Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Science-A-Peel Seeks A Historic Space In Forest Hills

Any ideas on a historic Forest Hills space that can be acquired, restored, and creatively reused to fulfill the mission of a highly beneficial science public charity? Building owners, developers, and community residents can contact Michael Perlman, Chair of Rego-Forest Preservation Council at

Science-A-Peel Might Give Birth To A Forest Hills Brain Science Center
by Michael Perlman of the Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger

Forest Hills Brain Science Center

Science is universal, from the air we breathe to the change of seasons to our manmade creations, and certainly what designates Forest Hills as “Forest Hills.” Meet Lisa O’Keefe, a dedicated Greenlawn, NY, resident who had a vision leading to the creation of Science-A-Peel, Inc. in January 2010.

It was founded as a public charity in New York State, with a mission of implementing a greater participatory level of public education in the science field. Science-A-Peel was coined to “peel back the layers to better understand how science addresses modern day issues.”

Now O’Keefe has high hopes of further developing that vision by opening the first science center of its kind in New York: a Brain Science Center in Forest Hills. She is gathering input on potential sites and drumming up community support.

The center would be viable to all; inclusive of ESL needs, the hearing and sight-impaired, and physically handicapped. In addition to coordinating diverse events, exhibits would be hands-on, interactive, utilize animatronics, and consistently rotate.

“There is no branch of science and no aspect of life that cannot be linked to the brain and then questioned,” she said. “Why do artists use certain colors in paintings, and why do sports improve brain function?”

Science-A-Peel will seek related sponsors, such as art galleries and sports organizations, and visualizes bonding with various Queens organizations. A brain museum would also be unique, since there are only two other brain museums, one in Europe and another in Wisconsin, according to O’Keefe.

Science-A-Peel is trying to acquire a Forest Hills building with old world charm between 3,000 and 9,000 square feet. A low-end purchase or a tax donation would be ideal, where the donor’s name would be used as part of the center’s name.

Possibilities are commercial properties, theaters, religious sites, banks, and firehouses, as long as it is asbestos-free. With a contractor on board who restored historic homes and museums throughout New York and Connecticut, the firm agreed to restore the center’s historic façade. If distinctive decorative features exist within, those would also undergo restoration and be incorporated into an interior showcasing hands-on exhibits.

A great example of creative reuse is Binghamton’s Roberson Museum and Science Center, which sensitively converted the historic Roberson Mansion.

O’Keefe values preservation, not solely upon aesthetic beauty, history, and culture, but as a science.
“Architecture is an important part of the hard sciences, based upon the materials used or how a building is constructed,” she said. “It also reflects social sciences, where you get a glimpse of the builder and a community’s people.”

One may speculate, “Why Forest Hills?” O’Keefe views Forest Hills as a heavily populated, accessible, and diverse area. Its board of directors shares in that diversity.

“They are uniquely qualified to devise exhibits that address diverse learning styles of the general public,” stated O’Keefe, who has a background in teaching, broadcasting, and government. “One board member is a psychologist specializing in Autism, and another opened 22 science centers in the U.S.”

Despite some great teachers and science centers, New York State has the 7th lowest proficiency in science, according to O’Keefe, who put part of the blame on budget cuts.

“Many students are not performing in the highest percentiles, such as ESL students or students with learning disabilities,” she said. “Teachers only have so much time with students, so Science-A-Peel developed diverse methods of getting students interested in learning science.”

One example of how Science-A-Peel will interact is by offering customized lesson plans for free, as well as composing material in a few languages.

Naomi and Gregory Sam of Bayside bring their eight year-old daughter Kristen Sam to Forest Hills’ Belle Arti Center for the Arts weekly. “Science programs are weak, basic, and repetitive in Queens elementary schools, so visiting this center would expose our daughter to more science and a different way of learning,” said Naomi.

Kristen expressed her interest in future visits. “I’ve been learning about the solar system and matter in school, but I want to learn about volcanoes, hurricanes, and tornadoes,” she said.

