The plan to add safety improvements to 111th Street was fully funded by Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland in 2013 and Mayor Bill de Blasio has made the corridor, which runs along Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a Vision Zero Priority.
But each plan presented by the Department of Transportation since March 2015 has been shot down or tabled by CB 4 due to concerns about increased congestion or bicycle lanes. In February, DOT presented the new plan to the transportation committee and was again met with resistance and a racist comment from member Ann Pfoser Darby.
Comment adds another curve
The chair of the board, Damian Vargas, got into a spat with Ferreras-Copeland when she condemned the comments and called for Darby to be removed from the board.
Vargas addressed the incident at the meeting on March 21 and said that while the board “will not tolerate
disrespectful or disparaging comments about any member of any community,” he reviewed two recordings and argued that Pfoser Darby did not actually make those comments.
But in subsequent interviews with media outlets, Pfoser Darby doubled down on her comments and the councilwoman’s chief of staff said that Vargas confirmed the comments to her the night of the meeting.
“It is unfortunate that we have to find ourselves having to defend this comment when I spoke to the chair the night the comments were made and he himself confirmed it,” she said. “That is the only reason, along with a few other confirmations that we received, as well as statements to the press by the chair confirming that these statements were made so we are here to vote on safety issues. That’s what we should be voting on.”
Changing the plan didn’t change opinions
Board members requested additional studies to dissect traffic patterns, demanded that a car lane be re-added on the southbound side and asked for a study to check the feasibility of an exit off of the Grand Central Parkway into Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
To appease board members, the DOT complied with their various requests. But at the CB 4 meeting on March 21, some members said they were unhappy with the plan because intersections did not include marked crosswalks, especially in front of 47th Avenue where a new pre-K center is expected to go up in 2019.
The original plan, which removed one southbound and northbound car lane, included marked crosswalks at intersections. Those were removed when DOT honored a request by the board to keep the second southbound lane. DOT engineers do not allow the agency to add marked crosswalks to an intersection that spans more than one lane and does not have a stop sign or stoplight.
James Lisa, chair of the transportation committee, said he again could not support the plan because “111th Street is the escape valve for people to leave [Corona].”
“Fire departments, EMTs, all of these city agencies use 111th Street to get in and out of Corona fast because it’s the only way to get in and out because of all the traffic on 108th Street,” Lisa said. “All of this that they’re talking about is going to destroy the Corona Heights community’s ability, the cars mobility to get in and out of Corona.”
The DOT’s study found that excess congestion occurs along the thoroughfare only five days a year – two days during the Maker Faire, during one night of a Mets game and two days during the Queens Night Market.
Instead, Lisa said the DOT should add stoplights at each intersection and refurbish the islands to help pedestrians cross the streets more safely. To add additional stoplights, DOT must get federal approval after submitting traffic studies, but the street does not have enough traffic to warrant them, the agency said.
Dozens of people, including children wearing bicycle helmets, showed up to testify in favor of the improvements, holding up signs that read “We want a safer 111th Street” and “We deserve to have a voice.” The plan includes a two-way protected bike path and many board members expressed in several meetings their disapproval of that aspect of the plan.
Mujeres en Moviemento, a group of Spanish-speaking mothers who live in Corona and advocate for bike lanes, brought a translator to the meeting and wore headsets so they could follow along.
Voted before the crowd had its say
But the board voted to table the motion before they heard one comment from the community. A handful of board members said they liked the plan and argued that the discussion had gone on long enough.
Jennifer Gutierrez, a lifelong Corona resident and board member, said she has visited Flushing Meadows Corona Park “every single day for like the first 20 years of my life” and that safe access to the park does not exist.
“I wholeheartedly support this proposal,” she said. “I don’t understand why every time we talk about safety improvements at CB 4 we dissect and dissect and only focus on bike lanes. It’s insanely dangerous for anyone crossing the street as a pedestrian, as a cyclist and for us to sit there and nit-pick numbers versus percentages and devalue humans that could endanger themselves is not a reflection of every board member of Community Board 4.”
Ultimately, the board overwhelmingly voted to table the vote, and even members who expressed support for the plan agreed to table it. Members such as Al Perna, the head of the Corona Volunteer Ambulance Corps, who said he liked the plan and Alirio Orduna who thanked the DOT for the plan and argued that “we cannot be greedy with other people’s lives” when discussing this project also voted for tabling the plan.
‘Playing political football’
Christina Furlong, the founder of Make Queens Safer, ripped into CB 4 members and argued that they were “playing political football” with residents’ lives.
“I came in here knowing there would be no vote tonight,” she said. “And from what I understand, very clearly understand from my experience with this community board, is that you expect the mayor to overrule you. ‘Let’s see what Mayor de Blasio is going to do because we don’t like de Blasio and then let’s blame Julissa Ferreras for it because she’s not here.’ This community knows that you are playing a political football game with people’s lives, and it is a terrible shame.”
Some board members were visibly frustrated with their fellow members’ decision including Sandra Munoz, who made an impassioned plea to the board to vote in favor of the plan.
“This has been going back and forth for years,” she said. “We have to start somewhere. What are we waiting for? I lost an uncle by a vehicular accident and I don’t want to lose anybody else.”
She added that her conscious would be clean the next time a pedestrian or driver got into an accident on 111th Street.
Board member Redd Savilla acknowledged that it did not make sense for the board to vote on a project this big without hearing from the community.
‘It doesn’t make sense when we have a big vote like this to hear from the public afterwards,” Savilla said. “It’s just something to consider. It’s important for us to hear, especially for some of these folks who took the time to write something out, like it’s not easy going up in front of people.”
Vargas said the board has discussed the issue and is working to change the format of the meetings.
“We’re going to discuss this internally,” Queens DOT Commissioner Nicole Garcia told QNS after the meeting. “It’s been said by my commissioner and other people that community board vote is advisory but we got a lot of great feedback here. There were some themes that we’ve heard throughout this process so we’re going to take the feedback that we heard here tonight and discuss and we’ll be in touch with the board.”
Ferreras-Copeland said the community could not wait any longer and urged the mayor to go ahead with the plan.
“The community was not allowed to comment before Community Board 4 voted to table the plan for 111th Street; however, they spoke loud and clear when we stood over 100 strong on the steps of City Hall demanding that 111th Street be made safer,” she said. “For three years, the experts at the Department of Transportation have done extensive studies and outreach. I urge Mayor de Blasio to move forward with the Vision Zero plan for 111th Street immediately.”
You can watch the entire board meeting here: