Council Member Dromm to DOT Commish: Build Full Travers Park or Betray Vision Zero

Hundreds rallied in 2019 for the city to make good on its promise to close all of 78th Street in Jackson Heights to car traffic. A car dealership on the block has gotten around that pledge. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Hundreds rallied in 2019 for the city to make good on its promise to close all of 78th Street in Jackson Heights to car traffic. A car dealership on the block has gotten around that pledge. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

It’s “Fury Road” the sequel.

Jackson Heights Council Member Daniel Dromm unleashed hell on Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg on Friday because of the de Blasio administration’s apparent capitulation to a politically connected car-dealership. 

The city was planning to ban cars on the entirety of 78th Street between 34th Avenue and Northern Boulevard to create a seamless car-free play area linking the Garden School, Travers Parks, and Staunton Field — but now it’s abandoning that design in order to accommodate Koeppel Mazda, which wants to use a portion of the street to move cars around. The dealership is owned by Howard Koeppel, whose political contributions have long given him access to politicians such as former Mayor Giuliani; Queens power broker Joe Crowley, the former congressman; and Dromm himself.

Despite the donations, Dromm didn’t hold back during Friday’s hearing — he again blasted the city for ceding a portion of the block to Koeppel for his own private curb cut instead of pushing ahead with the original $13-million project as envisioned by the community and approved long ago. And the change in plans especially flies in the face of Mayor de Blasio’s own Vision Zero initiative, which seeks to make city streets safer and end traffic fatalities by 2024. The area in question is just feet from the notoriously dangerous Northern Boulevard, where six too many kids have been killed in the last few years.

“Now all of a sudden, [Koeppel’s] been given access to curb cuts after the design has been completed. I don’t, for the life of me, understand it,” said Dromm during a five-minute broadside against Trottenberg. “Do you know, Commissioner, that on Northern Boulevard over last three years I have had six children killed in the vicinity of this park and plaza. Kids. And you’re talking about putting cars into a park. Is that part of Vision Zero?”

Trottenberg said the 78th Street issue is “unique” because Koeppel brought back to life what everyone thought was a dormant curb cut after redesigning the dealership last year. 

“The history here is the plaza was designed with one property owner that made it clear they had no interest in using that curb cut and then in the middle of last year the property changed hands,” she said. “We’re very sorry for the situation and understand your frustration. This is something that is being trying to worked out at the highest level.”

But there should be no reason why the city now can’t use its power of eminent domain to seize the land from the owner and keep the original design —  if Koeppel has a problem with that, he can sue, said Dromm.

“What the city should do here is go forward with the original plans and let him sue,” he said. “This involves children’s lives.”

Neither the Parks Department nor DOT has responded to repeated requests from Streetsblog for comment about the sliver of land owned by Koeppel, but Trottenberg told Streetsblog on Friday that the issue is now in the hands of the city’s lawyers.

“This is above my pay grade because it involves the law department, what precedents they set,” she said. “This is an unusual case, obviously we’re very concerned about it, want to make sure the park is safe and enjoyable.”

Trottenberg, who was under oath during the hearing, testified that she had also just learned of the debacle — it started months ago when Koeppel had a private meeting with the Parks Department, which even Dromm didn’t know about at the time. 

“I only became of the aware of the controversy and problems earlier this year,” she said. 

But Dromm said the city is just passing the blame from one agency to another when instead it should be fighting to keep its own design for the sake of the community and kids’ lives.

“I don’t understand why no one is willing to step up and say, ‘Just build it as originally planned,'” said Dromm. “Whatever it takes and just move forward with the project. As I said, let them sue. I don’t understand why or how an auto dealer of all things is able to say, ‘I want to redesign it because I have a curb cut there.’”

Streetsblog has submitted a freedom of information request for all correspondences between the city and Koeppel Mazda, but it is pending. Activists will rally again on Saturday at 2 p.m. with Speaker Corey Johnson.