Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Woodhaven Mobilizes Against Traffic Changes

The people of Woodhaven were loud and clear: They overwhelmingly oppose the changes to the direction of traffic on two streets in their neighborhood.

Over 100 residents showed up for a standing-room-only public meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 1, to voice objection to the changes to 89th Avenue and 84th Street, respectively. The meeting, which had been requested by the Woodhaven Residents' Block Association (WRBA), showed that the neighborhood was not properly consulted in the planning of the changes until now, and added to the uncertainty of who was responsible for trying to push the changes through.

Maura McCarthy, the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Queens Borough Commissioner, delivered a presentation on the street re-directions. She stated at the outset that the changes were not motivated by safety considerations.

"Neither of these two locations are accident-prone locations," McCarthy said. "So this can be voted up or down by the community. DOT is not going to implement this over the objections of the community."

And the community certainly had objections. One after another, residents described the extensive detours they'd need to make to get to and from their homes, the potential safety hazards from diverting school bus and other traffic down different streets, the problems posed to ambulance crews attempting to respond to emergencies, and so on. There was strong consensus in the room that the alterations would make their lives more difficult and lead to less safe conditions in the neighborhood.

When it came to traffic on their streets, the residents who live on and around those streets clearly knew best—even pointing out errors on the maps relied on by DOT—and they were disappointed that they had heard about the changes only after they were about to be voted on by Community Board 9.

"Obviously what is happening tonight is the result of a lack of communication," WRBA Director Steve Forte told McCarthy. "When a request comes into your office, how do I as a community member know about it so that I can voice an objection?"

Intense questioning by Woodhaven residents revealed a total breakdown of decision-makers' communication with the neighborhood, as well as a disquieting lack of candor about who was behind the changes.

McCarthy explained the process the DOT supposedly followed for proposing the changes: "We get suggestions from one person, ten people, a hundred people. We investigate it. We go back to the Community Board. And the Community Board canvasses the community and takes a vote. So that is the process we've gone for."

But WRBA Director Alexander Blenkinsopp asked who in the audience had been canvassed by Community Board 9, and nobody raised a hand.

"In that case, Commissioner, it seems like perhaps the canvassing needs to be redone and the proposal should be retracted by DOT," Blenkinsopp said to applause from the audience.

And when Blenkinsopp asked McCarthy who had requested the change on 84th Street, she replied, "I received this request from an elected official who is no longer in office," eliciting loud grumbling from the audience. McCarthy declined to name the person, though she later added that the proposal "has been supported by other elected officials also." Yet again, McCarthy declined to name those elected officials. Community Board 9, however, later told the WRBA that Boston Market, located on 83rd Street and Atlantic Avenue, had been responsible for the request.

Council Member Elizabeth Crowley has publicly written to the DOT asking them "to drop the proposal" on 89th Avenue, inside her district. The WRBA is not yet aware of any public statements made by Council Member Eric Ulrich about the street changes. Ulrich represents the 84th Street area.

For all the displeasure and frustration the street change proposals caused Woodhaven, the incident might have the positive result of spurring better communication with residents in the future.

When asked by the WRBA how much public objection there must be before the Department of Transportation decides not to advance a proposal to Community Board 9 for a vote, McCarthy said, "That's a very good question, and certainly, this evening has pointed out the outreach—or lack thereof—on my agency's part. We typically do not, for short stretches of street, reach out to a large community. We rely on the [Community] Boards to do that outreach, and maybe we will rethink that process going forward."

Mary Ann Carey, District Manager of Community Board 9, stated that she has received "about 60 letters in opposition" to the changes. But the Community Board was scheduled to vote on the changes the evening of Valentine's Day in Kew Gardens—a time and place very inconvenient for Woodhaven residents to show up and voice their concerns.

Assemblyman Mike Miller received applause when he proposed postponing the vote until the Community Board could meet in Woodhaven. He has since formally requested a postponement, which the WRBA strongly supports.

"I believe the Community Board certainly has heard you this evening," McCarthy said at the end of the meeting.

A video of the entire hearing is available here.

# # #


WRBA office: (718) 296-3735