Astoria Community Board Votes Against Plaza, Will Get Curb Extensions

Astoria residents got one day to experience "Newtown Plaza" last month, but they won't have a permanent new public space after Community Board 1's vote on Tuesday. Photo: Stephen Miller

DOT went before Queens Community Board 1 on Tuesday to propose a pedestrian plaza at the intersection of 30th Avenue, 33rd Street and Newtown Avenue. The audience at the meeting was split on the proposal, but CB members were not: They voted against the plaza 25 to 7.

Since the board rejected the plaza, which would have cost $75,000 to install, the location will be receiving three smaller, but permanent, curb extensions at a cost of $400,000. The project could begin as soon as spring 2013. Legally, community boards serve only an advisory role, but DOT representatives said at the start of the meeting that the agency would not install the plaza if the community board voted against it.

Plaza supporters had formed Friends of Newtown Plaza to advocate for a community board “yes” vote, but the plaza was opposed by Council Member Peter Vallone Jr., who favored a smaller intervention that would have preserved through traffic (which DOT had previously rejected). Local business interests, including the 30th Avenue Business Association, were also vocal in their opposition.

Newtown Plaza was the site of DOT’s first one-day demonstration plaza on the last Saturday in August. At the event, DOT staff surveyed passersby about their preferences for the location. Support for the plaza was overwhelming, with 96 percent saying they would like a permanent plaza. And the vast majority — 88 percent — said they got to the plaza by walking. Most respondents came from the immediate neighborhood or adjacent zip codes and cited safety, cleanliness and public space as their top priorities. Few respondents identified parking as a priority.

A plaza would also have helped address the lack of public space in Astoria. According to DOT, city guidelines call for a minimum of 65 square feet of open space per person. Queens has 206 square feet per person, while Astoria has only 16 square feet per person.

To measure changes in traffic patterns after the installation of the plaza, DOT located automated traffic counters in the surrounding area for two weeks, which indicated that early Saturday afternoons see the highest traffic volumes. During that time while the demo plaza was open, DOT outfitted cars with GPS to do test runs of three alternate routes. One of the routes, via 33rd Street and 28th Avenue, was actually faster than the original route using Newtown Avenue. Drivers who continued westbound on 30th Avenue before turning right would experience a 25 second delay.

Astoria will be getting these curb extensions instead of the plaza. Image: DOT

At Tuesday’s CB meeting, a deflating moment for the project came when Brad Beckstrom, director of community and government affairs at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, urged the board to delay a decision on the plaza. By early 2013, Mount Sinai will be opening a cancer infusion clinic at 31-19 Newtown Avenue, which is one block west of the plaza location. Despite the fact that the plaza won’t overlap with the Mount Sinai property at all, Beckstrom expressed concern about how patients would access the clinic.

“DOT has offered to work with us,” on potential loading zones, Beckstrom said, and DOT Queens Borough Commissioner Maura McCarthy confirmed that discussions were just beginning with Mount Sinai. “Obviously we share one common goal, which is to make this a safer community,” Beckstrom told the board. “Our concern is: Do we not have all the facts of this project?”

Meanwhile, local business representatives urged the board to reject the plaza outright. Thomas Anderson of Key Food said the plaza would “eliminate convenient access to our store” and “potentially threaten our viability.” A DOT study of Key Food shoppers showed that 90 percent arrive on foot or by transit. In a line of argument that was repeated by other speakers, Anderson said the plaza would “act as a magnet for undesirable elements.”

Neighborhood residents who had formed the group Friends of Newtown Plaza questioned the opponents’ assertions. Nancy Silverman, who lives nearby, described her experience at the demonstration plaza, where she met friends and bought a coffee from a nearby merchant. “I guess I’m one of the undesirables,” she said.

But opponents remained unconvinced, and seemingly unaware of the successful plazas in nearby neighborhoods. “Not only are they eliminating parking spaces,” said building manager Nick Kavalas, “You can’t change the traffic pattern just because people want to hang out and have a coffee. It’s ridiculous.”

If the plaza had been approved, DOT would have partnered with the Central Astoria Local Development Corporation to maintain the space. Some LDC board members also serve on the community board. “I want to clear the air,” said George L. Stamatiades, who serves as CB 1’s first vice chairperson and president of the LDC. Despite rumors to the contrary, Stamatiades said, it’s “a blatant lie that there’s something in it for Central Astoria.” The LDC did not have a position on whether it preferred a plaza or the curb extensions, saying that it would support the community board’s preference.

At Tuesday’s meeting, DOT staff also said that the agency would soon be inaugurating a new program to provide financial support for community partners to maintain plaza spaces. It looks like Astoria won’t be participating.

  • So DOT is following the wishes of the Council Member, some local businesses who have no clue about the value of public space, and the so-called community board. But not the wishes of 96 percent of people who actually walk by this space. Is Astoria really being served well by this process?

  • sad

  • Reader

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Peter Vallone and the Community Board just cost this community’s taxpayers $325,000 in order to placate a very small minority of people who drive.

  • Juliana R Dubovsky

    A well written article, Stephen. Thank you so much for reporting on it. Queens has a long way to go and I can only hope that us advocates have learned that we have quite an education and outreach campaign ahead of us… 

  • J

    I’m disappointed too, Ben. However, this is the process of Democracy. If the 96% of people dislike the decisions that Vallone has made, then they can vote for someone else next time, perhaps a leader like Danny Dromm who explains and engages issues based on what he believes is in the best interest of the community, not based on what his largest campaign contributor wants. People who care should also try to get on the Community Board, as that is where these decisions are made.

