Unlocking the Potential of the New Jackson Heights Plaza

Full seating in the new Jackson Heights plaza last fall. One merchant opposed to the project ##http://www.timesledger.com/stories/2012/4/jhplaza_jh_2012_01_26_q.html##told a local paper## that the plaza is "like a ghost town." Photo: Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

Earlier this month you might have noticed a few press accounts about merchants in Jackson Heights who think a new public plaza on one short block of 37th Road is crimping their bottom line. The plaza is actually part of a much broader plan to improve street safety, speed bus trips, and reduce traffic congestion in Jackson Heights, which neighborhood groups and NYC DOT have been working on for years without receiving much media attention. Now that there’s a tinge of conflict, the press is all over it — an innovative and community-driven transportation project has turned into a story about shopkeepers upset over the removal of 20 parking spaces.

The plaza reclaimed the block of 37th Road between 73rd Street and 74th Street. Before the plaza, traffic on that block degraded the neighborhood street network. Drivers turning left onto 37th Road used to cause traffic to back up on 73rd Street and beyond, causing epic fits of horn-honking. Buses routed onto the block more than a decade ago to make way for the construction of the 74th Street transit hub had to make a series of zigzagging turns, slowing down more than 10,000 bus riders every weekday. When the proposal to re-route the buses and take traffic off the block came before the local community board, the vote in favor was unanimous.

“The objective was to get that traffic to move more smoothly and reduce that honking,” said Council Member Daniel Dromm, who has championed the changes and shepherded the project through to completion. Now Q47 and Q49 buses make one turn instead of three, and Dromm says bus drivers have told him they save seven minutes on each trip compared to the old route.

Merchants knew about the changes well in advance and most of the neighborhood’s business groups were supportive, said Dromm. After the plaza installation last fall, complaints began to surface about the loss of parking. But the parking loss — 20 spaces, according to one plaza opponent — is insignificant compared to the foot traffic that could be drawn to a well-run public space. Not only is Jackson Heights compact, walkable, and full of pedestrian traffic, but it has the least amount of park space per capita of any neighborhood in the city. The plaza is also right next to the 74th Street subway station, which sees more than 40,000 boardings on a typical weekday.

Some local merchants apparently don’t see the value of having a public plaza on their doorstep. “Our customers come to do shopping, not to sit,” said Mohammed Pier, president of the Jackson Heights Bangladeshi Business Association.

But it’s clear that the overwhelming majority of people who come to Jackson Heights don’t drive there. According to DOT’s 2010 neighborhood travel survey, 94 percent of interview subjects didn’t drive cars to get to Jackson Heights:

Image: NYC DOT

Other merchants believe that the benefits of the plaza outweigh the effects of having less parking. “Right now the business is slow because of the economy,” said Vasantrai Gandhi, who owns a shop called the New York Gold Company and used to chair Community Board 3. “Nobody can judge how much this affects business. One thing is sure. Now there is no accidents, no horn honking, no pollution, no fumes. Some areas benefit and some areas are at a disadvantage, but what’s important is safety.”

I spoke to some residents familiar with the project who think any loss in foot traffic is probably due to the re-routing of buses, not the plaza. They also speculated that the plaza would have received a better welcome if it had opened during the warmer months and started drawing crowds immediately. (Although even in the fall and winter, the space attracts people.)

The missing ingredient, more than great sunny weather, is vision and leadership from the businesses around the plaza, said Afzal Hussein, who opened Espresso77 on nearby 77th Street in 2007. “77th Street never used to have foot traffic,” he said. “Since I opened it people walk here.”

Hussein sees the potential of the plaza to become a destination, and he says he’d be glad to help make it work. “In the summer you can have art exhibits or performance,” he said. “You need a community working together, it’s no one person’s job. They need a leader. It’s a lot of potential there but nobody’s thinking that way.”

Without a merchant group taking ownership of the plaza, Dromm’s office has been coordinating events and maintenance. So far, he said, several community organizations have asked to use the plaza for events, including the Bangladeshi Youth Congress, Queens Community House, and Sindhu USA.

“We’re really working hard to make this successful and I’m calling on the business community to do the same thing,” said Dromm. “We want to help them, but it may require a little different thinking than they’ve had in the past.”

  • Eric McClure

    Daniel Dromm nails it: “We want to help them, but it may require a little different thinking than they’ve had in the past.”  Some merchants act like it’s 1970 rather than 2012.  To paraphrase at least one past Streetsblog comment, we really want to like and patronize our small neighborhood businesses, so please don’t make it hard for us.  Try a bit to embrace the healthier, more vibrant community that results from better-balanced streets.

  • Len Maniace

      Thank you Streetsblog and others interviewed here for your support for the 37th Road Pedestrian Plaza  We’re still supporting the pedestrian plaza.
       Many don’t understand that this version of the plaza is only temporary and that it will be landscaped if and when it becomes permanent. This pedestrian plaza could become one of the best places to do business in JH, especially for restaurants whose tables and chairs could fill the plaza.

  • J

    That plaza desperately needs a merchant group overseeing it. From my understanding, DOT is very reluctant to create such plazas without a group committing to maintaining them. Without such an entity, trash does not get picked up in a timely manner, the tables and chairs are much more institutional (not moveable) and the plaza looks much less inviting than say Herald Square, Putnam Plaza, and many others. This needs to be addressed ASAP, or this plaza is going to have a hard time succeeding.

