Dec. 1, 2017 By Nathaly Pesantez
The Department of Transportation is working on an updated proposal for protected bike lanes on Skillman and 43rd Avenues after receiving strong opposition from small businesses and residents over its initial plan because of the lost parking spaces that would come with it.
The agency’s original proposal, presented at Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee meeting on Nov. 6, called for the reconfiguration of a little over 20 blocks along the two avenues to allow for bike lanes flush against the curb and protected by a buffer from traveling cars.
The proposal called for the removal of 118 parking spots, or 17 percent of all spaces, on Skillman and 43rd Avenues between 39th and Roosevelt Avenue, with an additional 40 spaces to be removed in the stretch from 39th Street down to Queens Boulevard on Skillman Avenue.
The DOT has not given any indication as to what the amended plan might look like.
The initial proposal prompted the creation of a petition in opposition by the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, just days after it was published in the Sunnyside Post.
The Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce argues that the loss of 158 parking spaces would hurt small businesses, claiming they would suffer if their customers go elsewhere because they are unable to park. “I know how much the stores and pubs need parking,” said Patricia Dorfman, executive director of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce.
She began collecting signatures last week with around 15 other volunteers, and estimates that 800 signatures have been gathered, with an aim of reaching 2,000.
Dorfman added that as a bike rider, the existing bike lanes have been sufficient, save for the tough intersections at 39th Street. “We felt there were other ways to create more safety for bikes and cars, without such a drastic step that is a blow to our small businesses,” she said.
The DOT plan was prompted, in part, by two bicycle crashes that took place at the intersection of 43rd Avenue and 39th Street in April, which included the death of Gelacio Reyes, 32, who rode through a red light and was struck by a drunk driver.
Community leaders, such as Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, and bicycle advocates, subsequently called for increased safety measures and the installation of protected bike lanes on the two avenues.
While many businesses support the enhanced safety measures, they’re weary of losing their customers, many of whom drive from other neighborhoods to patronize their stores.
Padraig Connelly, co-owner of The Dog and Duck, which has been on 46th Street and Skillman Avenue since 2011, signed the Chamber’s petition in opposition to the DOT proposal week. “It would increase safety but it’s not good for business,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get parking in Sunnyside as it is.”
On 43rd Street and 43rd Avenue, Anne Muldoon, co-owner of the Lowery Bar, said Sunnyside’s profile as a dining destination has been ever-growing, and losing parking spaces could cut the neighborhood’s emerging spotlight.
“In today’s market a small business is tough enough [to have],” Muldoon said. Although she has not seen the Chamber of Commerce’s petition yet, she feels her business would be negatively affected if the DOT proposal were to go through as is. “Every single customer matters to me as a small business owner, and I don’t want a reason for someone not coming to my business to be for parking.”
Gary O’Neill, the co-owner of Aubergine Cafe on 50th Street and Skillman Avenue, is waiting to see how the revised DOT proposal will look before signing the petition. “The last person you’re going to find against bicycles is me,” said O’Neill, who is a member of Transportation Alternatives, the non-profit that advocates for cycling, walking, and public transit as alternatives to using cars.
But O’Neill, who has gone through the initial DOT proposal in detail, says the implementation of it as it stands would be a serious detriment to his business, due to the parking spaces that would be lost near his locale on Skillman Avenue.
The initial DOT proposal would require existing parking spaces near the corner of right-turning streets to be removed to increase visibility for motorists. There are four right-turning streets by Aubergine, from 51st Street to 47th Street, which worries O’Neill. The lost spaces, he said, would impact his customers, many of whom drive in from Long Island City, Jackson Heights and Maspeth to be at his cafe.
Still, O’Neill said a better proposal could be worked out, and wondered whether the protected bike lanes could be installed on Queens Boulevard, linked to the ones that go from Woodside to Forest Hills. “No one wants to detrimentally affect businesses, but at the same time who doesn’t want safer streets?” he said.
The initial proposal does have its supporters.
Juan Restrepo, the Queens organizer for Transportation Alternatives, said the initial protected bike lane proposal is a direct result of community demands for safer streets after the two April incidents.
“This is not a plan that is made to just gloss over safety improvements,” Restrepo said. “These are engineers who look at numbers and said it’s feasible.” While safety is the angle Restrepo is focusing on, he also claims there are studies that indicate businesses prosper when protected bike lanes are installed.
In August, Transportation Alternatives went to businesses on Skillman and 43rd Avenues to ask for their support in bringing protected bike lanes, and received close to 40 letters of support from them.
In July, the same group started a petition that called for protected bike lanes on the two avenues in memory of Reyes, which received close to 700 signatures. Both efforts were invoked in the DOT’s meeting with CB2 in November.
“We defer all choices on how to implement these lanes to the DOT,” Restrepo said, adding that the group highlighted the reduction of street crossing time, reducing the width of streets, and daylighting, when a parking spot is removed from the corner of the street, in their list of suggestions to the city.
Transportation Alternatives, which says it has a hundred thousand active supporters, and reported revenue of over 4 million in fiscal year 2016, has been instrumental in helping implement bike lanes and other traffic safety measures across the city since its founding in 1973.
Restrepo said that the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, and community residents who oppose the proposal, are not the only voices on the matter. “Who is the community when we have over 750 petition signatures asking for safety improvements?” he said. “There was a rally held where he [Reyes] was killed, Denise [CB2 Chair], Jimmy Van Bramer, and all cyclists came together and said this was preventable and something needs to be done. Here’s the DOT doing just that.”
The DOT says that Skillman and 43rd Avenues are essential corridors for Sunnyside, and that their plan will make the throughways safer for everyone who uses them. But the agency is also listening to neighborhood concerns.
“We have heard the concerns about loss of parking spaces, so we are working with schools, PTAs and other local stakeholders on an updated proposal, and we look forward to sharing details with the community board.”
In a statement, Councilmember Van Bramer said he has always been clear in his support for protected bike lanes, but did not feel the DOT’s initial proposal was ready to be voted on. “The DOT’s draft plan is well intentioned but I want to meet with them again and the Community Board to make sure that any final plan works for everyone and causes the least amount of disruption for local residents and small businesses,” he said.
— Juan Restrepo ? (@juaninQNS) November 7, 2017
TA volunteer at CB2 Transportation Committee meeting