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Jackson Heights Embraces 78th Street Play Street and Makes It Permanent

"It's just a street. It's asphalt. It doesn't look like anything," said Jackson Heights resident Donovan Finn of the block of 78th Street between Northern Avenue and 34th Avenue. "But it feels like something." Finn's neighbors, it seems, agree.

Two years ago, Jackson Heights residents and City Council Member Daniel Dromm won a hard-fought battle to close the block to traffic for two summer months. Now, 78th Street is being turned over to people 24/7/365, as reported by the Daily News, and it's on track to receive a bottom-up redesign that will make the new space more than just asphalt.

Turning 78th from a summer play street into a permanent, year-round plaza was a breeze. "It sailed before the community board, with almost no dissenting votes," said Finn, a member of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance. That's not because reallocating street space has no detractors in Jackson Heights -- it does -- but because the hard work of persuasion had already been done, first by hundreds of neighborhood activists and then by the hundreds more who flocked to the new space.

The story of the 78th Street plaza actually goes back to 2008, when local residents concerned with the paucity of park space in the neighborhood managed to turn the block into a play street, but only for half a day on Sundays. When they tried to extend the closure to all of July and August, they encountered pushback from other locals worried about lost parking, nighttime loiterers and rush hour traffic. The transportation committee of Queens Community Board 3 voted down the proposal. It took sustained activism to persuade the full board to change its position.

Around 200 residents marched to the community board in May of 2010, demanding more open space and room for kids to play. At the front of the rally was Dromm, who had campaigned on the issue in the 2009 election, then leafletted neighbors in support of the play street and commissioned a traffic study on its effects.

Other electeds, too, pitched in their support for the summertime street closure. Letters of support from City Council Member Julissa Ferreras, Assembly Member Michael DenDekker, State Senator Jose Peralta, and U.S. Congressman and Queens Democratic Party Chair Joe Crowley were all included in a 30-page packet that play street supporters assembled. For extra effect, they delivered it to each and every community board member at their home address, said Finn.

CB 3 reversed its vote, and now the plaza's status in the community is an established fact on the ground. "A lot of what it took was just people seeing it in action," said Finn. "That was the proof." Skillful management of the play street, including finding artists and local businesses to program the space, helped ensure that it provided the desired benefits to the community.

Moving forward, the Department of Transportation has two designs underway: one to enable the street closure to function year-round while still letting parents at the adjacent Garden School drive and drop off their children on 78th; and a longer-term vision of how the street can be remade as a space that works for people, integrated with Travers Park on one side and the Garden School park on the other. The school will likely be accommodated with a short cul-de-sac for vehicle drop-offs. For the final design, Finn said he hopes to see shade trees and public seating, which are scarce in Travers Park, to attract more senior citizens or anyone who wants to sit and, say, read the Sunday paper.

Though 78th Street isn't officially a permanent pedestrian plaza yet, it appears that residents have already succeeded in making it a permanent part of the streetscape. "This has been a long, but definitely worth it, battle," said Finn.

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