It's not something you see often in the concrete jungle that is New York City: It’s known as an Open Street.
A 26-block stretch of 34th Avenue — 1.3 miles in total — in Jackson Heights is closed off to vehicular traffic from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. The plan was first put into action in May 2020, near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We really, really needed space, and COVID really brought that home," said Jim Burke, the co-founder of the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition. "It was always an issue, but when you had to try to keep 6 feet apart from each other, then it really hammered it home."
What You Need To Know
- Jackson Heights is home to the longest Open Street in the city
- Twenty-six blocks are closed to vehicular traffic from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day
- Despite some opposition, the city's Department of Transportation says the plan is nationally celebrated
- The project is permanent and expected to be complete by this summer
The 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition helped organize more than a hundred volunteers, who move barricades, pick up trash and organize free events on the avenue. They say it also provides a safe thoroughfare for thousands of children walking to and from seven schools along 34th Avenue.
"It just brought joy to the neighborhood, and it's been transformative,” said Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo, Burke's fellow Coalition co-founder.
Joy is not the word everyone uses to describe it, however. Residents shared a number of videos of first responders appearing to have difficulty navigating 34th Avenue with NY1, illustrating their concerns about emergency access.
An FDNY spokesperson told NY1 the videos are concerning, and clearly show what units are dealing with when responding in the area. Units have reported trouble to the city. But no serious fire has been impacted by response time.
The debate over the Open Street is ongoing, nearly three years after it was first implemented. Residents who oppose the plan say they were not asked for their opinions on the design — and dispute the city Department of Transportation’s statistics indicating 77% of residents are in favor of permanent bike and pedestrian improvements on 34th Avenue.
“People who need transportation, people who have disabilities, people who are elderly that relied on their cars taking them to and from their homes, proper, are struggling with this,” said Ellen Halloran, a Jackson Heights resident.
"You cannot endanger the lives of human beings and say, 'Hey, this is a play street,’” Jackson Heights resident Talea Wufka added.
A DOT spokeswoman said the 34th Avenue Open Street is nationally celebrated — and the agency has worked closely with the community and emergency responders to ensure there are access routes. She said the DOT design was shared with the local Community Board — and a number of public discussions were held over the last two years.
Councilmember Shekar Krishnan says the Open Street goes beyond just green space, and has improved pedestrian safety, with a 41% drop in crashes involving pedestrians.
“It is really a shining success story, and I'm looking forward to working with our community to transform it to a linear park as well,” Krishnan said.
The DOT says the project is expected to be complete by summer 2023.