EXCLUSIVE: DOT Will Take the Lead on Future of 34th Avenue as a ‘Permanent’ Open Street

The open street on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights is the most popular in town. File photo: Clarence Eckerson
The open street on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights is the most popular in town. File photo: Clarence Eckerson

You’ve tried all the rest, now improve the best.

34th Ave rally posterThe Department of Transportation, under fire to make the open street on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights and Corona into a permanent car-free amenity for a neighborhood with very little green space, will lay out a “long-term” plan next week for the roadway’s “transformation,” Streetsblog has learned.

The DOT commitment came one day after Transportation Alternatives sent out a mass email to promote Saturday’s rally to demand permanent car-free space, an email that claimed that “the city has NO PLANS to allow the 34th Avenue open street open past Oct. 31.”

“Contrary to what TA is asserting, DOT had been doing detailed planning for 34th Avenue even before the COVID pandemic, including upgrades to the existing bike lanes and new designs to improve pedestrian safety on this distinctive street,” agency spokesman Brian Zumhagen told Streetsblog.

“The 34th Avenue open street will not end on Oct. 31,” he continued. “We are thrilled at the reception that it has received these last few months, and we look forward to working closely with community groups, elected officials, local schools and advocates on the best plan for the street’s long-term transformation.”

Zumhagen confirmed what Streetsblog sources had already revealed: that DOT will present some sort of plan to a Community Board 3 committee on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

“Our experts look forward to continuing a robust, detailed and inclusive discussion among stakeholders at Community Board 3’s Transportation Committee meeting next week,” he said.

Though vague and lacking in key details, Zumhagen’s email makes news in multiple ways. For months, residents of Jackson Heights — and their elected representatives, Council Member Danny Dromm and State Senator Jessica Ramos — have been demanding a commitment to not only retain the open street after Oct. 31 (when the city program apparently ends) but to make this particular open street, widely regarded as the best in the city, permanent. Zumhagen’s email confirms that there will be a “long-term transformation” of 34th Avenue, which runs between Broadway and Junction Boulevard — through neighborhoods that were hit hard by COVID-19 and were, in fact, part of the reason for the open streets program, which was created to give pandemic stricken New Yorkers more space to recreate in a socially distant manner.

Hundreds of short stretches of open streets were created in all five boroughs, but none became as beloved as 34th Avenue, thanks to a combination of committed volunteers, high-density residential buildings lining the roadway, a shocking paucity of park space in the neighborhood, and large numbers of people using the nicely shaded, well-programmed space (Zumba, anyone?).

The Oct. 28 CB3 committee meeting will come one day after DOT officials will have a super-secret meeting with Dromm and Ramos, where Ramos will clearly push DOT for permanence:

“If 34th Avenue doesn’t become a permanent open street, I’m pretty sure there will be a riot,” Ramos told Streetsblog on Wednesday, only half-kidding.

And the committee meeting will come four days after Saturday’s neighborhood-wide rally to demand permanence for 34th Avenue — a cause that has already generated more than 1,500 signatures on a Transportation Alternatives petition.

If the DOT is truly committed to a “transformation” of 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, the agency better anticipate many other neighborhoods demanding their own car-free spaces. On Avenue B on the Lower East Side, for example, organizers of the open street are also demanding permanence.

“At our open streets bike ride with the North Brooklyn Open Streets Community Coalition earlier this month, [Brooklyn] Council Member Antonio Reynoso and staff from Council Member Carlina Rivera’s office expressed their support,” said Sophie Maerowitz, the co-founder of a group of volunteers that took over the open streets project from the Ninth Precinct. “It’s crucial that the city commit to open streets permanence.”

The Upper West Side will also want more car-free space. Some are talking about making permanent the West End Avenue recreation space, but it seems unlikely that the city would remove a key auto route from the grid. Instead, Lisa Orman of StreetopiaUWS is pushing for the lower-hanging fruit.

“I would also like to see effective open streets on side streets, which could act as bike boulevards and connect people to our two parks and to our existing north/south protected bike lane infrastructure, while still providing space for kids to be out playing and biking,” she said. “This model would start to create more of a local access only feel on the UWS in an attempt to move towards a superblock concept.”

Rally and March for 34th Avenue Open Streets, Saturday, Oct. 24, 10:30 a.m., 34th Avenue at Junction Boulevard in Corona; Community Board 3 Traffic and Transportation Committee, Wednesday, Oct. 28. That particular community board is poor at posting information on its website, so check back frequently by clicking here.

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