DNAInfo: Massive Jackson Heights Fire Not Suspicious, Source Says

by Katie Honan

JACKSON HEIGHTS — Investigators do not think the massive fire that erupted Monday night inside the Bruson Building, injuring three and impacting dozens of businesses, is suspicious, a source told DNAinfo.

The fire erupted about 5:45 p.m. Monday, FDNY officials said, sending flames shooting out the third and fourth floor of the building and filling the neighborhood with smoke.

It was brought under control about 11:40 p.m., according to the FDNY, but firefighters continued to douse the back of the building with water until Tuesday evening.

Although the FDNY said Wednesday morning it is still investigating the cause of the blaze, a source told DNAinfo New York that investigators do not believe it’s suspicious.

The source also said the fire originated on the third floor of the building, which housed Plaza College. The floor was packed with cardboard, paper and other combustible material, according to a source.

On Tuesday, crews had begun the large-scale cleanup, boarding up windows and cleaning debris from 37th Avenue.

Councilman Danny Dromm said the fire was devastating for the community. The building housed about 50 small businesses and stores, including the college, the Queens Community House and the neighborhood’s LGBT senior center.

“I have spoken to the business owners, many who I know personally, and the effect on their establishments is truly horrible,” he said.

read more: http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20140423/jackson-heights/massive-jackson-heights-fire-not-suspicious-source-says

Ny1: Touring Daniel Dromm’s District

NY1 VIDEO: The Road to City Hall’s Errol Louis visited City Councilman Daniel Dromm’s 25th city council district in Queens.

The Wall Street Journal: Plans Upset Some in Jackson Heights

From The Wall Street Journal: By Kavita Mokha

One of the first garden communities in the U.S. could be the site of a new six-story, mixed-use building whose current design, if approved by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, won’t include any green space at all.

Phoenix Manor, the proposed apartment building, is planned as a Georgian-style structure with 45 units and street-level retail property. The project’s planned site is at the corner of 37th Avenue and 84th Street in the Jackson Heights Historic District in Queens.

Approval by the landmarks commission is needed because the project falls within the historic district, which covers roughly 38 blocks from Northern Boulevard to Roosevelt Avenue and from 76th to 88th streets.

Locals have been circulating petitions opposing the building proposal for several months. Daniel Dromm, a Jackson Heights councilman who opposes the project in its current form, described the design as an “architectural blight” at a landmarks commission hearing this month. Noting it doesn’t include “an inch of green space,” he said it was out of character for the area.

The project’s attorney, Howard Weiss, said that much of the opposition was originating from the proposed building’s immediate neighbors who were used to having a one-story structure next door.

“It’s a fact of life in an urban environment,” said Mr. Weiss. “When development occurs, sometimes people lose their views.”

He added that the design was in compliance with the historic district guidelines, and said he expected the landmarks commission to vote for it. No date has been set for the vote.

The site of the proposed building is currently a vacant lot that formerly housed eight mom-and-pop stores destroyed in a fire earlier this year. Some of the businesses that lost nearly everything in the fire have since found new homes in the area.

Colony Wine and Liquor store, a fixture in the community for decades under different owners, reopened just down the block four months ago, while the former Willo Barber Shop now stands as Marcos Barber Shop.

Others have been less fortunate. Eighty-three-year-old Thomas Kourakos, whose shoe-repair shop on the stretch dated to 1956, is among those who haven’t returned.

Still others are struggling to regain some semblance of stability. Maria Solano, owner of Lalita’s party-favors store, now operates out of a Laundromat on 37th Avenue where she has selling space set up at the front. New businesses also have opened up on 37th Avenue in the past few months, including Slim’s II Bagels and La Gran Uruguaya Bakery.

A steady influx of professionals and young families has boosted the area’s commercial real estate as well as its residential prices in recent years.

The neighborhood is a quick hop (15 minutes) to Manhattan and is one of the best-connected sections in Queens, with the Roosevelt Avenue subway stop linking the 7, E, F, G, M and R lines.

For foodies, there are mainstays like El Chivito D’Oro, an Uruguayan steakhouse on 82nd Street, and Jackson Diner, an Indian restaurant in “Little India” on 74th Street that also just opened an outpost in Greenwich Village. Numerous Colombian bakeries and Mexican food carts have been around for years, along with growing numbers of Nepalese-Tibetan restaurants.

But rising commercial rents are making the area unsustainable for some retailers, especially in light of recent economic woes. Fashion Heights, a clothing store, is slated to close this month, while Primos Discount, just a couple of doors down, hasn’t been able to negotiate new lease terms.

