April 17, 2019 By Meghan Sackman
Jackson Heights residents gathered for a town hall meeting Monday night to discuss the next steps toward making 78th Street a car free plaza as a part of the newly renovated Travers Park–after a car dealership placed a service entrance on the road.
About 100 people attended the meeting, held at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, including Council Member Daniel Dromm and activist group Make Queens Safer, who are fighting for 78th Street– between 34th Avenue and Northern Boulevard–to remain a car-free area of the park, as originally planned.
The meeting came after residents took note of and rallied against Koeppel Mazda Car Dealership opening a service entrance for cars on 78th Street, threatening the street’s car free status.
This entrance is located to the north of Travers Park, the Garden School, and Staunton Field, on 78th, where the street was designated to be a car free plaza in a decade-long plan for the park redesign.
The original agreement, according to Dromm, who was the first one to make the Travers Park redesign a reality by convincing Mayor Bloomberg at the time to buy the land, was for the park to go from 34th Avenue to Northern Boulevard, not allowing access to cars.
Dromm said that unbeknownst to him, Howard Koeppel spoke to the Parks Department and Department of Transportation to allow for the service entrance on 78th Street.
Dromm also said that this entrance is unnecessary due to the fact that the Toyota dealership, which was there before Koeppel, chose not to put a service entrance there on its own accord, before talk of a car free plaza even came up.
“They were using only the 77th Street entrance. There’s no reason why Koepel cannot use the 77th street entrance,” Dromm said.
Dromm has also been working with the De Blasio administration on this and said that they say they are onboard with the car free plaza.
“As of today, the administration has said that they remain committed to the project as it was originally planned,” Dromm said. “I don’t know what that means 100 percent, but we have to keep the pressure on them.”
Residents and activist groups at the meeting, who rallied against the service entrance last month, made a presentation with reasons why this mostly car free plaza is a necessity and put forward a plan to make sure it happens.
Christina Furlong, co-founder of grassroots group Make Queens Safer and a presenter at the meeting, highlighted the danger of allowing cars to turn off Northern Boulevard into the service entrance on 78th Street.
Furlong listed names and showed images of about 20 people who have been killed on Northern Boulevard within the 115th Precinct since 2010, which included children to senior citizens.
“We can’t lose the momentum to this bad deal that will put cars in direct contact with our most vulnerable users,” Furlong said of the city’s proposed compromise for the service entrance which involved allowing cars to enter 78th street, through the park from Northern, with only benches and trees as barriers from the rest of the park.
As of now, according to Dromm, the only reason a curb cut is necessary at all is for the possible necessity of fire trucks should a building catch fire, and a contracted agreement with the Garden School to allow access to their garage for certain things which can be renegotiated after the five year contract is up.
These compromises are the only ones that Jackson Heights residents should have to make, according to co founder of Friends of Diversity Plaza and low income tenant lawyer Shekar Krishnan.
“No compromise is acceptable to us. The only acceptable solution is to close the service entrance on 78th,” Krishnan said. “Koeppel can use the other two service roads that he has…he doesn’t even need this one.”
Krishnan also speculated that this fight for green space would not even be happening in a more affluent, less diverse neighborhood.
“In communities like ours, we are fighting the imposition on us of what we want in our neighborhood. This wouldn’t happen in Park Slope or Upper East Side or Upper West Side,” Krishnan said.“This is fundamentally an issue of equity as well as racial equity, as much as it is environmental, health and space equity, as much as it is pedestrian safety.”
Krishnan provided residents with several things they could do to make sure their opposition to the service entrance is heard.
He urged residents to sign a petition against the service entrance, which can be found online or in a physical copy at meetings such as last night.
Another option he offered residents to get involved included emailing the Commissioner of the DOT, Polly Trottenberg [email protected]; the Commissioner of the Parks Department, Mitchell Silver [email protected]; and the Executive Manager of the Koeppel Mazda Dealership Mark Lacher, [email protected]
Krishnan also urged residents to leave comments on the Northern Boulevard DOT project feedback map, where people can pinpoint a specific problem area on Northern Boulevard and DOT will take the comments into consideration when redesigning Northern Boulevard.
The final encouragement Krishnan gave was to boycott the dealership and to notify them why.
“If we take all of these steps, we will be in a position for the next event and next action to make sure our concerns are reported,” Krishnan said.
In response to inquiries about plans by the Parks Department and the DOT, a spokesperson from Parks said, “Parks and DOT remain committed to opening up pedestrian access on 78th Street. We look forward to continuing to work with the community on this project. The Travers Park project is on schedule and moving forward. The design is currently under review, but no changes have been finalized at this point.”
Koeppel has yet to respond to residents, who sent him a letter about two months ago, and any requests for comment.