The first set of meetings between the groups leading the study of a proposed High Line-style park on the former Rockaway Beach rail corridor and the residents who live along the line started a little on the rocky side.
Before the conglomerate of organizations, led by urban park advocacy group The Trust for Public Land and the plan’s backers, Friends of the QueensWay, even began their short presentation in Woodhaven’s Emanuel Baptist Church on Nov. 12, they were shouted down by a handful of residents who thought the workshop was a public forum.
“In other words, you don’t care what we have to say?” one resident shouted when Adam Lubinsky of WXY Architecture + Urban Design, one of the two firms working with TPL on the QueensWay feasibility study, told the residents the workshops were not public forums and their concerns would be shared in group activities later in the meeting.
But by the end of that first workshop, the irate residents — minus the small number who walked out — sat at tables with facilitators, fellow residents and giant maps of the right of way between Ozone Park and Rego Park and talked about their concerns, questions and frustrations with the process.
TPL, WXY and the third firm working on the team, dlandstudio, held three public workshops: the one in Woodhaven, one at Queens Metropolitan High School in Forest Hills on Nov. 19 and a third at St. Mary Gate of Heaven in Ozone Park on Nov. 20. The goal of the workshops was to gather residents into groups and have them tell facilitators working on the study what they want to see in a QueensWay, what their concerns are, or, as the groups often heard, why they don’t want to see the project at all.
Each meeting began with a short presentation that included a quick explanation on what the project might look like and examples of similar projects in other parts of the world, including the much-used walking and biking trail along the old Vanderbilt Motor Parkway in Northeast Queens and a rail-turned-trail in London, which abuts backyards as the proposed QueensWay would in Woodhaven, Forest Hills and Rego Park.
Then, once the presentations were over, the table discussions began. Facilitators wrote ferociously as residents talked over each other to get their points across.
“Who is going to pay for this?”
“How are we going to prevent crime from happening there?”
“Who is going to maintain it?”
“What about my privacy?”
Concerns, and a laundry list of benefits from residents excited about the plan, were posted on a wall after the meetings for the public to see.
According to the workshops’ organizers, more than 150 people showed up to the second meeting in Forest Hills.
“We were really excited about the turnout there,” said Andrea Crawford of Friends of the QueensWay, first vice chairwoman of Community Board 9.
The series of meetings ended with heated and in-depth debates between the QueensWay’s supporters and those, mainly from the Rockaways, who back a competing plan to reactivate rail service on the line.
They included Phil McManus, a Rockaway resident who started a group called the Queens Public Transit Committee, who attended the Ozone Park meeting armed with signs calling for the line to be reactivated, a proposal backed by two congressmen, Reps. Greg Meeks (D-Jamaica) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn/Queens), and Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park). Another study, featuring both the rail and park plans, is slated to be taken up by Queens College’s Department of Urban Studies next year.
Though the QueensWay has no official support from any area official, Gov. Cuomo provided $467,000 toward the feasibility study for the park idea.
Unlike Woodhaven and Forest Hills, where residents are concerned about the right of way abutting backyards and homes, in Ozone Park, where the viaduct sits between 99th and 100th streets in a mostly industrial area, there was a sense that something needed to be done with the line, which had become a blight on the community.
CB 9 member Sam Esposito, a lifelong Ozone Park resident, said he had previously favored restoring rail service, but is backing the QueensWay because it is a “realistic” plan.
“Where would the money come from to rebuild the rail?” he asked supporters of transit. “We have been told over and over again it isn’t going to happen. It’s time to back a realistic plan because something has to be done there. It’s an eyesore.”
Rail service ended on the line in 1962 and the viaduct has been abandoned since then, though the tracks still remain along most of the route.
TPL said the feedback it received from the workshops will be included in the feasibility study and that the groups will come back to the community next year to hold another round of workshops before unveiling a proposal.
“Nothing has been proposed yet,” Lubinsky told the audience in Ozone Park. “This is in the very early stages.”