Community leaders and area residents gathered on Saturday to celebrate the dedication of Briarwood’s new Queensgate Mall, a park spanning four blocks of Queens Boulevard that stands where once there was only a concrete traffic median.
The new park, which cost the city $495,000 and took 15 months to complete, is the latest attempt by the Briarwood Community Association to put its neighborhood, sandwiched between Kew Gardens and Jamaica, firmly on the map.
In 1998 the BCA successfully lobbied the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to change the name of the local subway station from Van Wyck Boulevard to Briarwood/Van Wyck Boulevard. Now, just in case motorists traveling past the spruced-up stretch from 84th Drive to 87th Avenue still don’t know where they are, there is a gleaming new sign announcing the location.
“It certainly adds a little charm to our neighborhood,” said former City Councilman Morton Povman, who helped secure funding for the project when he was in office. “When people go by they know they are in Briarwood.”
Joining Povman in cutting the ribbon at the kick-off event were State Senator Malcolm Smith, City Councilman James Gennaro, BCA President Seymour Schwartz, and Special Assistant to Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, Jeff Gottlieb.
“It’s a great day for Briarwood,” Gennaro said. “This mall is the gateway to the beautiful community of Briarwood and we encourage everyone to come here and stroll down the newly dedicated mall and to visit the many shops along Queens Boulevard.”
According to Schwartz, the project’s principal supporter, transferring the concrete swath from the Department of Transportation to the Parks Department—the first step in the land conversion process—was surprisingly easy. So easy, in fact, that some fans of the undertaking wished they had asked for even more land from the DOT.
“We were so stunned by their acceptance, we should have started at Main Street,” Gottlieb said.
The tree-lined promenade is surrounded on two sides by waist-high fences designed to deter jaywalking, an added bonus along a thoroughfare notorious for pedestrian deaths. Since 1993, 84 people have died attempting to cross Queens Boulevard, New York City’s widest pedestrian street.
“It’s impossible except for acrobats to get across, except at the intersections,” Povman said.
“Perhaps this is the model to straighten out the rest of Queens Boulevard,” Smith added.
To mark the celebration, balloons festooned the fences, residents and members of the BCA shared refreshments and students from nearby Archbishop Molloy High School played bagpipe music.
Throughout the celebration, however, the focus was always on the new setting.
“It’s beautiful,” said Betty Ann Estes, who cleans the promenade three times a week. “It makes the neighborhood, you know, welcome.”
Area business owners said they hoped the new green space would draw more customers to their section of Queens Boulevard. Local residents, meanwhile, said that the new promenade would at least make their visits to the commercial strip more pleasant.
“I do my shopping here, and it’s quite an improvement. It improves the whole area,” said Elke Maerz.
A frequent topic of conversation among residents at the celebration was the mysterious large concrete balls that flank the promenade at the roadway intersections and that dot the expansive path that runs straight though the middle of the park. At the intersections, the primary function of the balls is to create a safety barrier between traffic and pedestrians. Meant to resemble marble, they are also decorative.
“I think the Parks Department did a very nice job” Povman said. “They used a little imagination with those balls.”
Although Schwartz claims the inspiration for the park was the leafy medians on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, area residents thought the new park was a striking break from the workday grind.
“Coming back from the city on weekdays I always love to walk through here and relax a little bit,” said Walter Maerz. “It’s a big change from Manhattan.”
Despite all the accolades, some area business owners said they were not always convinced the project was such a good idea. Concerned that the creation of the Manhattan-style promenade would attract certain unwelcome elements of city living, these businesses initially voiced opposition to the project. Many were worried that the benches would become a bed for homeless people and an eyesore for customers.
“My biggest concern was that they would put too many benches there and if they didn’t take care of the park, you would see too many homeless people,” said Frank Lountzis, part-owner of the Flagship Diner on Queens Boulevard. “If they keep it clean, it will be wonderful. So far so good.”
Other residents thought that eight benches were not nearly enough for the numbers of community members, especially older residents, who would likely want to enjoy the park from a seated position.
“Take a look. People are going to be coming here and there’s no place to sit,” said Leonard Feinblatt.
But with municipal budgets as lean as they currently are, supporters of the promenade said they were proud of the transformation no matter what.
“This is a classic example of what happens when everyone gets together,” Smith said. “Let’s make sure we do more things like this.”