“This is the worst business has been since I opened 36 years ago,” said Sue Lee, owner of the Ho flower shop on the same block as Fashion Heights and Primos. “When times are tough, you don’t need flowers, but you still need to eat.”

Michele Beaudoin, a broker with Beaudoin Realty Group who is a Jackson Heights native, thinks the ownership of the area’s retail spaces makes a difference.

“Unlike the individually owned stores you find in Astoria or Forest Hills,” she said, “many 37th Avenue stores are owned by large building owners, corporations and huge landlords, which makes them less affordable.

Local business owners, meanwhile, have mixed feelings about the Phoenix Manor proposal and the prospects of having a new apartment building in their midst.

“It’s bittersweet for me because on the one hand there will be more people who need our services,” said Alex Chin, owner of Kelly Cleaners, which stands next to the proposed building on 37th Avenue. “But by the time the new building goes up, my lease will expire and I probably won’t be able to afford the rent anymore.”

Queens Courier: Storeowners Thank Council Member Daniel Dromm

From Queens Courier: By Luisa Garcia

Years of dreams and hard work went up in smoke for the owners and employees after an accidental fire destroyed several Jackson Heights businesses the day before Valentine’s Day.

Nevertheless, with the help of friends and customers by their sides, many owners have already taken the first steps towards restoring their businesses.

Maria Laura Ines Solano, co-owner of Lalita’s gift shop, feels the urge to continue and finish what she started.

“I have a moral obligation to my clients,” she said. “This week I have been taking calls and working on baby shower decorations and sales paid before the fire took place.”

Solano came to the United Sates in 1994 with the hope of making money to help her three sons, who she left in Peru. The blaze that started in a nearby furniture store on Saturday, February 13, has forced her to start over again.

“I arrived in Florida [in the 1980s] and began working very hard; I was a babysitter for three years and moved on to taking care of an elderly woman,” said Solano. “After her death I was determined to continue moving on. I began working as a house keeper, doing alterations for clothing and then party decorations.”

In 2007, Solano’s younger sister persuaded her to open their own business in the city. After finding the location at 84-05 37th Avenue, an enthusiastic Solano moved from Florida to New York and became the third generation of women in her family to open a business. She began selling toddler clothing and imported items her sister sent from Peru.

Now that her store has burned down, she fights off tears of confusion as she sees herself and her employees left with nothing.

“I am very thankful to the people who have called me and kept me in their prayers,” she said, thanking in particular Councilmember Daniel Dromm, who put her in touch with someone at the NYC Department of Small Business Services. “They have kept me going and filled me with warm feelings that have me looking ahead to what is to come.”

The fire, which took all of the material items Solano kept for her business, has only motivated her to sell more and become more prosperous. She continues to hold on to her entrepreneurial spirit and hopes to find an affordable new space to rent and continue on with her gift shop, selling children’s clothing, floral decorations and party supplies.

“I am safe and the fire did not harm any of my employees or neighbors,” Solano said. “I am still healthy and I will continue on fighting to bring back my own shop once again.”

Queens Chronicle: Dromm Denounces Proposal to Close Fire Companies

From Queens Chronicle: By Willow Belden

After a four-alarm fire tore through a commercial strip in Jackson Heights on Saturday, destroying eight businesses, local elected officials are denouncing the mayor’s proposal to close 20 fire companies across the city.

The blaze, which began in a furniture store on 37th Avenue between 84th and 85th streets, appears to have been caused by a malfunctioning boiler, according to the FDNY. No one was killed or injured, though dozens of people were evacuated from an adjacent apartment building, and nearby businesses sustained damage.

The fire started around 10 a.m. and burned for more than three hours, with some 200 firefighters working to contain it.

It took the FDNY three minutes to get to the scene. If it had taken any longer, many say, the damage could have been significantly more devastating and likely would have resulted in fatalities. That’s why some are calling on the mayor to rethink his plans to downsize the Fire Department.

“For a fire of this scale, you need manpower, and you need it here quickly,” said Leroy McGinnis, Queens trustee for the Uniformed Firefighters Association. “Seconds matter.”

In his proposed budget for the 2011 fiscal year, Mayor Mike Bloomberg called for 20 fire companies to be closed — a measure he says is necessary to help close the city’s $4.9 billion deficit.

Bloomberg hasn’t specified which companies he would close, but McGinnis and various local politicians say it doesn’t matter; any closures would affect the city as a whole. That’s because engine and ladder companies are routinely taken out of commission for training sessions, parades and other events — leaving neighborhoods with fewer vehicles and staff than usual, and forcing firefighters to come from farther away to respond to emergencies.

