The Open-Streets Tug-of-War Stretches Coast to Coast

Queens residents mobilize to save a prized open street, San Francisco museums fight the permanent closure of another, and more in this week’s Mobile City.

In this March 2021 photo, kids play along the stretch of 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, that has been designated an open street. (Credit: Street Lab/CC BY-NC 4.0)

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Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.

Queens Residents Argue Over Future of a Beloved Open Street

Some reports show that the pandemic has produced a surge in car use when restrictions started to ease, and former riders have proven reluctant to return to public transit. At the same time, many city-dwellers are delighted with another pandemic-driven change in how we use streets. “Open streets” — streets that have been closed to through car and truck traffic and reserved for residents’ recreational use — have proven popular in cities where they have been instituted. But, as an August 9 New York Times report on open streets points out, their long-term survival is by no means assured.

The article focuses on one New York open street in particular: 34th Avenue in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. It was one of four streets that New York City closed during its first attempt to create open streets in March 2020. When the city aborted the program after just two weeks, residents along the street moved to close it on their own. Thus they were ready when the city tried open streets again later that year.

From one block at the outset, the avenue’s closure has expanded to 26 blocks — a 1.3-mile stretch from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to Junction Boulevard. Neighbors use the street for a wide variety of activities, including roller skating, kaffeeklatsches and sporting events — even a pop-up circus and a wedding.

The 34th Ave Open Streets Coalition, which organized the unofficial closure, supports this effort by managing the daily closures, picking up trash, maintaining the median, running a food pantry and raising money for classes and supplies. Now that the De Blasio administration has proposed turning this street into a permanent “linear park,” the group is throwing its weight behind the proposal.

Not all area residents are on board with it, though. Residents who object to the length and extent of the closure have formed a group calling for a compromise that would shorten both the number of hours the street is closed each day and the number of blocks that are closed. This group complains that people using the street for activities such as picnics and parties have overstepped their bounds; that bikes, scooters and motorcycles ignore the five-mile-per-hour speed limit; and that the closures make deliveries difficult.

City officials appear to side with park advocates. 34th Avenue resident Jim Burke, one of the organizers of the Open Streets Coalition, told the Times that the street closure has transformed Jackson Heights: “It’s totally changed. One of the densest parts of Queens has become a small town.” Borough President Donovan Richards, noting that this fight has citywide implications, backed Burke up: “I don’t think we should compromise on this one,” he told the Times. “This really is bigger than 34th Avenue.”

As of the date of the article, the pro-linear park group has collected some 2,500 signatures on its petition, including that of De Blasio’s likely successor, Eric Adams, while the pro-compromise group has collected 2,000.

San Francisco Museums Object to Permanent Closure of a Park Drive

On the opposite coast, a similar fight has erupted over the partial closure of a road that runs through the middle of Golden Gate Park. The road, John F. Kennedy Drive, has been closed along the eastern half of the park since the pandemic began. The pandemic also shut down two major museums in the park, the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. Now that both institutions have reopened, the New York Times reports, they are fighting against a move to make the closure permanent.

Officials at the de Young, in particular, note that the closure has cut off vehicular access to the museum from the north, made deliveries more difficult, and removed 280 free parking spaces, some of which are reserved for patrons with disabilities. (The museum does have an 800-car garage next door, but it costs $5.25 an hour to park there, even more on weekends.)

As might be expected in a city known for political activism, supporters and opponents of the closure are describing their positions in terms of equity. Closure proponents point to the huge jump in pedestrian and bicycle traffic on the road since it was closed. That puts the city Recreation and Parks Department on the side of the closure advocates: “It may become less convenient for some visitors that would prefer to park just a few steps from the museum for free all day,” Phil Ginsburg, the department’s general manager, told the Times. “We get it. But that convenience should be balanced with this incredible increase in healthy park uses on JFK”

The museums, however, position themselves in opposition to a well-organized lobby that has been pushing to ban cars from the park for 20 years. “It has a large voice in the city,” said Megan Bourne, chief of staff for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which owns and operates the de Young. “It has a great deal of influence [over] how the roads are used.”

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Shamman Walton wrote in a San Francisco Examiner op-ed that the JFK Drive closure amounts to “recreational redlining,” and that park officials and the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency have not taken into account the concerns of all who might be affected by the closure. Walton says that to keep the street closed to vehicle traffic would “prevent communities that live in the southeast part of San Francisco, other communities further from JFK Drive, and people with disabilities from fully enjoying the park.”

The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on whether or not to close JFK Drive permanently later this year.

Oregon Governor Supports Modified Freeway-Widening Proposal

And finally, further up the Pacific coast, Oregon Governor Kate Brown has thrown her weight behind a controversial proposal to widen a major freeway that split a largely Black Portland neighborhood in two when it was built.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that the proposal she supports, dubbed “Hybrid 3,” would narrow the width of the proposed wider I-5 freeway slightly and build a larger cap capable of supporting construction atop it over the road. The proposal would spend $1.1 to $1.16 billion on the cap, accounting for most of its $1.18-$1.25 billion price tag.

Brown described her involvement in talks with stakeholder groups organized by the Oregon Department of Transportation in terms of transportation equity. She told members of the committee that provided advice on alternatives for widening the highway that this was an opportunity to create “a Rose Quarter project that can serve as a national model for restorative justice, sustainable transportation, and of course job creation.”

While some participants on the Community Oversight Advisory Committee (COAC) remained skeptical about the process that led to this redesign, at least one voiced their support this way: “It’s like splitting the baby,” said COAC member James Posey. “It’s a good thing to see people really put aside some of their individual interests and come together.”

Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: new york citysan franciscocovid-19pedestrian safetystreet designoregon

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