A group of hundreds of Jackson Heights residents, their children and six local officials gathered Saturday, May 11, to protest the city’s compromise on a plan to turn the entire block 78th Street into a car-free extension of Travers Park for the benefit a local car dealership.
During the rally, the emphatic group of legislators — including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Comptroller Scott Stringer — joined Jackson Heights Councilman Daniel Dromm and Shekar Krishnan of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance, all of whom directed their ire at city agencies they claimed to be responsible for capitulating to the dealership’s demands.
“How we wound up with this confusion is due to administrative incompetence on the part of Department of Transportation, the Department of Parks and the Department of Buildings,” Dromm told QNS.
Much of the block of 78th Street between Northern Boulevard and 34th Avenue has already been transformed into a green space extension of Travers Park, with only a 200-foot section of 78th Street south of Northern Boulevard still open to vehicular traffic. The city had originally drafted a $13 million plan to complete the transformation of the entire block, with the understanding that the curbside entrance to the dealership at the corner of 78th Street and Northern Boulevard would not be in use.
But before Howard Koeppel took over the property at the end of 2018, his dealership renovated the building to reopen a curb cut on 78th Street to use as a car dock.
When contacted, the Koeppel Auto Group declined to comment. Instead, a representative forwarded a letter they recently sent to the community which claims the business made its plans to reorient the dealership around the side entrance without knowing about the city’s 78th Street project. It suggests a design that would allow them to keep a curb cut entrance on 78th Street.
After the renovations, Koeppel reached out to the Parks Department to let them know his plans clashed with their original vision. The agency then created a plan that gave the dealership access to the 78th Street curb cut while keeping the remainder of 78th Street as a green space.
According to Dromm, the city waited two months to inform the councilman about its decision.
“We here in Jackson Heights have to fight to protect ourselves and our resources. And we will do so, but I want to send a message to Koeppel and the city of New York: If the city is truly serious about Vision Zero, Mayor de Blasio, this is your Vision Zero moment,” said Krishnan, referring to the ongoing city initiative devoted to preventing traffic deaths and injuries.
To prepare the event, described by the Green Alliance as a play-in for neighborhood children, police erected a blockade of steel gates to separate the protesters from a traffic lane leading to Koeppel Mazda’s controversial side entrance.
As Krishnan addressed the crowd, a sparkling Mazda sedan cautiously rolled down the block and through the dealership’s private gate, and the crowd burst into a roaring jeer.
When Stringer took the podium, he focused on a recent study his office released that identified neighborhoods with a disproportionately low amount of park space. Jackson Heights has four play areas for every 10,000 children and the fifth least amount of park space in the city, he said.
“Emerging communities — communities of color — have less park options than communities of great wealth. And that has to change,” Stringer said.
Johnson said that he had talked to Mayor Bill de Blasio about the situation, and his office claimed the mayor was looking into the issue.
“I let him know what our expectations were that this would get done,” Johnson said. “He told me that he would get back to Council member Dromm and myself in short order. But there is only one correct answer: Keep your commitment. Keep your promises.”