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After Hit-and-Run Death, Neighbors Press DOT to Tame Traffic in Astoria Park

5:05 PM EDT on July 20, 2015

Outside of the occasional special event, Shore Boulevard in Astoria Park is dedicated to cars. Photo: Green Shores NYC
Only during the occasional special event do people have priority on Shore Boulevard in Astoria Park. Photo: Green Shores NYC
Outside of the occasional special event, Shore Boulevard in Astoria Park is dedicated to cars. Photo: Green Shores NYC

Park advocates, a local civic association, and Council Member Costa Constantinides are calling on DOT to implement traffic calming around Astoria Park after a hit-and-run driver killed a woman just outside the park last month. The effort could grow much larger than changes to the intersection where the crash occurred: Pressure is mounting for DOT to reimagine the way motorists drive around -- and through -- the popular Queens park.

Betty Jean DiBiaso, 21, was leaving Astoria Park at about 12:30 a.m. on June 27 when she crossed Ditmars Boulevard at 19th Street. Then Nicholas Colleran, 24, struck her with his Chevrolet Impala and kept going. He later turned himself in to police, but only after filing a report that his car had been stolen, according to WNBC. He now faces charges for falsely reporting an incident, failing to stop at a stop sign, leaving the scene of a crash, and unlicensed driving.

Two days after DiBiaso's death, reports the Queens Chronicle, the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association passed a resolution asking DOT to install traffic calming on Ditmars Boulevard between Shore Boulevard and 21st Street, an area including the intersection where DiBiaso was killed.

Council Member Costa Constantinides also launched a petition gathering support for traffic calming in the area. "This isn’t about one traffic light or one speed bump," Constantinides said. "This is about coming up with a real comprehensive plan for the streets that surround Astoria Park.”

One street of particular concern: Shore Boulevard, which runs along the water's edge through the western side of the park. “Astoria Park was founded in order to give people access to the waterfront, so having barriers to the waterfront, especially something that has the potential for danger like a street, it’s a challenge to the original concept of the park itself," said Martha Lopez-Gilpin, co-chair of the Astoria Park Alliance.

"Crossing the street, it’s a little bit like playing frogger. It’s not relaxing," said Katie Ellman, president of waterfront advocacy group Green Shores NYC. "It’s a city street that goes through the park and disconnects the park from its waterfront.”

Each summer, the Alliance hosts Shore Fest, which turns Shore Boulevard into a car-free event space for three Sundays. “If you’ve ever been to Shore Fest when we close the street, the evening time is magical," Lopez-Gilpin said. "There’s so many people that come out to enjoy that waterfront."

Things aren't always so magical. Constantinides said there's often conflict along Shore Boulevard on busy weekends because groups of motorcyclists use it as a gathering spot at the same time area residents crowd the waterfront. "We have families that want to enjoy the park, and then we have people racing on the strip," he said.

So far, the city has only made minor changes, like prohibiting overnight parking on Shore Boulevard. A speed hump was also installed on Ditmars Boulevard between Shore Boulevard and 19th Street earlier this year. When the city installed a segment of the East River and North Shore Greenway through Astoria Park, it left Shore Boulevard as a zone for cars, and wedged most of the greenway onto an existing walkway through the park. "When you look at it, you think, ‘Why isn’t this just in the street?’” Ellman said.

"I know a lot of bike riders are frustrated using it," said Lopez-Gilpin. “We strongly believe there should be a protected bike lane." To make room for a bikeway, the Alliance has advocated for converting Shore Boulevard and 19th Street, a narrow two-way street on the eastern edge of the park, to one-way operation.

A completely car-free Shore Boulevard could be in the cards down the road. Advocates look to Jackson Heights, where a pedestrianized 78th Street is being rebuilt as part of Travers Park, and recent car-free expansions for Central Park and Prospect Park, as precedents. “We’re not inventing the wheel," Ellman said. “I think it’s an idea whose time has come.”

Constantinides wouldn't commit to supporting a car-free Shore Boulevard, but he wouldn't rule it out, either. “I am not taking anything off the table," he said. "We are seriously looking at any plan that would make Shore Boulevard a safer place, and making sure that the uses on Shore Boulevard are in line with the neighborhood."

Constantinides has met with DOT about the issue, and the Astoria Park Alliance is organizing another meeting with DOT for mid-August. The online petition from Council Member Constantinides has garnered about 300 signatures so far, he said. His staff will also be at events in the park this summer gathering signatures on paper before hosting a community workshop about traffic calming around the park this fall.

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