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Daniel Dromm

Jackson Heights Pol to Mayor Adams: Fix de Blasio’s Travers Park Failure 

Cars get protection during a 2019 rally on 78th Street to demand the city make good on its promise to fully pedestrianize the block. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

The city must make good on a promise that the previous administration failed to keep by transforming a Jackson Heights street into a car-free plaza — a key issue in a neighborhood deprived of green space, according to the area's Council member.

The city had long planned to ban cars from 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 in 2019, city officials capitulated to a politically connected car dealership, Koeppel Mazda, allowing it to use the northernmost one-fourth of the street to move cars in and out of a service entrance on 78th Street.

Now, the Adams Administration has a chance to force Koeppel Mazda to retreat from a street that should be fully pedestrianized for the benefit of the community, not a few cars, said Council Member Shekar Krishnan during a March 22 Council hearing on the Parks Department's budget.

“This reflects a broken promise and failure of the prior administration, where they have taken away park land from our community,” said Krishnan, who succeeded Council Member Daniel Dromm. “It is offensive to the notion of parks equity, to have my district with some of the least amount of park space, have, of all things, a car dealership in our park and to lose a park space that we’ve had for so long that we were promised … and at the last minute, it was taken away from us.”

Hundreds rallied in 2019 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 rallied in 2019 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. File photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Hundreds rallied in 2019 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.

The dealership is owned by Howard Koeppel, who has long been friendly with politicians such as Mayor Giuliani and Queens power broker Joe Crowley, the former congressman. It’s also flush with cash. Since 2019, Mark Lacher — the principal managing partner at Koeppel Auto Group — has spent more than $100,000 on lobbyists in an attempt to cozy up to city officials, specifically the local council members, the community board, and the Department of Transportation, according to city records.

Dromm’s campaign took in $1,325 from Koeppel since 2009, Streetsblog previously reported. Krishnan has not received any money from Koeppel, according to campaign finance records.

The saga over turning the single, one-block stretch in Queens into a play street began in 2008, when local safe-street activists fought to permanently close the full block between 34th Avenue and Northern Boulevard to cars after widely successful trials for several summers. The city even drew up a map showing the entirety of the block as a part of the adjacent Travers Park.

The Parks Department's abandoned plans for Travers Park and 78th Street. Photo: Parks Department
The Parks Department's abandoned plans for Travers Park and 78th Street. File photo: Parks Department
The Parks Department's abandoned plans for Travers Park and 78th Street. Photo: Parks Department

A few years later, when city officials permanently closed the majority of 78th Street to traffic, they excluded a sliver of the block — roughly 180 feet 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. And soon after Koeppel Mazda opened its new Northern Boulevard facility, including the 78th Street service entrance, bigwigs at the car dealership sought to capitalize on that egress, meeting privately with the Department of Transportation and Parks Department in an effort to get the city to abandon its plans on the $13-million project and instead cede a portion of the block to Koeppel for its own curb cut.

And, like clockwork, in 2019, the city did fully backtrack on its plans, even as the last piece of construction had already broken ground.

Now, more than two years later, the car dealership has gotten so comfortable on its stolen park land that even more Koeppel Mazda cars are encroaching even further into the space by using the sidewalks for free car storage, and using the dead-end to turn around, after zipping in and out of the service entrance — a dangerous precedent just feet from a major thoroughfare that’s now considered the "new boulevard of death," said Krishnan.

“The car dealership now feels it’s their land, the number of cars increased, and the number of dangerous driving incidents. They’ve reclaimed the entire space. Plain and simple, that service entrance must be removed,” he said. "It’s urgent when there’s so many children who are running in this park. It also goes to show how vital our park spaces are. I think it is crucial that this situation be resolved, and the service entrance be removed from our park.”

Cars parked on the sidewalk on 78th Street. Photo: Donovan Finn
Cars parked on the sidewalk on 78th Street. Photo: Donovan Finn
Cars parked on the sidewalk on 78th Street. Photo: Donovan Finn

Krishnan says he has not had any conversations with the dealership, and attempts by Streetsblog to reach them have been unsuccessful.

But Mayor Adams, the Parks Department, and Department of Transportation visited the park last month and recognized its importance in the neighborhood, according to Krishnan.

“They all joined me to visit that part of the park to see exactly what the problem is, to understand very gravely the situation,” he told Streetsblog.

New Parks Department Commissioner, Susan Donoghue, said she recognized the significance of Travers Park and regaining the entirety of 78th Street as part of it, calling it an “innovative use of space." But she also admitted that the problem remains unchanged since 2019, and she is working with the Adams administration to resolve it.

“We did see close hand the difficulties with the street leading up to Travers Park. Unfortunately the issue there is it’s not mapped park land right now. It’s mapped as a city street," said Donoghue, during the March 22 hearing. "But I am completely committed as I said to you to working with DOT, to working with city hall to address that situation and see how we can resolve it. Absolutely.”

The Parks Department or Department of Transportation declined to comment further.

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