  • Syeltzer

    This is precisely the problem. The street has no steward and is therefore poorly maintained. The result is that it has quickly turned into a detraction rather than an amenity. As a JH resident who initially supported the concept, I would not spend time there – it’s dirty, unattractive and a homeless hangout. If there were a local organization managing the space, it might have been a different story.

  • Student

    I have to say, I am largely fiercely supportive of the public plaza program, but in this case I have some serious doubts.

    For one thing, as someone who visits the area (and plaza) regularly, I hardly think you can call it a success.  It looks forlorn – I have no idea when you took that photo – Diwali, perhaps? – but it’s hardly how it looks from my 7-8 times in the area in recent months.  The furniture (which you can actually see in the photos) isn’t the nice furniture you have in many plazas in Manhattan but is somewhat cheaper looking – or maybe it’s the overall neglect of the area that makes it look so.  There also seems to be a lot of litter there – which you can see in the photo.

    Secondly, you have a relatively small community whose interests got bulldozered  over by a larger community.  The South Asian commercial area in Jackson Heights serves clients for all over the tri-state area who come to do a bi-weekly or monthly shopping.  And seeing that they come from as far as NJ and Westchester, they drive.  Taking away parking (even if it is illegal parking – means taking away clients.  Eric McClure- you are not talking about neighborhood businesses.  Do you honestly say you are going to start buying saris and dahl and spices at the volume that an ethnic Indian does in order to support these businesses?  These are regional businesses that serve specific community, after all.

    As for suggesting that the drop in business was caused by the economy, the business owners I know are complaining about a severe drop in recent months – since the public plaza and other changes that have made it harder to park.  The economic crisis started in about 2007.  Obviously, some data gathering needs to be done to determine what exactly has been going on here, but from my conversations no one really tried to work with this specific community and make it work for them as well.

    I really believe in the work JSK and NYC DOT has been doing, and have supported it in various forums, but I also believe that being a multi-ethnic community is a value worth preserving, that other voices need to be listened to even if they are in a minority, and just because the Daily News takes up a cause it does not necessarily mean that it is wrong.

    It would be nice to see other, more creative solutions – maybe pedestrianizing the part of 74th street and turning the current grim public plaza into a parking lot? That would work with the unique needs of this area. 

    By the way, this is not the first time this has happened.   Check out development in Flushing and the Korean community…

  • Anonymous

    Goussey’s community dance party should move there in the warmer weather. That would be so amazing!

  • Anonymous

    And I’m sorry–for the person ranting about how the minority is being railroaded by the majority, maybe the business owners should put some effort into the community so their voice will be heard. They refuse to sponsor a BID, and many (not all) don’t even make a token effort to clean outside their stores. 

  • Tom Lowenhaupt

    This is a neighborhood and community issue of which transportation is one part. That the traffic flow was changed by the city without taking steps to address the social and economic impacts is just so traditional. Robert Moses would have been proud.

  • Nellaalamanni

    This is great idea. We should have more of these “plazas”. But please be aware don’t let the DOT bring back their ideas on one way avenues within our residential areas. This idea is always in the back burner.

  • Danny G

    @ed6b561dcb76b6a0926f30596f76b453:disqus Your idea about flipping the pedestrian space / car space between 74th Street and 37th Road is pretty smart, and deserves to be heard

  • India_queens

    i think it it is a good idea to have the pedestrian space especially in the warmer months.

  • CS

    My comment relates to Q49 bus stopping north side of Roosevelt, across from the 74th St. station, to discharge passengers.  Lots of folks dash across Roosevelt to get into the station, not necessarily heeding the traffic lights.  I think it’s an accident waiting to happen.  Why don’t the buses stop in the station to discharge passengers?

  • felicehow

    It is misleading to call 37th Road a “plaza,” with nothing inviting, comfortable or people-friendly about it. The several metal table-with-fixed-seating units dumped there are cheap and unsightly. The only other objects on the short block are a number of equally unsightly cement rectangles that seem to be there to discourage truck bombs. P.S. Nothing has been done to lessen the honking problem in the neighborhood. The law against honking except in cases of emergency is simply not being enforced and the gypsy cabs that rush around impatiently are the worse offenders. Jackson Heights deserves better.

  • zenobiaznb

    I would think anything that will give more walking space and additional safety to shoppers coming to Jackson Heights is a big plus for the businesses there. Don’t most of the South Asian shoppers to Jackson Heights take the subway there from Manhattan and other parts of Queens? Why don’t the businesses in Jackson Heights focus on making the business area as pedestrian and family friendly as possible in order to draw the many shoppers that  use transit  instead of worrying about the the few shoppers that drive in from Long Island and New Jersey every once in a while?  

    The pedestrian plaza can be a great venue for cultural events and kid friendly street acts that could attract even more shoppers. 

    I can also see how pedestrian plazas would be attractive to all the stay home mothers with their kids in the area who don’t venture out as much because of the crazy drivers, noise, fumes  and traffic.

  • Estasnyc

    I’m a Q49 commuter and I do think that the rerouting was a mistake. 37th Road between 73rd & 74th Streets is better off auto-free but should have kept a single bus lane with the old bus stop there. You would still have room for those fugly metal tables.

  • toosinbeymen

    I go to this neighborhood to shop a lot and when the weather’s nice, I bring a book and hang out in the plaza. I love it. It’s comfortable and seems safe. Maybe not enough seating but who’s complaining. I very much appreciate the efforts of Council Member Daniel Dromm for making this possible. Local government rocks. Now if only we could get the feds to work for the people…

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