By Nathan Duke
Astoria residents, business owners and elected officials said they are fed up with neighborhood traffic agents whom they say over-zealously hand out tickets to drivers and parked cars in one of the borough’s prime restaurant and shopping meccas.
Community leaders and residents said they have witnessed agents slap drivers with violations or been ticketed themselves for reasons they believe are completely unfair, while business owners are concerned excessive fines could scare away customers.
“This has become the No. 1 issue among my constituents,” City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) said. “The city has to enforce the law when it comes to keeping emergency vehicles free to move and for people taking up parking spaces for too long, but it has to be done rationally. They clearly go after neighborhoods like mine who pay their tickets.”
Vallone, chairman of the Council Public Safety Committee, said the strip outside his office at 31st Street near Ditmars Boulevard was one of the worst locales in the community for getting ticketed, but he is getting complaints from all corners of the neighborhood.
The incidents reported to his office that he considers the most egregious include a funeral procession receiving a fine for slightly blocking an intersection box, an agent sprawling over the hood of a car after a driver sitting in a no-parking zone attempted to pull away and traffic officers blocking off a car that was dropping off an elderly person at the curb along 31st Street with their vehicle and then ticketing them.
“I’ve seen agents trail someone who pulled out of a spot and then cut them off like they were a SWAT team,” he said.
The 114th Precinct and the city’s Department of Transportation could not be reached for comment. Traffic agents are sent out by the city, not local precincts.
Democratic District Leader Costa Constantinides said he believed the increase in vehicles ticketed along busy Astoria streets, such as 31st Street at Ditmars Boulevard, 30th Avenue or Steinway Street’s shopping district, is a method for the city to make money during the economic downturn.
“It’s not about enforcement, it’s about revenue,” he said. “There used to be a courtesy, an unspoken grace period. An agent would knock on your window, but now it’s just about giving that ticket. I’ve seen agents literally sit and watch a meter expire, so they can write a ticket. It’s not good for local business and working people. We’re going to drive people away from shopping in their own neighborhood, so they’ll go to Queens Center Mall where there is a parking lot.”
Steinway Street boasts more than one mile of stores and eateries, while Ditmars Boulevard near 31st Street is home to some of the borough’s most acclaimed restaurants.
Astoria residents and others who frequently visit the neighborhood said they have been given traffic violations by agents during instances they described as “unreasonable.”
“I was pulling out of a parking space and dropping off my husband at a bank on 31st Street when a traffic cop pulls in right beside me so I can’t pull out,” said Anna Balash, who lives in Astoria. “I had to slam on my brakes. He gave me a ticket even though I was not parked — I was moving and in-gear. They know we can’t take a day off from work to fight it. They’re very aggressive.”
Balash said she received the $115 ticket in July. After she was given the fine, she said she then attempted to pull out a second time, but was again boxed in by an agent. But she was not ticketed a second time.
Simone Petromelis, a Westchester County attorney who grew up in College Point, said she was harassed by a traffic agent during the Greek Orthodox holy week in April.
“It was a horrible experience,” said Petromelis, whose father, Angelo Petromelis, was a former district leader in the community. “The agent was out of control. I pulled into a spot, which turned out to be a legal spot, to let out my elderly mother. The agent ran up and pressed against my car. She wouldn’t let me see her name. It was like a drug bust.”
She said the agent told her she was receiving a ticket, but would not tell her for what reason.
“She laughed at me and said, ‘Too bad, it’s not my holiday,’” said Petromelis.
Lucille Hartman, district manager of Astoria’s Community Board 1, said ticketing was a large problem in the community, but the board did not have any specific numbers as to how many fines were written in the community each month.
Astoria has several municipal lots, including two near 31st Street and Ditmars and several others off Steinway Street. Business owners said the two lots near 31st Street do not have enough spaces and tend to be filled during business hours.
Harry Panagiotopoulos, owner of 31st Street’s ice cream shop Igloo Café, said he has paid an estimated $10,000 in parking tickets in the eight years he has been located in Astoria.
“My customers won’t stop in anymore for a cup of coffee,” he said. “I’ve been cursed out by traffic agents for asking what kind of ticket they were giving me. But I’ve also seen the meter maids double-parked or illegally parked while they go into the bank or CVS [on 31st Street] to shop for themselves.”
Panagiotopoulos alleged that the street also has parking problems because the city Taxi & Limousine Commission’s regulated “black car” cabs take up numerous parking spaces along 31st Street as they wait for customers. He said he has also witnessed city fire, police and Port Authority vehicles illegally parked in front of fire hydrants as well as double- and triple-parked along the roadway.
Mark Atkocaitis, manager of Flo Cafe on 38th Street at 30th Avenue, said the restaurant’s staff has been ticketed repeatedly while dropping off supplies at the curb.
“We could write an epistle about this,” he said. “If we so much as double-park for 30 seconds, an agent will come up and write a ticket without even making their presence known. They don’t give you an opportunity to move.”
Two bills sponsored by Vallone that would give grace periods for parked cars were passed earlier this month in the Council. One of the bills, which was introduced by Councilman Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn), gives drivers a five-minute pass for alternate side of the street parking and Muni-Meters before traffic enforcement agents issue parking tickets. The Council overrode a mayoral veto of the bill.
Another piece of legislation would require the city’s Transportation Department to provide written notification before changing parking rules and to wait 30 days before changing meter rates. It would also give a five-day grace period to drivers who receive parking violations after the regulations have changed as well as allowing them to challenge the ticket and have it dismissed if they receive it within five days of the city’s regulation changes.
The councilman said he has received complaints from constituents that the city has changed parking regulations on a given street overnight and then ticketed parked vehicles on the roadway the next morning.
He is currently in the process of writing a bill that would prevent agents from giving drivers double-parking tickets as they wait to pull into a spot or while they are momentarily stopped in a “No Parking” zone to drop off a passenger.
State Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) said the city should be paying more police officers to work in the community.
“It’s disturbing — in any given day, I see many more ticket agents than police officers patrolling the streets,” he said.
Gianaris said he does not believe the agents are deterring drivers from illegal parking but rather generating funds for the city.
“The agents are completely unreasonable and their goal is to issue as many tickets as possible,” he said.
Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.