If the city eliminates 20 companies more, neighborhoods would be stretched even thinner, and response times would increase, according to critics of the mayor’s plan.

“Any closing of a fire company has a ripple effect,” McGinnis said, adding that if firefighters had had to come from farther away to reach the Jackson Heights blaze, the fire would likely have consumed adjacent buildings.

City Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) held a press conference on Monday, calling on the mayor to reconsider his plan.

“We need to ensure the safety of our residents,” Dromm said. “We cannot afford to risk peoples’ lives with these closures.”

The Bloomberg administration contends that the city can’t afford to keep all its fire companies running. “In tough economic times, every agency has been asked to do more with less, including the Fire Department,” Jason Post, a spokesman for the mayor, said in an email.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), chairwoman of the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, said the city’s financial woes don’t justify the cuts.

“Fires don’t care about budgets,” Crowley said, adding that downsizing the FDNY could cost more in the long run than maintaining the Fire Department’s current numbers. “We cannot shift the costs from the city to the citizen,” she said. “We cannot shortchange our safety by forcing these cuts upon our New Yorkers.”

Trimming fire companies isn’t a new strategy to deal with deficits. In 2003, Bloomberg closed six engine companies, and last year he proposed cutting 16, though the City Council blocked the measure.

In December, the city reduced the number of firefighters in each unit from five to four, though the positions were restored the following month, amid strong criticism from the firefighters’ union.

Dromm said he will urge colleagues in the City Council not to approve a budget that includes cuts to engine companies for FY 2011.

The Queens Courier: Dromm Concerned About Local Businesses Hurt by Fire

From The Queens Courier: By Tonia N. Cimino & Claudia Cruz

As the remnants of the six stores ravaged by a four-alarm fire in Jackson Heights were razed, neighbors and other business owners reflected on the loss to the local economy.

“It’s a big tragedy,” said David Samaia, owner of Franco’s Corner, located one block away from the inferno. “These people lost a lot. Some of these businesses have more than one owner that will be affected. Employees lost their jobs. In this economy, it’s hard enough trying to find jobs.”

It was just before 10 a.m. on Saturday, February 13 when the fire started inside the Acme Furniture store located at 84-09 37th Avenue. It took 39 units with 168 firefighters to get the blaze under control – in three-and-a-half hours – but not before it chewed through conjoined storefronts and forced people from their homes.

Fire officials, who said there was a “significant delay” in calling 9-1-1, have determined the cause was a defective boiler on the first floor.

Locals credit the FDNY – which was fighting hot spots for hours after the fire and arrived on scene in just three minutes – with a job well done.

“It could have been a much bigger disaster if the fire department didn’t show up as fast as they did,” said Alex Chin, owner of Kelly Han Dry Cleaners, Inc., located at 84-11 37th Avenue. “I might not be here in this store if they hadn’t.”

Chin continued, “When I saw the smoke, I thought the fire was from my store. The fire was so close. I just stayed across the street and watched. I feel extremely lucky that it wasn’t me. I feel bad for those other business owners. I knew most of them — they were my friends.”

Though the Chin family’s cleaners sustained a little bit of water damage near the front door, an official with the Office of Emergency Management on scene on Sunday, February 14 – on the phone with the Department of Buildings (DOB) – deemed it structurally safe.

The DOB, however, determined the six stores were structurally unstable and ordered them leveled on Sunday, February 14. A spokesperson for the agency told The Courier that in 2003 and 2005, violations were issued at the site because one store had been subdivided.

As of Monday, February 15, Chin said his dry cleaning business was open. “All of our machines are working so far, knock on wood, so we plan to stay open,” he said.

However, Ilona Pozniakiene was not so lucky.

An employee of Colony Wine & Liquor Store on the corner for 10 years, she said she saw the flames from her kitchen window a few blocks away. “I’ve lost my job,” she said.

“The flames were as huge as the building,” said Councilmember Daniel Dromm as he surveyed the damage and helped a few business owners – from storefronts not affected by the fire – get back into their stores. “This will have a tremendous affect on the community because it was eight businesses and all ‘mom and pop’ stores.”

Dromm said that he is unsure at this time as to the monetary loss, though city agencies are working to determine this. He continued, “I have already conducted meetings with five of the eight business owners affected and the Department of Small Business Services has arranged to give those affected immediate assistance.”

“It’s horrible. It’s terrible at this time with the economy being so bad,” echoed Fannie Beylot, who lives on 79th Street. “Your heart goes out to these people. All of these stores have been here forever.”

