campaign to politicians, including Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Marshall. Former Borough President Claire Shulman made her opinion known before she left office, stating that the Queens Womens Center had to leave the premises, and that it wouldnt fit into park guidelines.
Shortly after Shulman gave her opinion to newspapers, Jawin said, "Ive never even seen a copy of these so-called parks guidelines we wouldnt fit in. I asked, and Parks people told me I couldnt see them because they werent written yet."
Laird responded, "The guidelines have been in existence for as long as I can remember. The center needs a Parks purpose. Its that simple. The center should still feel free to apply for space like all other interested not-for-profits."
Judy Limpert, vice president of the Bayside Business Association and a member of Jawins letter-writing campaign, was under the impression that the Womens Center was not allowed to apply for permanent space and said, "If the Center can apply for space, cant Ann find a way to fit into the guidelines? Cant the community make this work? Guidelines are fluid."
A large portion of the Parks land will be dedicated to not-for-profit organizations. An already budget-challenged Parks Department will be given nine buildings, some of which are already partially occupied by not-for-profits, including the Bayside Historical Society. According to the Chief of Planning for the Parks Department Joshua Laird, there will be approximately 85,000 square feet of empty space once the transfer is complete and tenants who can be partners in their up-keep will be needed.
Laird said, "All not-for-profit organizations interested in leasing land on Fort Totten will have to submit a proposal and meet several guidelines. First, they have to be compatible with being in a park setting, second, they have to be able to maintain the space they receive as historical landmarks, and third, they have to pay for any repairs that have to be made . . . Although the intent of this is to give these organizations a low-cost place to operate, we cannot pay to maintain all of the buildings. Its just not feasible."
Laird said that the Parks Department is considering several possibilities to make sure that the historic land is maintained, including hiring a superintendent to watch over tenants. When the Fort Totten transfer is complete, Laird said the Parks Department will contact the Queens Borough Presidents office, all Community Boards, and all local papers to try to reach interested not-for-profits.
It has taken nearly six years for the transfer of the fort land from the Army to New York City. The Army decommissioned the base in 1995.
The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) and the New York City Parks Department will both be given major sections of the 175-acre base, which will be used as public parkland, a Fire Department training facility, and a low-cost site for not-for-profit organizations.
Once the Fort Totten is completely transferred, construction will begin on the $90 million FDNY training facility and the Parks Department will begin its search for not-for-profit organizations interested in leasing space in one of the historic buildings on its land.
One hundred and twenty acres of the Fort property will be divided between the FDNY and the Parks Department. The remaining land will be occupied by the United States Army Reserve, public roads, and the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association.
The breakdown will look like this: Parks 49.5 acres; FDNY 30.9 acres; the Army Reserve 38 acres; the City Department of Transportation 8.4 acres for roads; and the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans 1.3 acres. The Veterans are getting their current Fort Totten building transferred to them directly through a Department of Health program.
The United States Coast Guard will also be given 9.6 acres of land, but according to Jordan Goldes, a spokesperson for Congressman Gary Ackerman, the Coast Guards land will be given to the Parks Department shortly after the transfer since they have already agreed to move further down Long Island Sound.
All of the FDNYs land will be used for the training facility, which according to FDNY Spokesperson David Billig, will only feature classroom education. There will be no test sites with real burning buildings as first proposed because of community concerns about pollution, Billig said.
There have been problems with the land, especially on the waterfront, where local residents say pollution has poisoned Little Neck Bay.
According to Goldes, the Army used to test torpedoes there, leaving a large amount of Mercury in the water. "Its getting cleaned up," Goldes said. "The Army Corps. of Engineers has a $500,000 grant and is working on clearing that up immediately."
In addition, several of the Fort Totten buildings are in poor condition, and have to be demolished. In particular, the 1950s style Junior Officer quarters on the northern part of the fort need to be torn down.
Several of the older buildings, particularly on Parks land, also have maintenance problems, including freezing pipes and major repairs. Laird said, "Thats why the groups have to maintain the buildings. They need work, and we cant fix it all on a Parks budget."
But besides not-for-profit organizations and training facilities, Fort Totten will feature a museum, a restaurant, public parkland, and a chapel for religious organizations.
For nearly 150 years, Baysides Fort Totten stood as an armed and operational United States Army base, protecting New York and its residents through the Civil War, the British invasion of 1812, and the feared Spanish invasion of 1898. Thousands of soldiers were trained and quartered on the historic property, which was commissioned in 1857 and named for Brevet Major General Joseph Totten in 1901.
The Fort Totten transfer process began immediately after the Army decommissioned the base in 1995, when the United States Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Law required that local leaders form a Local Redevelopment Authority to decide what would be done with the land.
The Redevelopment Authority and the Fort Totten Advisory Committee, which was made up of civic leaders and other locals decided that the Fire Departments plan was best, and the Redevelopment Authority agreed.
The Army transferred the land to the United States Department of Education and the National Parks Service, which will transfer the land to the City.
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