Business owner Peter Kambitsis of Ripe Juice Bar and Exo Café recognizes potential for a science center. “Forest Hills has a diverse and very educated crowd, and it is great to introduce something that will help develop our education,” he said. “Everything is easily accessible, too.”
As for potential sites, he said, “I envision a science center along Metropolitan Avenue where real estate is more economical and there are historic businesses such as Eddie’s Sweet Shop. If a site cannot be secured in Forest Hills, Flushing Meadow’s New York State Pavilion should be a candidate under a public-private partnership.”

As our brain convinces us to question nature, it is intriguing to determine what led O’Keefe on her path. Her greatest influences are her parents. On a personal level, they taught her about reputation and living life to the fullest with passion, honesty, and integrity.

“On a professional level, I have admired their career paths and have incorporated their zeal and knowledge in my own life,” she said.

Her father, Lt. Col, John F. Vallone (retired USAF), worked with the Atlas-Agena rocket and transitioned to head the recovery missions for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions for the Middle East, Africa, and Indian Ocean. Her mother, Louise Vallone, had a unique teaching background which helped advance her knowledge of the sciences.

“She taught me word game associations to help memorize facts, and diverse hands-on activities to increase my learning in a fun, active way,” O’Keefe said. “This was vastly ahead of its time, and proved decades later to be the way to educate diverse learners.”

Nicole Crowley coordinates creative fundraising events for Science-A-Peel, which educates the public about science in a family-based environment. In August 2012, she hosted a charity night in Maspeth and “The Amazing Kreskin” in Port Washington.

“The Great Greenlawn Sciencebed Race & Parade” is held annually. In the summer, there will be a traveling science exhibit, and Science-A-Peel will visit schools and libraries which request it.
Now in its fifth season, their weekly show “Science Is Appealing” highlights a branch of science and its relation to modern day issues, such as overpopulation and its environmental compromise, as well as bees, neuroscience, and radiology.

The public can be a co-host. Segments air on Cablevision channel 115 and are recapped at In addition, Science-A-Peel’s interactive mission is fulfilled through website features including “Ask The Scientist” and the “Science Resource.”
“At all of our events, we are meeting people from Queens who show an interest,” said O’Keefe.

The public has been responding favorably by donating beneficial products for future exhibits, such as computers, flat screen televisions, and kits for robotics, earth science, and microscopes. Donation and sponsorship opportunities help make learning much more accessible and enjoyable. Enrich your brain by interacting with Science-A-Peel, and play a role in your future by offering a permanent home in Forest Hills.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The QueensWay: Queens' Own Rendition of The High Line?

A Step Closer To The QueensWay
by Michael Perlman of the Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger

Hop aboard the QueensWay!

Not to catch a train, since the trains were taken out of service on the LIRR Rockaway Beach Branch Line in 1962, but for the visualized first linear park and cultural greenway of its kind in Queens, stationed atop of an abandoned industrial relic with Forest Hills trestles bearing a stone inscription of “1908.”

Some 60 years since its abandonment, Queens is one step closer towards achieving a High Line of its own, but will not necessarily echo Manhattan’s elevated stretch overlooking the Hudson River.

On December 19, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $467,000 Environmental Protection Fund grant by the State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to the Trust for Public Land (TPL). This would fund a feasibility study to determine the likelihood of converting a 3.5-mile stretch along the former LIRR line into an elevated public park.

As part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030, all New Yorkers should live within a 10 minute walk of a park. The QueensWay would achieve that, serving around 250,000 residents living within a one-mile radius.

The QueensWay would bridge the Queens communities of Rego Park, Forest Hills, Woodhaven, Glendale, Richmond Hill, and Ozone Park to Forest Park, and also bridge Queens residents through recreation, the arts, and historic and environmental preservation.

A much-needed green space may feature a pedestrian and bike path that would offer a bird's eye view of neighborhoods, and enable access to nearby bike lanes en route to Rockaway Beach and Jamaica Bay‘s recreational spaces, as well as five subway lines, numerous commercial districts, and schools.

