Landlord From Hell?
Jonathan Gaska sits at his desk in Community Board 14’s Far Rockaway office only long enough to solve a resident’s problem. He quickly takes some papers to the office staff, answers another call and finally heads out the door to hit the streets. For Gaska, being district manager of Community Board 14, which represents the entire peninsula and Broad Channel, has become more than a job. It is a mission to bring Rockaway to a better place.
Community boards have a history of being "advisory" in nature on such issues as land-use, community planning, the city budget process, and in the coordination of municipal services. Gaska furthered the board’s objective to advocating on behalf of Rockaway and its residents, working to provide quality services to the public.
Quality is what Gaska has been fighting for in Far Rockaway. His office is in the center of Far Rockaway’s shopping district, which runs along Mott and Central avenues. Once known as "The Village," a premier shopping area for Rockawayites and Five Towners, these streets took a turn for the worse in the last 25 years. Vacancies, graffiti and dilapidated buildings became the norm, as residents ran across the border to the Five Towns to shop.
Gaska began to turn the tide of neglect after advocating Borough President Claire Shulman to take an interest in the area. Since his efforts began, new lights have been installed along Central avenue, as well as brickwork on the sidewalk. The board has recently requested Shulman’s office for funding to repair the sidewalks and add trees along Mott avenue.
Cleaning up Far Rockaway is not a simple task. "It’s not for a lack of effort that things haven’t improved," Gaska said. "Government is not interested in revitalizing the area in a real way." Gaska added that local politicians, such as Congressman Meeks, have worked hard to "bring home the bacon," but key elected officials like Mayor Guiliani have "shown no interest" in helping out the neighborhood.
Gaska knows this is just the beginning of much work that needs to be done. Commenting on the many empty storefronts and dilapidated buildings, Gaska said that the "landlords don’t live in Rockaway so they suck everything they can from us."
According to Gaska, the loudest sucking noise is coming from the Far Rockaway Shopping Center along Mott avenue. Except for a supermarket, a pharmacy and one or two more stores, the rest of the shopping center is deserted. Vacant storefronts, pull-down gates and boarded windows are the common sights at the Far Rockaway Shopping Center, which Gaska and others say has more to do with Rita Stark, owner of the property, then with economic conditions of the area.
After the death of her father in 1988, Stark took over the shopping center, which at that time was valued at $1.2 million. A dispute over the father’s will resulted in a legal battle between Rita Stark and her brother, Fred Stark, who claimed, according to court documents, that the shopping center was mismanaged and asked the court to appoint a fiduciary to dispose of estate assets.
Gaska and others involved in the Far Rockaway community claim that as a result of this legal battle Rita Stark refused to rent storefronts as a way to devalue the property. In 1996, the Appellate Court dismissed Fred Stark’s lawsuit, but conditions at the shopping center continued to deteriorate.
Curtis Archer, executive director of the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corp., said that his organization has had inquiries into the shopping center, both from retailers and developers. But, Stark continues to not grant any new leases.
"She is strangling the Far Rockaway economy," Archer said.
Stark has also not been such a good property owner when it comes to taxes, according to Department of Finance records. Last year, a tax lien of $41,000 was purchased by Capital Assets, and, according to a Finance Department spokesperson, liens accruing on the books since July 1, 1999 to March 31, 2000 amounts to $43,000.04.
Repeated calls to Rita Stark's office for comment were not returned.
As for Gaska, sometimes looking out his office window could get discouraging. Then he remembers his obligation to the community. He picks up the phone to make another call—to a city agency, politician, anyone that could give Rockaway a chance. And he always reminds himself and the public—"if there’s a will, there’s a way."