June 14, 2018 By Tara Law
Community Board 6 rejected the Department of Transportation’s plan last night to redesign the Forest Hills stretch of Queens Boulevard. The project would include protected bicycle lanes and safety improvements.
The board, in a vote of 23 to 11 and four abstentions, shot down the DOT’s plan to redesign the boulevard between Yellowstone Boulevard and Union Turnpike. Members who voted against the proposal argued that that the overhaul would eliminate too many parking spaces, cause hardship to business owners and hurt seniors who are dependent on cars.
The DOT presented the plan— which calls for protected bike lanes, traffic safety measures and the elimination of about 200 parking spots— to the board, and members voiced their concerns before to the vote.
Several board members claimed that the loss of parking spaces would hurt local businesses and asked the DOT what could be done about it. Some said that they are worried that businesses would suffer the same fate as Ben’s Best, a 73-year-old deli on the Boulevard in Rego Park that is closing. The owner of Ben’s claimed that the installation of the protected bicycle lanes on that stretch of Queens Boulevard led to the closing.
“Some people have given 40, 50 years of their lives to these business. Is this going to allow a retail environment to continue to exist with the loss of this parking?” said one board member.
The DOT has said that it analyzed 1,700 surveys and online comments and that 65 percent of respondents were in favor of the project. The DOT also adjusted the loading zone times to accommodate peak business hours in response to business feedback, said DOT’s Queens Deputy Borough Commissioner Albert Silvestri.
The DOT’s survey found that 89 percent of respondents either walk or use public transportation to shop on the Boulevard. Only 26 percent of respondents said that they regularly drive on the boulevard.
The DOT and proponents of the plan— including transportation activist group Transportation Alternatives— insisted that the priority should be making the road safer for pedestrians and bikers.
Laura Shepard, a volunteer for Transportation Alternatives, submitted a stack of petitions supporting the redesign to the board.
Shepard said that she was grateful the board had voted in favor of the previous phase of the redesign (Phase III), which covers the Queens Boulevard stretch in Rego Park.
“I’ve been riding my bike my whole life, but it was too scary until this whole board voted for Phase 3. So I thank you for that, because it changed my life for the better,” Shepard said. “I’ve been able to ride pretty much everywhere, to do more and more by bike.”
However, members skeptical of the plan kept returning to the issue with parking on the Boulevard, and how the installation of protected bicycle lanes reduce spaces. Some asked whether the project was inclusive of the elderly, many of whom depend on cars— and parking spots— in order to access businesses.
“There’s one population that uses parking more than bikes— and that’s seniors and disabled people. And seniors and disabled people are not finding parking spots,” said a board member, who did not give his name. “We’re discriminating against these groups because they’re not going to hop on a bike.”
Board member Jean Silva said that she doubted the accuracy of the DOT’s survey.
“How many thousands of people use Queens Boulevard?” Silva said, claiming that not enough people had been surveyed.
Board member Steve Goldberg agreed.
“If only 26 percent of people you surveyed drive on Queens Boulevard every day…. why is Queens Boulevard so crowded?” Goldberg said.
The board’s vote, which is advisory, comes two weeks after Council Member Karen Koswlowitz announced her opposition to the plan. However, the decision as to whether the plan will be implemented will be ultimately made by the DOT and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Silvestri told the board’s transportation committee last month that the project is a “mayoral priority” and is likely to go forward regardless of Community Board 6’s vote.
Prior to last night’s meeting, Community Board Chair Joseph Hennessy and Committee Chair Steven Goldberg even questioned whether it would be worthwhile to take a vote at all.
“I’ve been asked not to call a vote tonight, but I think we should be entitled to vote for the community to know what we want,” Hennessey said last night.
Several board members raised their voices before the vote, arguing that the DOT is neglecting the interests of the community.
“Are we going to get ‘mayoral priority’ shoved down our throats?” Silva said.
While most board members gave the proposal a forceful “no,” several members— especially younger board members and members who admitted they ride bikes regularly— defended the safety measures and the value of protected bike lanes.
Board member Alexa Weitzman said that she had decided to vote “yes” because she is thinking of the future.
“I’m voting yes for my four-year-old son who just learned to ride a pedal bike, and I’m invested in this community,” Weitzman said.