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Park advocates rally as CB 3 approves summer play street in Jackson Heights

After dozens of protesters marched into the meeting and spoke passionately in support of the measure, Community Board 3 members Thursday night voted to support turning part of 78th St., adjacent to Travers Park, into a two-month play street this summer.

The board voted 27-9 with two abstentions in favor of supporting the play-street application of Jackson Heights Green Alliance, a community advocacy group fighting for more park space, which rallied about 150 supporters throughout the neighborhood Thursday and marched them from 78th St. into the Louis Armstrong Middle School cafeteria where the meeting took place.

“Play Street! Play Street!” chanted the crowd as they cheered, clapped and stomped to show their support.

Officials from the city Department of Health, Department of Transportation, Fire Department, and the Police Department spoke in support of the play-street initiative, along with Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) and state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights).

Many were overwhelmed by the number of people who showed up to the meeting to support the cause.

“I want to applaud each and every one of you here tonight because this is the first time that I’ve seen a community board meeting this packed in a long time,” Peralta said. “I want to lend my support to Councilman Danny Dromm and the concept of extending that 78th St. play street. I’m here to urge the community board to consider this, vote for this, because it’s seriously needed in our area.”

In terms of available park space, city officials rank Jackson Heights 50th out of 51 community districts, which means local children have little open space to play in the neighborhood. For the last two years, the green alliance has run a play-street program during Sundays in June, closing one block of 78th St. between Northern Blvd. and 34th Ave. to through traffic during the day, a common practice in the city during the summer.

But this year, when the alliance applied to extend the program from one to seven days a week throughout July and August, the community board’s transportation committee said no.

That angered some people in the community, many of whom expressed their anger at Thursday night’s meeting.

“You’ve all been hearing for at least 50 years that we’re starved for open space in Jackson Heights,” said Donovan Finn, a member of the alliance. “The [city’s] target number of children per playground is 1,250. In Jackson Heights we have 14,000 children under the age of 17. Under the age of 5 we have 5,000. Parks are an issue in the community... This is a zero-cost solution to the lack of park space in Jackson Heights. There is nowhere else to do it.”

Assemblyman Michael DenDekker (D-Jackson Heights) pointed out that the initiative was a trial program.

“You try it out for a couple of months. If it doesn’t work, you switch it back to the way it was, but you don’t know if it works until you try it,” he said.

But some board members fear a near-summer-long play street will cause traffic congestion in the neighborhood even though all relevant city agencies appeared at the meeting supporting the play street.

Transportation Committee Member Martin Maier, one of the dissenting votes, recommended taking the children to play at Joseph Pulitzer Middle School playground. Stephen Kulhanek, chair of the transportation committee, said he was concerned about the play street being 24 hours a day.

“I was concerned over the 24-hour nature of the street as well as the ability of the police and fire department to do their jobs appropriately,” he said. “What is going to happen overnight? Will it encourage inappropriate behavior there? But going forward, I certainly have every hope and desire that it works great. The community needs additional park space and this is a very creative way to try to create additional space.”

Dromm, whose victorious November campaign dealt largely with advocating for more park space, said he was pleased with the board’s vote and although the final say goes to the Department of Transportation, he thinks the measure will be approved.

“It was a great victory for the kids in Jackson Heights,” he said.

Reach Reporter Chauncey Alcorn by e-mail at calcorn@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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