DOT Design for Permanent 34th Avenue Open Street ‘Fails,’ Say Linear Park Supporters

Only rigid barricades keep cars out. But the DOT wants to try something else. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Only rigid barricades keep cars out. But the DOT wants to try something else. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

This gold standard needs some polish.

Advocates who want to the city to turn the popular 34th Avenue open street into a linear park are entirely underwhelmed by a proposed design put forward by the Department of Transportation last week because it would potentially allow car drivers to reclaim space secured at great effort by a small army of volunteers — and incoming mayor Eric Adams isn’t happy either.

At issue is the city’s proposal to install “diverters” at most intersections of the divided 1.3-mile open street between 69th Street and Junction Boulevard — a showcase open street that city officials have repeatedly called “the gold standard” approach for creating car-free space. But the diverters appear to be little more than paint at the head of each intersection (see picture below), and agency officials have admitted that they may not be robust enough to prevent drivers from merely motoring around them.

Diverters like this are the key to the DOT's hopes of keeping cars out of its "gold standard" open street on 34th Avenue. Photo: DOT
Diverters like this are the key to the DOT’s hopes of keeping cars out of its “gold standard” open street on 34th Avenue. Photo: DOT

That’s why advocates who have been demanding secure space, and also a reduction in the need for volunteer labor, are so disappointed.

“The proposal fails to address crucial safety concerns,” said the Friends of 34th Avenue Linear Park, which has been pushing for a true compromise: a design that would make one street in Jackson Heights — 34th Avenue — completely car-free while leaving dozens of other streets untouched for the neighborhood’s drivers, who are demanding all of the roads.

One member of the linear park group said the problem is the diverters, which don’t look particularly robust in DOT’s renderings.

“We feel that this design literally opens the gates to invite vehicles to assert their dominance back on this space,” said Sarah Balistreri. “[If the diverters fail], a space that has been welcoming for more than a year would suddenly feel quite unsafe with cars treating it as a slalom course.”

Thanks to volunteers who set out barricades every morning and remove them ever evening, all 56 block segments of the divided east-west roadway are almost entirely car-free for 13 hours a day, though drivers are allowed to access individual blocks by moving barricades. The DOT design would create only four dedicated “plaza block” segments out of the 56 existing segments of the 34th Avenue open street. There would also be nine shared-street treatments near schools that seek to slow down drivers with a chicane in hopes of protecting the 8,800 kids who attend schools on 34th Avenue. But 10 blocks — between 83rd and 93rd streets — don’t have any plaza or shared-street configurations. One pro-linear park driver even asked DOT, “Other than my good will, what’s to prevent me, as a driver, from just driving around those diverters?” The agency did not answer.

DOT officials admitted that their design is definitely not going to please supporters of a true car-free space.

“We are not proposing a linear park,” the agency’s street improvement team leader Jessica Cronstein said at a meeting of Queens Community Board 3 on Thursday night. Cronstein also said that it’s likely the barricades would have to remain — an admission that only points out the flaw in the DOT design [PDF] given that one of the agency’s goals is to “make the street [is] … less reliant on French barricades.”

The neighborhood’s Council Member, Danny Dromm, is a supporter of the linear park proposal, but he accepted the DOT’s slow compromise.

“Folks should remember that the transformation of Travers Park, the closing of 78th Street and the creation of Diversity Plaza were all done in phases,” Dromm told Streetsblog in a text message. “The same will hold true for 34th Avenue. I am confident that our goal of having a linear park will be realized. Volunteers have alway been and hopefully will continue to be a vital and integral part of this transformation.”

Dromm will be long gone by the time the city starts building the permanent open street, which it is required by law to do. The political pressure will likely have to be exerted by Democratic nominee Shekar Krishnan, who is expected to succeed Dromm with his likely election next month. Krishnan told Streetsblog that he’s less sanguine than Dromm.

“DOT’s presentation is a step in the right direction, but it fails to address some of the challenges that the community needs resolved,” he told Streetsblog. “DOT’s plan will create a slalom course for cars, and it misses the boat completely from the standpoint of climate change. Ultimately, we need to make 34th Avenue a linear park.”

He also was surprised that the permanent design of the roadway did not address the conflicts between pedestrians and fast-moving, illegal mopeds, whose drivers are choosing 34th Avenue because it’s far safer (for them) than other neighborhood roadways.

Left out of the discussion so far has been what the incoming mayor, Eric Adams, wants. Like all the major Democratic mayoral candidates earlier this year, Adams signed the linear park petition. Last week, Streetsblog asked Adams if he was disappointed by the DOT proposal, since it did not carry out the vision of the petition he signed. He said that DOT will have to be more aggressive in an Adams administration.

“I’m not going to ask them, I’m going to tell them [what I want] if I’m the mayor,” he told Streetsblog. “I think the problem is, agencies have hijacked their role. Agencies don’t run the city. You did not elect an agency, you elected a mayor, council member, senator. When I look at this project and if it doesn’t meet my specs, I’m going to give them the instructions on what they are going to do.”

He’ll certainly hear from the linear park crowd if the current design gets built next year, when Adams is in charge.

“The linear park is still our goal and I think we feel we need to pressure electeds and city officials not to miss this huge opportunity to create space that’s used in a new way, including addressing the climate crisis with green infrastructure,” Balistreri said.

The 34th Avenue open street is believed to be the city’s most-used open street. It is also a safe space. As Streetsblog reported last year, injuries fell by 85 percent during the hours when cars are banished from the roadway. And crashes dropped by 78 percent because of the absence of cars. As a result, virtually all elected officials in the area — including Dromm, Krishnan, Assembly Member Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Borough President Donovan Richards have signed onto the linear park proposal.

The concern about the encroachment of car drivers is a serious one. Earlier this year, open street volunteers on Willoughby Avenue in Brooklyn analyzed what was working and what was not — and quickly learned that the best open streets are the ones where cars are almost entirely absent.

“Our data shows that the key to a successful, widely used, open street is to prevent thru car traffic by making it difficult to enter the street in a car,” said Mike Lydon, a neighborhood resident and principal at Street Plans, an urban design firm. “If car drivers start creeping in, walkers don’t feel comfortable and the numbers drop. As difficult as it has been for volunteers to block off the street, we’ve shown how successful an open street can be if it truly reduces the amount of traffic down to only people who must get to a particularly building, which is a very small number.

“However the barricades morph in the future, our numbers show that they cannot become so permissive to drivers that the open street is no longer viewed to be safe,” he added. “If we reach that threshold of cars, the program loses its effectiveness.”

Lydon’s numbers are especially clear for Willoughby Avenue, where there are often three barricades per intersection to really keep out cars. On two typical days in June, volunteers counted 768 cyclists, 3,352 pedestrians, 431 joggers, 318 people using assisted devices, 515 dogs being walked … and just 12 cars.

“This is why our open street is so great,” said Lydon. “The fewer cars, the more people use it.”