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Western Queens Community Split

The Kettle restaurant at the corner of 51st Street and Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside was empty on a recent Saturday evening, with customers calling up and canceling their reservations at the last minute.

Patrick Tunney, owner of the restaurant for 14 years, knows the poor economy is hurting establishments like his. Nevertheless, he also blames the lack of business on the lack of parking in the area.

“Keep driving around, someone should get out soon,” Tunney said over the phone to a fed-up customer double-parked outside the restaurant.

However, he knows he is giving false hope. Tunney, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, rents a parking spot for his own car.

Parking is never easy to find in New York, especially on a busy one-way street like Skillman Avenue, which is a path to the Queensboro Bridge. However, one local group wants to take away parking spots in the name of public safety – and business owners are not happy about it.

“Parking spots are at a premium here,” said Gary O’Neill, the owner of Aubergine Café at 49-22 Skillman Avenue, who noted that more than 30 percent of his customers come from outside the neighborhood. “They help little stores thrive, as opposed to big companies with parking lots.”

The focus on Skillman Avenue began in May 2008 when an 11-year-old girl from the neighborhood was hit by a car. Her injuries were not life threatening, but shaken residents formed the Safer Skillman Avenue Coalition to prevent the street from turning into another Queens Boulevard, known as “The Boulevard of Death.”

After consulting with Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group, Safer Skillman proposed sacrificing three parking spaces at the corners of Skillman and 51st and 52nd Streets, so that there would be better visibility for drivers turning onto the Avenue.

CrashStat, an online database maintained by Transportation Alternatives, contains reports of five crashes that occurred at 52nd Street and Skillman between 1999 and 2005, and 10 on 51st Street and Skillman between 1997 and 2003.

Safer Skillman member Abby Schoneboom, a LaGuardia Community College professor, said she has had several narrow escapes crossing Skillman Avenue. “On every single intersection, I’m triple-checking,” she said as she pushed her 19-month-old son in his stroller.

Angus Grieve-Smith, a computer consultant and member of Safer Skillman, acknowledges the difficulties fewer spaces might cause, but said that safety should be paramount.

“In this economic situation, we don’t want to do anything that would disrupt their business,” he said.

However, for business owners like Tunney, the solution is enforcing traffic laws ¬¬– not taking away parking spaces.

“You stop at a stop sign, and you look,” he said. “It’s common sense.”

Business owners are not the only ones complaining about the possible removal of parking spots. Al Volpe, 77, a Woodside resident for more than 40 years, is circulating a petition to save the spaces, and said he has collected 150 signatures so far.

“The streets are for cars, they are paid and maintained by our taxes for cars,” said Volpe, adding he is often forced to drive around for 15 minutes at a time so he can eat at his favorite bakery on Skillman Avenue.

Officials at Community Board 2, which has yet to take a stand on the issue, declined comment.

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