City Officials Were a No-Show At Monday Night’s Massive Jackson Heights Town Hall

An overflow crowd came out on Monday night to plan a strategy for getting the city to make good on its promise to turn 78th Street in Jackson Heights into a park. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
An overflow crowd came out on Monday night to plan a strategy for getting the city to make good on its promise to turn 78th Street in Jackson Heights into a park. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

The Parks Department and Department of Transportation were AWOL at an overflow town hall meeting in Jackson Heights on Monday night, when dozens of residents demanded the city keep its promise to transform a single local street into a car-free plaza — a years-in-the-making plan that’s now in jeopardy so a politically connected car dealer can use a portion of the street near deadly Northern Boulevard.

For years, the two agencies have been planning to ban cars entirely from 78th Street between 34th Avenue and Northern Boulevard — but they now are apparently abandoning that play-street plan to allow Koeppel Mazda to pull cars into a side entrance that would otherwise have been off-limits. The dealership is owned by Howard Koeppel, who has long been cozy with politicians.

Jackson Heights pols, including Council Member Daniel Dromm and Assembly Member Catalina Cruz — who represents the neighboring district — stood with the residents to demand the city make good on its promise to ban cars on the whole block, following a rally on the block last month. 

Hundreds rallied last month for the city to make good on its promise to close all of 78th Street in Jackson Heights to car traffic. A car dealership on the block has gotten around that pledge. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Hundreds also rallied last month for the city to make good on its promise to close all of 78th Street to car traffic. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

“A city government that is allowing and enabling this to happen, in an age where we are talking about Vision Zero — it is mind-blowing that we have to be here today to combat this,” said Shekar Krishnan, a member of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance, finding particular irony in the city putting cars above people’s lives in a community that’s already held too many vigils for kids killed by reckless drivers.

A sign demanding no cars on the Photo: Laura Shepard
A kid’s sign hung up during the town hall demanding no cars on 78th Street. Photo: Laura Shepard.

The city has not only not responded to locals’ allegations that both agencies had sold out to the car dealership — it’s been evasive to politicians, too. Officials never told Dromm that they were meeting with Koeppel Mazda about the car dealership’s desire that a portion of the street remain open for its service entrance.

“They did that unbeknownst to me,” Dromm said, adding that the city claims it will keep the car-free vision for 78th Street.

“As of today, the administration has said they remain committed to the project as originally planned,” said Dromm. “I don’t know what that means, but we have to keep the pressure on to make sure that they continue to keep that commitment to our community. There is a struggle, a battle ahead.”

Update: Neither reps for the Parks Department or Department of Transportation were at the town hall, but rep Jessica Schabowski from City Hall stood up at the tail end of the meeting to tell the dwindling crowd that the mayor’s office is committed to the original project, according to Will Sweeney, co-founder of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance.

The Parks Department also did not respond to a request for comment about Koeppel Mazda’s influential meetings with the agency, telling this reporter to submit a freedom of information request.

  • Fool

    Car dealerships really are the most disgusting business in the world. With complete regulatory capture because of the sales tax they provide, the immense amount of land they consume, as well as the grotesque multi-generational aristocracies they enable.

  • Reggie

    Hyperbole much? There is considerable difference between a “military-assault vehicle” and a heavy-duty pick-up truck with a king-cab. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/be79cd5bf7043847043d56951a3433df426141f0822214655f4c6bb641ba8c0b.jpg

  • Voter

    Sorry, but Bill de Blasio is too busy talking to eight people in a room in Des Moines to talk to eighty people in a room in Queens.

  • I was there

    It was very interesting that someone from the mayor’s office stood up in the crowd right at the end of the event for the last comment saying the Mayor’s office is fully committed to the original plan. Would have been nice to have had that person say something earlier.

  • Voter

    It’s the de Blasio way: propose something, let everyone fight about it, say nothing for a really long time and then maybe, after everyone has wasted so much time and energy, take the temperature of the room and make a statement. Real courage on behalf of him and everyone who works for him. True leadership that’s up to the challenges we face as a city.

  • iSkyscraper

    This is par for the course for the city. They have delayed for YEARS an approved plan to improve streets near two schools in Inwood because a politically connected car wash didn’t like how it might affect his free use of swaths of public streets for queuing.

  • Joe R.

    The problem is politicians of both parties have this idea in their head that all business is sacrosanct. That’s undoubtedly why the car dealership got special treatment. What we need to do more of is analyze what these businesses cost the city. If they cost more in services than they generate in taxes, we should rethink the idea of bending over backwards to keep them here. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I’d say car dealerships, gas stations, parking garages, parking lots, really nearly anything having to do with motor vehicles, costs the city more than they pay in taxes. Besides the obvious externalities the motor vehicles cause with the city pays for, you have lost opportunity cost where the space occupied might generate more in taxes if put to some other purpose.

    We might do well in the future to just tell these businesses to move. A good start would be saturation enforcement of parking regulations near these types of businesses. When they can no longer store vehicles on sidewalks, many of them might just up and leave, which would be good thing as far as I’m concerned. Just because something creates jobs doesn’t mean it’s good overall for the city.

  • 6SJ7

    We might do well in the future to just tell these businesses to move.

    By what legal authority?

  • Joe R.

    Given the damages and enormous costs businesses like this impose on the city it might be more cost effective to just give those 100 people welfare. I don’t buy this “jobs at whatever cost” nonsense that a lot of politicians do.

    There are also other ways to get businesses to move besides changing zoning. A car dealership has highly volatile chemicals on site, doesn’t it? The city could just revoke any permits to handle gasoline or any other such chemicals, and also any permits to store or use them on the premises. There are also public safety grounds which the city can use to close such businesses, starting with the curb cuts which are a nuisance to people walking.

    The bottom line is the city would do well to rid itself of these types of businesses, along with gas stations, car repair places, etc.

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