The New York Times: Dromm Focuses on Recovery for Business Owners Affected by Fire

From The New York Times: By Fernanda Santos

There were a Russian liquor seller, an Ecuadorean manicurist and a Dominican barber. There was Thomas Kourakos, 83, who is from Greece and who opened his shoe-repair shop in 1956. And there was Maria Solano, 54, who is from Peru and who opened her party-favor store in 2006.

Along 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, from 84th Street to 85th Street, a diverse global cast toiled every morning in an equally diverse collection of neighborhood stores.

They could count on the Uruguayan furniture salesman to shovel the sidewalk after snowstorms, on the Ecuadorean accountant for financial advice and on one another for companionship.

Yolanda Mitsis, 59, a Colombian aesthetician who had a skin-care clinic on the block, described their relationship as “una cadenita,” or a little chain. But that chain was broken Saturday morning when flames, water and smoke pulverized 8 of the 15 stores on the block.

“I used to say hi every morning, when they walked by,” Alex Chin, 59, a Chinese dry cleaner whose shop was spared by the fire, said of the people whose businesses were destroyed. “It feels very lonely without them.”

A malfunctioning boiler inside a furniture store between Mr. Chin’s and Mr. Kourakos’s shops sparked a blaze that raged for four hours, forcing the evacuation of a neighboring apartment building and requiring 168 firefighters to bring under control, officials said.

No one was seriously injured, but the flames left a crater of mangled metal and charred brick in the heart of a commercial strip that has offered many immigrants a foothold in a new city.

For the lucky ones, like Mr. Chin and Abdul Rahim, an Afghan who owns a fabric store on the block, life goes on. Those not so lucky lost pretty much all they had.

“Everything I had saved I invested in this store,” said Robinson Valderrama, 30, who is from Colombia and who last year opened a clothing shop, Stylus Boutique, in a storefront facing 84th Street. He has a 9-year-old son, a 21-month-old daughter and a 7-year-old stepdaughter. His wife is unemployed, and the store was their only source of income, he said.

Mr. Valderrama did not have insurance. Ms. Mitsis thought she had insurance, but said that when she called to check on Tuesday, she found out that her policy had lapsed. Ms. Solano had coverage but said it would not offset her losses.

Then there are people like Amada Sánchez, 51, the manicurist from Ecuador, who rented a work station at La Pelukeria, a hair salon. She accepted only cash and kept it at work, in a small cardboard box that she emptied every Saturday at the end of her shift, she said.

“I had worked like crazy all week because of Valentine’s Day, but the fire burned my money,” Ms. Sánchez said dejectedly, estimating that she probably had $1,000 in the box. She said the fire also burned her nail polishes, nail drying machines and the rest of her equipment.

Very little has been recovered from the debris. A contractor in charge of the demolition said his crew had salvaged seven helium tanks and a cash register from Ms. Solano’s party-favors store, Lalita’s, with $1,400 inside. They also retrieved a filing cabinet and a safe from the liquor store, facial vaporizers from Ms. Mitsis’s clinic and a pair of pedicure chairs from the hair salon.

“I would love to have the businesses that were destroyed come back, but to be honest, I don’t know if it’s going to happen,” said Councilman Daniel Dromm, who represents the neighborhood and who spent much of the weekend at the fire scene. “This was devastating to people’s lives.”

Their loss is more than just material. Mr. Kourakos, the cobbler, was working in the back of his shop when flames erupted next door. Because he is hard of hearing, he did not know that Ms. Solano and her husband, Julio Aragón, had been calling out his name, unsure if he was still inside.

Ms. Solano said Mr. Aragón visited Mr. Kourakos every morning after he had helped her roll up Lalita’s gates. If a Spanish-speaking client needed Mr. Kourakos’s services, Mr. Aragón helped translate. If Mr. Kourakos had to bring a heavy box into his shop, Mr. Aragón would carry it. If Mr. Kourakos had trouble pulling nails from the heels of a shoe, Mr. Aragón would do it for him.

Mr. Aragón dashed inside Mr. Kourakos’s shop, Tom’s Shoe Repair, even as smoke and flames threatened to overpower him. Mr. Kourakos emerged wearing an apron smeared with shoe wax. His winter jacket, keys and all the machines and memories he had amassed in more than five decades had been left behind.

“I don’t know what he’s going to do,” his daughter Jeannie Kourakos said. “He went there to work, but he had a social life with the people who worked around him. They’d come in, bring him a doughnut; they stopped by to say hello. He’s going to miss his friends.”