A new episode in a long-running conflict has cropped up in Ozone Park: A community group worked with the city to install a pedestrian plaza, but merchants, blaming poor sales on changes to traffic patterns, parking, and plaza upkeep, want the public space removed. A special forum hosted last Thursday by Queens Community Board 10 and DOT gave the two sides a chance to air their views in advance of potential changes. But plaza supporters say the merchants themselves are part of the problem.
Public space is so scarce in Ozone Park that local children use a nearby municipal parking lot as a playing field. The plaza, installed last fall to carve out some more community space, is backed by the Bangladeshi American Community Development and Youth Services Corporation (BACDYS) as a maintenance partner. Early plans called for it to be installed a couple blocks away in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, but DOT found the design would be better in Ozone Park. The agency held outreach meetings and secured support from, among others, Council Member Eric Ulrich, community boards in both boroughs, and local businesses.
But many business owners in the area are crying foul, saying the plaza has ruined business. They gathered dozens of signatures and outnumbered plaza supporters at last week’s meeting. “We need to remove this plaza,” said Ozone Park Discount Variety and Hardware co-owner Hasib Ali, who estimated that three-quarters of his customers arrive by car. “All customers come in to complain about parking.” Ali’s business partner, Ahmad Ubayda, said shop owners will be hiring an attorney to fight the plaza.
“I do not want this plaza in front of my business. It’s killing the very existence of my business,” said Khemraj Sadoo, owner of Ozone Park First Class Laundry. “We need that plaza to move from there. We need two-way traffic once again.”
The plaza design, which pedestrianized a short section of Drew Street to connect a triangle-shaped pedestrian island with a nearby block, also extends up one block of 101st Avenue, from Drew Street to 76th Street. That block was converted from two-way car traffic to one-way westbound traffic. The plaza resulted in a net loss of what DOT Queens Borough Commissioner Dalila Hall described as “maybe one or two spots” for parking.
To ensure the plan wouldn’t have an outsize negative impact on parking, Hall said the agency performed surveys of parking occupancy before and after the plaza was implemented, and added parking meters to Liberty Avenue in an effort to improve turnover and access for customers. “Most of the time, those on-street parking spots are empty,” Hall said of 101st Avenue. “You could always find a spot if you drove up.”
In addition to concerns about parking and one-way traffic, merchants also complained that the plaza is not well maintained. The Neighborhood Plaza Partnership (NPP) assists BACDYS with maintaining the space, and works with the Association for Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE NY) to provide jobs for the homeless and former convicts cleaning the space and maintaining planters. ACE NY has increased the cleaning schedule, and the plaza now has four additional Department of Sanitation waste baskets, up from two. But the city collects trash from the area only twice a week.
“We are working with Sanitation to have it happen more often,” DOT’s Hall said, noting that nearby Brooklyn streets receive trash pickup six days a week.
BACDYS chief operating officer Darma Diaz says the business owners themselves are part of the trash problem: They dump waste in the plaza for the city to pick up, even though they are required by law to hire a professional carting service. A food vendor in the plaza also leaves trash for the city to pick up, she said. Hall said that she had also heard complaints about businesses leaving waste in public bins.
Diaz, who noted that she is Puerto Rican while most of the business owners are Bangladeshi, said the plaza is exposing rifts within the community. “There’s two groups within the [Ozone Park] Bangladeshi community that belong to different mosques. When Group A does something, Group B will have a comment about it and become antagonistic,” she said. “It makes me wonder, is it really the parking?”
The conflict in Ozone Park is reminiscent of Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, where business owners who initially opposed the space over similar parking and maintenance concerns eventually came around and formed a group to help maintain it. Merchants and plaza supporters aren’t at that point in Ozone Park.
“I really do not want it to get to a point where it gets too ugly,” Diaz said. “I would like to see a happy medium, and to me a happy medium is the business owners getting more parking spots, but definitely not eliminating the plaza.”
Queens CB 9 chair Ralph Gonzalez said the board will discuss the issue at its general board meeting on October 14. Hall said DOT wants to hear more input before considering changes to the space.
In the meantime, plaza supporters and business owners stand on opposite sides of the issue. “It kind of is their perception of what the plaza is, and that’s hard to change. It happens over time. It doesn’t happen overnight,” said Cheryl Tse, project manager at the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership. “Obviously, it’s a long process.”