A ceremony to mark the installation of a new bike rack in Jackson Heights turned into a heated debate about the city’s plan to make the Open Street along 34th Avenue permanent.
The rack at the intersection of 34th Avenue and 81st Street is the 1,000th new bike rack installed in the city since the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a plan last year to install 10,000 new bike racks across the five boroughs by the end of 2022.
DOT previously installed bike racks along 34th Avenue at 69th and 77th streets. The agency is seeking suggestions for other locations to install bike racks across the five boroughs.
“We have seen an uptick in cycling during the pandemic,” said DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman last Wednesday afternoon. “Maybe you are just out for a ride, but some people are using their bikes to get places. And when they get there, they need a place to park their bike.”
Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzales-Rojas said her nine-year-old learned to ride a bike on 34th Avenue during the past year.
“My child has a bike and rides it safely on 34th Avenue, and now he has a place to park it,” she said.
A 1.3-mile stretch – or 26 blocks – of 34th Avenue from 69th Street to Junction Boulevard is off-limits to vehicles from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m except for local and emergency purposes. Cars and trucks using the street are required to drive at 5 MPH.
The Open Streets program was originally set to end on October 31 of last year, but it was extended indefinitely. Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation making the program permanent.
The stretch along 34th Avenue is part of 83 miles of Open Streets across the five boroughs, the largest program of its kind in the United States.
“Open Streets transformed our city and changed the way we came together as communities,” said de Blasio. “Our urban landscape will forever play host to joyful gatherings of families, pedestrians, cyclists, and small businesses.”
At last week’s event, Gutman called 34th Avenue the “gold standard” of the Open Streets program. He said the closure of the street not only provides open space in a neighborhood with a severe shortage of parks, but allows for activities like yoga, performances and games for kids.
Borough President Donovan Richards said it’s a model that should be replicated throughout the city.
“We reimagined what our streets look like coming out of this pandemic,” he said. “This is an opportunity to reshape where we head as a city and a borough.”
But not everyone is in favor of making the 34th Avenue Open Street permanent. A group of residents called 34th Avenue Compromise argues closing the street has affected the quality of life for people who live along the avenue.
At every intersection, there are metal barriers to prevent cars from turning onto the 34th Avenue. Paolo Peguero says whenever she needs to drive down the street to get home, she has to stop her car, get out and move the barrier, and then move it back.
“When we try to move the barriers, we are confronted,” she said.
Peguero said elderly and disabled residents have trouble moving the barriers. She said she has also heard stories of Access-a-Ride drivers, for-hire car services, and delivery workers refusing to pick up or drop off in front of buildings because of the hassle of moving the barriers.
The barriers are put in place every morning by members of the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition. That group, along with another called Friends of 34th Avenue Linear Park praised the announcement that the program would become permanent.
But Gabi Bhart of 34th Avenue Compromise contends those groups only represent a small number of Jackson Heights residents.
“The majority of Jackson Heights residents do not support this,” she said.
Both Peguero and Bhart say there was very little outreach to the local community on the part of DOT and the city before it was announced the closure would be permanent.
They would like to see the hours of the closure and the length of the Open Street reduced. The two lanes of traffic on 34th Avenue are separated by a median, and the group would like to keep one side open to vehicular traffic to alleviate congestion on surrounding streets.
Members of 34th Avenue Compromise are planning a march on May 22 to call attention to their concerns.
Gutman addressed some vocal members of the group at last week’s press conference. He promised that all community concerns would be taken into consideration.
“The idea is not to have one plan dictated from City Hall, but do what the community wants,” he said.
As a member of the board of Brooklyn Bridge Park, Gutman was instrumental in the creation of the waterfront open space that is used by thousands daily.
“Believe it or not, that project was extremely controversial,” he said. “But we worked it out.”