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CB 9, biz leaders collide over one-way street

A plan to finally convert a narrow two-way Woodhaven street into a one-way thoroughfare has thrown Community Board 9 on a collision course with area merchant and block associations.

The conversion of 87th Street between 91st and Atlantic avenues has been a contentious issue marked by verbal sparring for nearly four years, and has now resurfaced with a Department of Transportation announcement that the switch will finally take place in March.

A resident of 87th Street who had started the battle in 1998 contacted Community Board 9, complaining that the narrowness of the block led to a high number of accidents with injury and property damage.

After 89 area residents signed a petition favoring the conversion, the community board referred the matter to the DOT for review.

From the outset, the Woodhaven Business Improvement District and the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation spoke out in opposition to the conversion, claiming it would hurt businesses along Jamaica Avenue by cutting off one of the main routes to the commercial district.

Vincent Biondo, who owned a produce shop on Jamaica Avenue for 29 years, said the conversion would hit businesses hard.

“If you shut off that one strip, people will be going around like a carousel to get to Jamaica Avenue,” he said. “People are not going to put up with that. They’re going to shop elsewhere.”

But Community Board 9 Chairman Paul Sapienza said the safety of the community is the top priority of the board. Citing Department of Motor Vehicle statistics, he said there were 47 accidents on the block from 1997 through 1999, 43 of which resulted in injuries.

According to DOT figures, there were 90 accidents on 87th Street between 91st and Atlantic avenues from 1996 through 2000.

“We felt it was not safe to keep the street the way it was,” said DOT spokesman Keith Kalb. “It was just too small of a block to have two lanes of traffic.”

Kalb said DOT guidelines call for eight feet for parking and 12 feet for each lane of traffic. The 87th Street block is only 28 feet wide, he said, four feet too narrow for the two-way road guidelines.

After receiving the DOT proposal to convert 87th Street between Jamaica Avenue and Atlantic Avenue in 1999, the community board’s Traffic and Transportation Committee held public meetings to consider supporting the recommendation.

Maria Thomson, a CB 9 member and an employee of the Woodhaven Business Improvement District and the Woodhaven Development Corporation, spoke out against the conversion on the grounds it would hurt businesses along Jamaica Avenue.

Input from the Fire Department on the response time of Engine Company 293 led the board to scale back the conversion to include only the one-block stretch of 87th Street between 91st and Atlantic Avenues, the narrowest section of the street.

The board voted 20 to 10 in favor of the conversion.

But petitions circulated by the two business groups and the Woodhaven Residents Block Association, of which Thomson is also a part, claiming the conversion was a clandestine attempt to boost the number of parking spaces on the block, led the board to hold an unprecedented second vote with the added provision that no new parking spaces be created.

Again the conversion passed, this time by a count of 29-3, with nine of the Woodhaven residents who sit on CB 9 in favor and one against the proposal.

Thomson’s organizations then said the Fire Department had withdrawn its support for the project because lives were being put at risk due to a few fender benders. But a Fire Department letter obtained by the TimesLedger indicates it has no objection to a change due to “life safety” issues.

“Every time they hit a hurdle they would come up with another issue,” Sapienza said.

Since the DOT announced it would go ahead with the conversion, the community board chairman has traded jabs with Thomson in the local press. Thomson wrote that those in favor of the conversion were motivated by personal animosity toward her, but Sapienza insisted safety was the only catalyst for the move.

Thomson would not comment to the TimesLedger on the issue, but in a late January report she authored on the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation’s annual meeting, she wrote that the “unpopular” conversion has led to a “groundswell” of Woodhaven community opposition.

“The consensus of our Woodhaven residents, businesses and store owners is that for the good of all, this street should remain a two-way street,” she wrote.

Thomson claimed to have letters and petitions against the proposed conversion, but Sapienza said she has yet to present those to the community board.

Despite the opposition, which now includes complaints that the conversion will place a traffic burden on neighboring streets, Sapienza said the conversion is on schedule for March.

“CB 9 has and always will put, as priority one, the safety of the residents of all the communities it serves, even if the safety of the residents is at odds with the wishes of the business community,” Sapienza said.

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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