By Rebecca Henely
Maryann Smith-Jackson of East Elmhurst said for years the trees in the back of her house have acted as a buffer between her Ditmars Boulevard home and the adjacent Grand Central Parkway. Then one day in June, they were gone.
“One day I came home from work and I saw straight to [LaGuardia] Airport,” Smith-Jackson said.
The trees had been taken down by the state Department of Transportation, which started construction on a large section of the Grand Central Parkway near the airport this spring, said Adam Levine, spokesman for the DOT.
He said right now the on-ramp and off-ramp from the parkway to the airport are both underneath the 94th Street bridge. The department is working to move the on-ramp further east down the parkway near 97th or 99th Street to alleviate the traffic on the ramps, a project expected to cost about $65 million.
“There’s a lot of traffic backups and a lot of accidents in the area,” Levine said.
As part of the construction, Levine said 550 trees in the area will be taken down.
This has angered some residents in the area. Smith-Jackson, founder of the Ditmars Boulevard Homeowners Alliance, said losing the trees has been a hardship to the community. The trees acted as a buffer. They separated residents’ backyards from the parkway and mitigated the emissions from the parkway and airport.
“Nobody can open the windows now,” she said.
Smith-Jackson also said the trees were taken down without warning. The DOT never informed the residents the project was starting.
Levine said the department has been apologetic for not doing so.
“This is really not the way we like to introduce ourselves to the community,” he said.
After construction started, Community Board 3 set up a meeting between residents and DOT. Smith-Jackson said that at the meeting homeowners said they wanted the department to stop cutting down the trees and also did not want the DOT to build a noise wall in the back of their properties.
“They removed mature trees,” Smith-Jackson said. “They removed 100-year-old trees. … They cannot replace that.”
Levine said the noise wall was approved 23-6 in a department-run poll of residences identified as being potentially affected by the project. This poll was done in late 2007 in the design process of the project.
He also said some of the trees had reached the age where they had to come down to prevent accidents and some of those trees had roots knitted together with younger trees, so those had to come down. The trees removed will be replaced with 600 new trees, 8,700 vines, 2,200 shrubs and a three-quarter-acre of wildflowers.
“It’s going to look very nice when we’re finished with it,” he said.
But Smith-Jackson said the alliance is considering hiring legal counsel to look into how the DOT handled taking down the trees.
The DOT and the Ditmars Boulevard residents will meet again later this month to discuss their concerns.
“I want the project stopped until everyone can come and sit down at the table and come to an agreement on what we actually want,” Smith-Jackson said.
Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4564.