March 27, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
The Department of Transportation revealed its updated proposal for safety improvements along Skillman and 43rd Avenues at a highly anticipated town hall last night.
The agency’s new plan, revealed to the public for the first time yesterday, sees many of the same features presented in its initial proposal released in November, including protected bike lanes, the removal of travel lanes on certain blocks, and the addition of pedestrian islands. But DOT officials noted that fewer parking spaces would be eliminated in its new plan.
The DOT’s original vision, which was scrapped after much community opposition, would have required 158 parking spaces to be removed through the roughly 20-block stretches of Skillman and 43rd Avenues to make way for protected bicycle lanes. This time, between 117 and 129 spaces will be eliminated, meaning that up to 41 spaces could be returned with the new proposal.
Most of the parking spaces will be eliminated from what the DOT calls the “neighborhood corridor”, or the portions of Skillman and 43rd Avenues stretching from Roosevelt Avenue to just before the approach to Queens Boulevard.
DOT officials said several changes, like turn treatments and new pedestrian island designs, helped add parking spaces back, without compromising their goals for enhancing safety.
“We’ve been able to retain every bit of safety treatment that you guys saw at the original design,” said Ted Wright, DOT Bicycle and Greenways Program Director.
Some pedestrian islands, for example, will be shortened in length, which will add up to 12 parking spaces back through the two avenues. At some intersections, the DOT will install “off-set crossings” to enhance cyclist safety when cars are turning, which will add an additional 12 spaces back. The agency is also looking at adding a total of 14 new parking spaces elsewhere.
The new plan still sees 40 parking spaces removed on Skillman Avenue from 39th Street to Queens Boulevard, like the initial November plan. The new signals and pedestrian crossing coming to 54th Street and Skillman Avenue, in front of P.S. 11, will also remove an additional three parking spaces from the area.
“We worked with our engineers to try to balance all of the feedback that we heard,” said Nicole Garcia, DOT Queens Borough Commissioner. “We think we have a plan that balances the needs of the bicyclists, of the pedestrians, and of the local businesses.”
The tightly-packed audience at P.S. 150’s auditorium–made up of community leaders, residents, rows of Transportation Alternatives members, and a slew of owners from 43rd and Skillman Avenue businesses–echoed many of the sentiments shared when the DOT’s initial plan was released months ago.
The revised plan did not appear to change any pre-held opinions.
“All the small businesses…are frightened that they will actually go out of business,” said Patricia Dorfman, Executive Director of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce. Many worry that their customers will struggle to find parking and shop elsewhere, she says.
Dorfman created a petition against the DOT’s plans months ago, arguing that any loss of parking spaces would hurt the neighborhood. The petition’s online version has gathered 490 signatures.
The Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, along with the Skillman Project, also created a black and orange poster earlier this month criticizing the DOT’s plans for the avenues, and calling for the parking spaces to be saved. The sign visibly hangs on several storefronts, including The Globe Tavern, Quaint, Claret, Skillman Barber Shop, Cooldown Juice, Cote Soleil, Skillman Pets, Stray Vintage, Suryaside Yoga Studio, Welcome Home Real Estate and the Copper Kettle.
Gary O’Neill, co-owner of the 15-year-old Aubergine Cafe, said he remains opposed to the DOT’s plan–although noting that he wants safer pedestrian crossings, speed reductions, and reduced truck traffic.
“These issues can be fixed without a protected bike lane,” O’Neill said. “Protected bike lanes do not guarantee safer streets, but will mean a loss of business. The only guarantee of a protected bike lane is a loss of parking.”
Apart from businesses, many residents opposed the plan, arguing that it is already tough to find parking around the neighborhood. Some said the protected bike lanes would make it difficult to pull over and unload groceries, drop kids off at school, and would make the roadways more crowded.
Mindy Michler-Greene, Co-President of P.S. 11’s PTA, criticized the DOT’s updated plan because of the protected bike lane that would brush directly against the sidewalk at the entrance of the school. The school met with the DOT in December to share the same concern.
“Having a protected bike lane is dangerous for the children,” Michler Greene said. “Children will be dismissed and come into the bike lane and will get hit by cyclists.”
Some residents voiced their support for the DOT’s plan, arguing that protected bike lanes would be an overall benefit to the community. Others said protected bike lanes must be an option, given the state of the subways.
“Either we make these improvements, and we have a safer community and still a parking problem, or we don’t make these improvements, and we still have a parking problem and we’re not as safe,” said one Sunnyside resident.
Flor Jimenez, whose husband, Gelacio Reyes, was killed at the intersection of 39th Street and 43rd Avenue almost a year ago while cycling–and whose death prompted Van Bramer to call for protected bike lanes on the avenue–urged the DOT to make the area safer.
“If something can be done, please do it, so there are no more families left as we are now,” Jimenez said.
Juan Restrepo, Queens Organizer for Transportation Alternatives, which led a campaign to encourage protected bike lanes through Skillman and 43rd Avenues, said the town hall went well, and thought the new plan balanced the community’s needs.
“They heard concerns about parking, and restored parking,” Restrepo said. He also commended Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer for pushing the DOT to satisfy community concerns while maintaining the safety goals.
In a statement, Van Bramer said there were a great number of suggestions and concerns raised about the new plan. “I’m going to take some time to process those concerns and follow up with the DOT,” Van Bramer said.
He added that Community Board 2 will be the ones to consider and ultimately vote on the plan. Many stakeholders, however, are looking for Van Bramer to take a firm position on the plan.
“I want robust community engagement,” Van Bramer said. “There will be additional opportunities, including at the Community Board, for neighbors to weigh in. I want to hear from as many people as possible before making a decision.”
The DOT, meanwhile, said in a statement: “After hearing from residents, business owners, and other stakeholders during a spirited discussion at Monday’s town hall, we will incorporate valuable input into the design for Skillman and 43rd Avenues and will continue to work with both elected officials, including Council Member Van Bramer, and with Community Board 2.”