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.

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“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 […]