“Over the next year, we will conduct environmental and engineering analyses, as well as a community visioning that will determine costs to turn a blighted rail line into an uninterrupted bike and walking path,” said Marc Matsil, New York State director of TPL. “The project would help catalyze economic development and celebrate the immense cultural diversity of Queens."

Since 1972, the non-profit has preserved more than three million acres from the inner city to the wilderness, and helped generate over $34 billion in public funds for conservation.

“Over the past 15 years, we assisted in the acquisition, development, and construction for successful projects such as the 17-mile West Orange Trail, the 18-mile Santa Fe Rail Trail, and New Paltz’ 12-mile Wallkill Valley Rail Trail,” said Matsil.

TPL joined forces with Friends of The QueensWay, a group founded in late 2011 by neighborhood advocates, which launched an online petition generating 2,130 signatures in favor of the project.

“It will help connect neighborhoods to green space that do not have access, help the local economy by bringing more folks to established shopping areas such as Austin Street, and help develop new opportunities along the QueensWay,” said Andrea Crawford, chair of CB9 and a member of the QueensWay Steering Committee.

“The project would create an estimated 700 construction jobs and 800 to 1,000 permanent jobs,” added Matsil.

The QueensWay would also foster friendships among residents of Queens’ ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

“There are greater than 100 ethnic groups within a mile, and we want to celebrate our diversity through cultural programs,” said Matsil, adding that its artistic and cultural scene will be a blank canvas of sculptures and ethic foods.

The lack of maintenance for 60 years has led to graffiti and hazardous conditions, including rusty tracks and large weeds engulfing litter such as aerosol cans, plastic bags, and abandoned cars, but that would be cleaned up.

Some residents with homes along its path voiced worries about crime, but it is desolate areas that are often an invitation to crime. Communities along the QueensWay’s path would be safer, as Friends of The QueensWay ensured that the stretch would be well-lit, monitored, and operate during specific hours. And TPL's goal is green infrastructure, which would pose the benefit of reducing stormwater.

Despite the extensive benefits outlined in the QueensWay proposal, Ozone Park Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder has supported reactivating the rail line to increase transit options ins southern Queens. Crawford believes reactivating the rails are not feasible, but says Goldfeder's goals can be met by reopening shuttered LIRR stops and developing bus routes.

The creative reuse of Manhattan’s 1930s-era High Line is a similar success story. Since its abandonment in 1980, some only saw a rusty structure meriting demolition, but in 1999, Friends of the High Line formed and raised funding and partnered with the city. June of 2009 marked the first section’s opening.

The High Line spared a historic railway which once delivered goods to the Meatpacking District, reused tracks to cultivate native plants and wildflowers, and introduced food kiosks, sitting areas, and water features.

“Here lies the space and creativity to do amazing things that don't necessarily raise the rents or pull the same amount of tourists, but could enlighten and enrich the communities that are a part of it,” said designer Gil Lopez, an urban ecological advocate of the QueensWay. “The bike path component sets apart the QueensWay, as well as emphasizes the need for alternative forms of transportation locally.”

Lopez envisions more diverse uses that retain the natural woodland character to highly programmed areas with seating, covered areas, and possibly outdoor dining and entertainment.

“The gardens should be diverse, from community gardens with individual plots to borough/city-managed areas maintained by the Parks Department,” Lopez said. “Areas can also be managed by non-profits.”

Forest Hills resident Travis Terry and his firm Capalino+Company worked with the Friends of the High Line, and he is now a proud member of the Friends of The QueensWay Steering Committee.

“As studies have shown, rail-to-trail conversions have a positive economic impact on the neighborhoods where they exist,” Terry said. “According to the New York Times, the High Line is responsible for over $2 billion in private investment, the creation of thousands of jobs, and a flourishing local business sector.”

“We have been in communication with the Queens Chamber of Commerce, will engage community residents who wish to bring ideas to the table, and will work with the City of New York and private philanthropies,” added Matsil.

To play a role, join