A blue Toyota rolled slowly up 102nd Street out of Hamilton Beach and made a right turn onto 159th Road toward Coleman Square — the tiny commercial strip across from the Howard Beach-JFK Airport subway station. But the driver quickly stopped mid-turn, idling for a couple of seconds before backing up and continuing north on 102nd Street.
Less than a minute later, another car did the same thing.
“How am I supposed to get to the subway?” the elderly male driver asked a pedestrian.
“Go up to 158th [Avenue] and come around the block,” the pedestrian told the driver, who grunted before following the directions.
A few minutes later another driver, a younger woman identifying herself as Laura, made the failed turn, before going over the sidewalk to get back to the street. She was dropping her brother off at the AirTrain so he could get to his job in the airport.
The only direct route into Coleman Square, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge in Old Howard Beach just six weeks ago, 159th Road has been impassable for the past few weeks because a National Grid project to move gas lines is causing the street to be torn up. The square sits in a low-lying swampy area adjacent to JFK Airport near the bed of Hawtree Creek, which meanders behind homes and stores between the street and the subway tracks. During Hurricane Sandy, the storm surge reached anywhere between 6 and 10 feet in the square, destroying every business there.
Now, as most merchants in the square attempt to return to some sense of normal, some are complaining that the construction work is hindering progress.
Further complicating the situation in the square are the repairs being done to hurricane-damaged buildings and the shuttle buses from Far Rockaway dropping off commuters at the subway while the A line to the Rockaways is out. The subway tracks in Broad Channel and over Jamaica Bay were destroyed in the hurricane and the MTA is running shuttle bus service from the Far Rockaway-Mott Avenue station around JFK Airport to Howard Beach.
“Those things are all converging in an unsafe fashion,” said Gregg Cohen, who lives a few blocks from Coleman Square.
Cohen said he takes his kids to a day care near the square adjacent to the construction site. He said the buses use the long-term parking lot in the afternoons and evenings, but in the mornings, he has seen them try to pull into the square.
Also, Cohen said construction work being done on buildings in the area creates danger. He said he was nearly hit by falling debris at a construction site while walking with his kids.
“It’s a very dangerous situation there,” he said.
National Grid spokeswoman Karen Young said the project is being undertaken by the company to move gas mains under the square in preparation for a sewer project that the Department of Environmental Protection will begin next year. The gas mains would have to be moved to make room for the new sewer lines and prevent them from being damaged in the sewer construction.
The project will place new sewers in the square and aims to improve drainage. The area is notorious for flooding and drainage problems. Even on Tuesday, after a few days of only light rain and drizzle, ankle-deep water covered sidewalks and curbs around the square and the few blocks surrounding it. Even at pacific high tides, water from Hawtreek Creek sometimes flows over its banks.
Though Cohen admits the work being done is important, he said more effort should be put into being less intrusive on everyday actions. He noted the project might hurt small businesses in the square that are already teetering on the edge after the hurricane shut them down for weeks.
“The whole point of this whole recovery is for us to help ourselves and the government to help us do it,” he said. “If people can’t access these businesses, they will make other accommodations.”
But others, like Laura, are less angry.
“It’s annoying, but what can you do? It has to get done, I guess,” she said.
She dropped her brother off at the corner of 159th Avenue and 102nd Street. “He can walk a block.”
The National Grid project should take a few weeks, but there is no timetable on when the DEP’s sewer replacement project will commence or be completed.