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Elmhurst’s ‘Little Thailand’ Gets Open Street Redesign

An already popular open street will be converted to one-way — with the space used to bolster the many restaurants nearby.

A four-block stretch in Queens known as "Little Thailand Way" because of its many restaurants will be converted into a one-way street to create a more pedestrian and dining space, the Department of Transportation said last week.

The agency's initial design for the epicenter of the Thai community calls for Woodside Avenue between 76th Street and Broadway in Elmhurst to become one lane, eastbound-only stretch, with the space repurposed for seating plazas and restaurant tables that currently only serve customers during weekend open street hours.

“It’s a good idea,” said Tor Kosalanan, the owner of Khao Kang, a restaurant on the stretch. “Right now, it’s dangerous so I think if you make the street one-way, it will be better.”

The plan for Little Thailand Way centers on converting the chaotic two-way street into eastbound only.Graphic: DOT

Under the current design, business owners and volunteers set up barriers, tables, and chairs on weekends — but some drivers ignore the barricades. Last weekend, Kosalanan said a turning driver hit one of the table set-ups — one that was fortunately empty at the time.

Kosalanan said he thinks the DOT's plan will get the support of community members, though he did say free, on-street parking is also popular. The initial design would remove an estimated two-dozen parking spots on the four-block stretch.

That's a small price to pay, supporters say, given that a DOT report shows that business tends to pick up along streets that have been converted to outdoor dining strips or car-free open streets. In Astoria, for example, the open street on Ditmars Boulevard experienced a 44-percent increase in sales compared to a 7-percent decline on a representative nearby street.

Brooklyn's Vanderbilt Avenue open street enjoyed a 20-percent increase in taxable sales — 60 percent more than its representative corridor nearby.

Little Thailand Way has become safer since car drivers were discouraged on the open street. In 2019, before the pandemic, there were 22 reported crashes in the area of the proposed redesign. Last year, there were only six in the same stretch, according to data compiled by NYC Crash Mapper.

Khao Kang, a Thai restaurant on Woodside Avenue. Photo: Sophia Lebowitz

The street is a popular destination for tourists and neighbors to come and enjoy buzzy new Thai restaurants with plentiful outdoor dining on the weekends. 

“It’s great to see people from all over coming to our neighborhood,” Matt McElroy, a member of the community board’s transportation committee, told Streetsblog. “The street has clearly become a destination.” 

He called the new design "an interesting proposal that makes a lot of sense," but alluded to "some issues" that his committee will address as part of an effort to "strengthen the street.” 

Tables and chairs are stored on the sidewalk and put out on the weekend. Photo: Sophia Lebowitz

Little Thailand Way has a long history of open street programming. It was one of the first open restaurant streets to be established during the pandemic to help bring the community together and support outdoor dining. 

“People in the area were very affected by Covid,” said Jutatta Moo Nabon, the founder of Thai Community USA, referring to one of the pandemic's Ground Zero in Elmhurst. “[The open street] helped a lot. All of the community comes and uses it. And to improve is a very good thing." 

This project is part of a city initiative to make permanent many of the open streets that became important community hubs since the city shut down during the covid pandemic. Last May the city committed $30 million to the efforts. 

Little Thailand Way will join the ranks of other pandemic-era open streets, like Berry Street in WIlliamsburg and 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, that have gotten permanent redesigns after years of community maintenance. 

For now, the DOT has begun community outreach in Elmhurst, holding a stakeholder meeting with the street’s restaurants and shops and tabling on the weekend to talk to community members. A DOT rep said the agency hopes to present the plan to the community board this summer.

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