    Yes, the result sucks, but I’m not sure it was the process itself that is to blame, but rather the lack of leadership.

  • Albert

    And so the local media’s misinformation/disinformation campaign chalks up yet another victim in their pro-car/anti-people fight.

  • @Uptowner13:disqus I would say that this process is political, but it is no more democratic than simply ignoring the community board’s recommendation and doing the thing that most people seem to want, which is to build the plaza. If DOT were to do that, they would have to contend with a few angry business owners, Vallone, and probably some guff from the Daily News. That’s a political problem, not a violation of democratic principles.
    They would also be putting the local maintenance partner — the LDC — in a difficult position, which might actually threaten the success of the project. So from a practical standpoint, I can understand why DOT totally ceded this decision to the CB.

    But is the CB representing the community? Doesn’t seem like it.

  • Anonymous

    Enjoy your parking spaces, and your ordinariness.

  • Tossing around the majority/minority argument is tricky, here in LA it is often used to reject bike/ped projects “the majority drives”. Even here though, the LA Bike Coalition once said something like “the majority of traffic along this corridor is transit”– I don’t often think the “majority” should be used to justify transportation projects unless you’re saying this project will benefit everyone and make the street more accessible to a wider variety of people.

  • Bolwerk

    “Not only are they eliminating parking spaces,” said building manager
    Nick Kavalas, “You can’t change the traffic pattern just because people
    want to hang out and have a coffee. It’s ridiculous.”

    The myopia of some people is stunning. How much does a coffee cost and how many coffee drinkers can you fit in an area the size of a parking space? Think the boost for the Astoria economy might be a little higher than some cheap or free parking – not to mention the “benefits” (none) of people driivng through.

    Oh well, the bright side: there are plenty of places that stand to gain from Astoria’s loss, and we can’t please them all. Maybe it’s a wash.

  • Anonymous

    These business owners are f—ing stupid.  You may lose the ability for some people to drive.  But you gain tremendously by having a lot more foot traffic.  Every place they do ped plazas, the local business values sky rocket.  

    There are real costs to the local pols/newspapers war on peds.  This is one of them. 

  • The way I see it, it just means it’ll take a little bit longer for Astoria residents to realize that they’ll need to fight their own community board very, very hard in order to receive a benefit that the DOT is offering. The plaza won’t be put in now, but if the “community” changes their mind, I hope the future DOT administration will renew their offer.

  • Reggie

    “…the plaza, which would have cost $75,000 to install, the location … receiving three smaller, but permanent, curb extensions at a cost of $400,000.”

    That’s a bit apples and oranges, comparing the cost of the temporary materials plaza with the capital budget construction of the neck-owns.

  • Eric McClure

    Amazing coincidence! Community Board votes on proposed pedestrian plazas also “act as a magnet for undesirable elements.”

  • Miles Bader

    @JarekAF:disqus Yup… but then business owners are pretty much always bizarrely misinformed and clueless.  How these guys manage to stay in business is a mystery…

    More to the point, I’m not sure why anybody pays any attention to them, as they’re pretty much the worst source of information available.

  • Nathanael

    ” Yup… but then business owners are pretty much always bizarrely misinformed and clueless.  How these guys manage to stay in business is a mystery…”

    You’ve noticed that, too?  That’s also, as far as I can tell, why small business owners vote Republican.  The Republicans vote to raise the taxes of their customers, lower the taxes of their large chain competitors, create new regulations which can easily be met by the big chains but not by the small businesses…. but the small business owners are bizarrely misinformed, and the result is what it is.

  • Anonymous

    The so-called “survey”  has an inherent flaw: it surveyed on-foot passerby, but didn’t survey vehicle drivers who on the current situation drive there. So it is a bit skewed poll to say the least. 

  • Anyone know about Community Board member terms and how’s they’re chosen or elected to serve? I think it’s time for a “restructuring” of the Board.

  • Noisytoys1

    Christian- Community board members are nominated by the City Council member and appointed by the borough president and you need to live in, work in or have some other “substantial connection” to the district. You can request an application at your council member’s office. I believe the the Borough Pres can also appoint people. In Manhattan Scott Stringer has reformed the appointment process and since he is also proactive on such matters, their boards are increasingly full of engaged residents. In Queens, our CB system is totally disfunctional, full of people who’ve served for decades yet do nothing and hate all change. And as long as CB members are appointed by council members and the BP they will always just be the shills of those power brokers.

  • I’m sorry but perhaps I’m missing something. Why is DOT spending more money than they otherwise would have after the Community Board rejected their better proposal? 

  • Todd

    This is the result of a concerted effort by Alma Realty and Key Foods.  It’s disgusting.  

  • Joe R.

    @bkabak:disqus I’m not getting it either. $400K for a few curb extensions? Are they going to be lined with solid gold or something? I can’t see why this should cost more than maybe $15,000, $20,000 tops. We’re talking about laying down maybe 2000 square feet of concrete. This is maybe 1.5 times the amount in the driveway and sidewalk of my house. That cost us $4500 19 years ago. Correcting for inflation and area, and then adding in a few thousand for curb cuts, metal curb lining, etc., I’m coming up with a figure of ~$15,000. Someone seriously needs to investigate where that $400K figure comes from. It’s over the top ridiculous.

  • Ari_F_S

    Curb extensions frequently require moving storm drains. That’s what costs so much.