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Jackson Heights Getting Year-Round Pedestrian Plaza on 78th Street

JACKSON HEIGHTS — A section of 78th Street closed to the public during the summer is being revamped by the city's Department of Transportation into a full-time public plaza, according to park advocates and officials.

The block, on 78th between 34th Avenue and Northern Boulevard, already used during the summers as a "play street," will now be a pedestrian plaza all year long, according to the Jackson Heights Green Alliance.

"Everybody's excited," said Green Alliance board member Munro Johnson. "It's really just an augmentation of the Play Street, which has been very popular. Now we're going to have an enhanced version of it."

Jackson Heights is known to have limited park space. According to a 2009 report by the park advocacy group New Yorkers For Parks, the 25th City Council district, which encompasses Jackson Heights, was ranked second-to-last in the city in parkland acres per resident.

The new plan, expected to be completed in the next couple of weeks, will add 10,000 square feet of permanent open space to the neighborhood and expand on the tables, benches and chairs already there, according to the DOT's website.

A small section at the northern end of the block will stay open to traffic, so that a garage operated by the private Garden School, located around the block at 33-16 79th St., will still be accessible, Johnson said.

The Play Street, a project started by the Green Alliance in 2008, initially started small, with just weekend street closings, Johnson said. As it gained popularity, they began closing the street all summer long, and started lobbying the local community board to keep the street closed every day in the summer.

Local City Councilman Daniel Dromm remembers that initial skepticism about closing the street faded once people saw the park's benefits, he said.

"The more people began to visualize the what the dream was, the more people signed on," Dromm said. 

Now the councilman hopes to increase that benefit. Earlier this year, he helped secure $6 million for the purchase of the Garden School's school yard.

Dromm and the Jackson Heights Green Alliance plan on expanding the plaza into that space, Dromm said. The yard will be shared by both the school and the public.

"We're very excited about this," Dromm said. "The overall benefit of having a new park in the neighborhood is tremendous."

On Wednesday, parkgoers enjoying the beautiful weather in the neighborhood said they looked forward to the expansion.

Laurie Rivera, a Park Slope resident who works as a nanny in Jackson Heights, has been taking the kids she watches to the Play Street all summer. With the expansion, she envisions a safe area for the kids to play all year long.

"We come here every day to the park and try to have lunch here," said Rivera, 30. "It'll be great because they can use their scooters in the road, and their tricycles, and not have to worry about cars."

That sentiment was echoed by 55-year-old Jackson Heights resident Anna Torres, who, along with her poodle Bunny, was sitting at one of the street's many park benches.

"It's good for children," Torres said. "It's good for old people, too."

But the closure also has other repercussions, Torres said. Namely, it takes away what Dromm estimates are 40 parking spots from the neighborhood.

Dromm believes that those spots won't be missed. Recently installed muni-meters will add about 100 spots on 37th Avenue between Junction Boulevard and 73rd Street, he said.

Johnson dismissed would-be parking complaints out of hand.

"Any time you take [parking] spaces away, people that place a priority on that type of thing will be unhappy," he said. "It's one block of one street in a large neighborhood."