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Car-Free Streets

The City Might Give Up Its Plan to Ban Cars On One Jackson Heights Street

The service entrance leads to a supposedly car-free 78th Street with an in-the-works pedestrian plaza and park. Photo by Clarence Eckerson.

The city is abandoning a years-in-the making plan to transform a Jackson Heights street fronting a school and a park into a car-free plaza because a politically connected car-dealership recently opened a service entrance on the block — and activists are howling.

The city was planning to ban cars on the entirety of 78th Street between 34th Avenue and Northern Boulevard to create a seamless play area linking the Garden School, Travers Parks, and Staunton Field — but now it's tweaking the design to accommodate Koeppel Mazda, which wants to use a portion of the street to move cars around. The dealership is owned by Howard Koeppel, who has long been cozy with politicians such as Mayor Giuliani and Queens power broker Joe Crowley, the former congressman.

"We are working on some minor revisions to the design ... in order to provide for limited vehicular access," said Parks Department spokeswoman Meghan Lalor. "Once those revisions are finalized, we will share them with the Community Board."

The city's apparent capitulation to a well-connected car dealer prompted outrage from a coalition of activists, including Jackson Heights Green Alliance, Make Queens Safer, and Transportation Alternatives.

“We ask that you close this service entrance, abandon your efforts to politically influence city agencies to derail the park expansion, and instead use your existing car service entrances,” the groups wrote to the car dealership and city agencies on March 7.

The saga began in 2008 when local safe-street activists fought to permanently close the entirety of 78th Street between 34th Avenue and Northern Boulevard to cars after widely successful trials for several summers. Locals just wanted one small block in the residential community, which is deprived of green space, where families and kids could feel safe free from cars.

A few years later, city officials permanently closed the majority of 78th Street to traffic — except for roughly 180 feet of the block to the edge of the notoriously dangerous Northern Boulevard so that parents and school buses could still drop off kids at the private Garden School, which has a garage on 78th Street.

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But bigwigs with the car dealership recently met privately with the Department of Transportation and Parks Department in an effort to keep access to the street for its 78th Street service entrance, which just opened this past fall.  And now, the city is allegedly backtracking on its plan as the last piece of construction is already underway to give Koeppel Mazda what it wants, according to Will Sweeney, co-founder of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance, and local Council Member Daniel Dromm.

“It was stated at that time that there would be no car traffic. They are now using the entrance on 78th Street for cars to drive into the repair shop and that is not what was originally planned by DOT and Parks,” said Dromm. “I don’t know how they justify it to be honest it. I’ve never heard of a design for a park being changed midcourse.”

Koeppel Mazda’s cars routinely zip in and out of the service entrance and use the dead-end to turn around. They are putting youngsters — like 11-year-old Miguel Torres, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver just a few blocks away in 2013 — at risk by using the street as an active thoroughfare, said Cristina Furlong, of Make Queens Safer.

“It doesn't make any sense to have this addition of new traffic on a dangerous corridor blocks from where Miguel Torres was killed in 2013,” she said.

Koeppel, who owns a slew of car dealerships along Northern Boulevard, has a long history with Giuliani as his long-time friend and even former roommate. Koeppel has also given thousands in donations to the former mayor and other pols over the years, including Dromm, and Crowley, until he was defeated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year.

https://twitter.com/willsweeney/status/1108748967267975169

Dromm's campaign took in $1,325 from Koeppel since 2009, according to city campaign records. 

But Dromm said that no amount of cash will sway his efforts to make the street entirely car free as always planned.

“I do stand with community members. I want the whole street closed,” he said. “We’ve been struggling and fighting for street closure for almost nine years, it’s very disappointing to see this situation come up.”

Safe street advocates are not willing to budge and are demanding the city move forward with creating the fully pedestrianized street they've been fighting for for years.

"We don't believe we should lose one inch to that car dealership, they should not be trying to disrupt our expansion of the park," said Sweeney. "They should do the right thing and close that service entrance."

Koeppel did not respond to a request for comment, but an employee at Koeppel Mazda said the car dealership recently met with the city about its plans for the street.

The years-long effort to close a single, one-block street in Queens reveals a deeper problem with urban planning in the city's most car-centric neighborhoods. The block of 78th Street that the city once hoped to close is just one of 44 similar blocks between the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Grand Central Parkway — leaving 43 other blocks with unfettered access for car drivers.

There have been 1,511 crashes since January, 2017 along that stretch, injuring 53 cyclists, 92 pedestrians and 275 motorists, killing five pedestrians. The deaths — and the 58-crashes-per-month average — earned Northern Boulevard the nickname "The New Boulevard of Death," prompting calls for more enforcement of speeding and safety redesigns.

One of those redesigns was supposed to be 78th Street.

An earlier version of this story included a higher figure for donations received by Dromm. The council member told Streetsblog that he had returned one donation in the amount of $4,000 in 2016.

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