In the fight to make all of 78th Street vehicle-free between 34th Avenue and Northern Boulevard, a car dealership’s service entrance has threatened a community plan to expand open space and protect park-goers from dealing with vehicles.
On Monday, activists held a town hall with elected officials at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center as they continue a battle that has gone on for about a decade.
“We need to do something about protecting our children, our seniors, our families, from cars,” said Nadine Kela-Murphy, a member of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance.
Koeppel Mazda on Northern Boulevard has an entrance on 78th Street, where cars that need to be serviced enter. The street is adjacent to Travers Park and was supposed to be a pedestrian plaza. Most of it already is, with a Jersey barrier separating the part cars and buses for the Garden School use.
“There was a time when Toyota was in there, not Mazda, and Toyota chose not ... to use that 78th Street entrance at all,” said Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights). “They were using the 77th Street entrance. There’s no reason why Koeppel cannot use the 77th Street entrance.”
Dromm told the assembled crowd, “As of today, the administration has said that they remain committed to the project as it was originally planned.”
He added that they have to keep the pressure on for the city to honor the commitment but that he ultimately believes the community will be successful.
“There is a struggle, a battle ahead,” Dromm said. “I’m in it to fight with you for it.”
Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz (D-Jackson Heights) spoke briefly, saying, “We have to put the needs of the community before the needs of a car dealership. It’s as simple as that.”
Donovan Finn of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance noted that Koeppel already has two other entrances — on Northern Boulevard and 77th Street.
He said Koeppel would be gaining a private driveway at taxpayer expense while the community would get less park space and a more dangerous park. Finn added that cars turning onto 78th Street do not expect a dead end and that drivers will end up in the driveway by accident, claiming they then would need to back out onto Northern Boulevard or drive through the park.
Finn gave a history lesson of the area at the meeting, explaining that in 2007 Travers Park was an asphalt playground, leading to the Jackson Heights Green Alliance being formed with a goal of increasing green space and making it safer.
He said a calculation done that year showed there was an average of 280 people per acre of parkland in the city and that there were 14,000 people per acre in Jackson Heights.
Finn pointed out neighborhood concerns were not new issues, showing a 1971 story from The New York Times in which Patrick Burke, the president-elect of the Jackson Heights Home Owners Association, called the area “a lousy place for children,” bemoaning the lack of play streets, ball fields and bike streets.
Finn said in 2008, there were a dozen closures for block parties on 78th Street adjacent to Travers Park and that the public plaza never reopened to traffic.
In 2011, someone noticed the Garden School was trying to sell its property. A campaign was launched for the property to be sold to the city.
In 2015, after two years of workshops and collaborative design meetings with residents and the departments of Parks and Transportation, the city finalized plans for a $6.2 million renovation of Travers Park, Staunton Field and 78th Street Plaza.
Finn said he noticed Koeppel began building in late 2017/early 2018.
“One of the first things I noticed was that they were definitely planning on using 78th Street for access to the building,” he said.
Now with the last phase of the 78th Street renovations set to commence, Finn said the DOT met with Koeppel and agreed to build a “private driveway” for the company in space that had been designated for a park.
Now Finn is trying to convince the DOT it’s a bad idea.
“It’s not really a compromise,” he said. “We’re giving up something and Koeppel is giving up nothing.”
According to Finn, the private driveway is taking up some of the money allocated for the park renovation.
Shekar Krishnan, co-chairperson of Friends of Diversity Plaza, is unhappy with the proposed plan for Koeppel, saying, “It was offensive enough to have a car dealership next to our park.”
He also took aim at “a city government that is allowing and enabling this to happen in an age when we are talking about Vision Zero.”
Krishnan also criticized a billboard that said, “Let’s rename Northern Boulevard Koeppel Boulevard.”
He called for a boycott of the dealership though he acknowledged many car buyers are not from the area and such a move might not impact business.
“That’s part of the problem,” he said. “Koeppel is not catering to us as a neighborhood. They’re catering to their buyers on the outside.”
In late March, a spokeswoman for Parks said, “The Travers Park project is on schedule and moving forward. Parks and DOT remain committed to opening up pedestrian access on 78th Street. The design is currently under review, but no changes have been finalized at this point. We look forward to continuing to work with the community on this project.”
A petition on change.org started several days ago with the title “Keep Travers Park Safe (and Car-Free!)” already had 408 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.