Reimagining Austin Street with Public Plazas
Plan To Pedestrianize Historic Forest Hills Street
By Michael Perlman
Since the early 20th century, Austin Street has been a major thoroughfare of Forest Hills, consisting of shops, restaurants, office spaces, and historic Tudor and Colonial residential buildings. Once nicknamed “The Village,” it featured mom & pop shops, but that quaint nature in the past two decades has increasingly been compromised by corporate chains, small business owners worried about rising rents, and vehicular and pedestrian congestion on narrow streets and roads, occasionally causing accidents.
Enter the mind of visionary Pedro Rodriguez, who moved to Forest Hills from Astoria with his wife in 2019, upon deciding to have a child. He later co-founded “Neighbors For A Safer Austin Street,” a grassroots organization that seeks to improve pedestrian safety, sustainability, overall pleasantness and the future of Austin Street. He is also a public member of Community Board (CB) 6’s Transportation Committee. “I try to provide a pedestrian perspective for all transportation discussions,” he said.
The group created an online petition to the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) via www.change.org/p/pedestrianize-austin-street-forest-hills-ny It calls for widening sidewalks, reducing pedestrian hazards by eliminating car congestion and honking, creating general outdoor seating areas, increasing businesses’ outdoor seating, creating safer pedestrian crossings and studying the potential for fully pedestrianizing segments of Austin Street.
According to NYPD Open Data, on Austin street between Yellowstone Boulevard and Ascan Avenue between January 2018 and November 2022, there were 71 crashes with 83 injuries, along with 50 being pedestrians or cyclists. “It is not safe from getting run over and there’s also an issue of honking, which increases heart disease, as well as exhaust and tire pollution, increasing chances of asthma,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez and his team have conducted much outreach, and on February 23, their efforts resulted in a unanimous vote from the CB 6 Transportation committee to request the DOT study. To date, 277 handwritten signatures have been collected from passersby on Austin Street, while the online petition garnered 390 signatures. They spoke to over 20 businesses and 10 businesses signed a letter of support so far. He explained, “I felt like I was the only one who felt this way before I launched this endeavor, and I’m happy to see that this is a popular idea. We’ve had support from people from all ages and walks of life.”
Rodriguez participated in citywide urbanist causes including the Riders Alliance’s push for more elevators in Queens, TA’s Queensboro Bridge project and the Broadway pedestrianization projects. Additionally, he and his wife traveled throughout Europe and in towns nationwide, noticing pedestrianized commercial areas.
His major influence for acting was also when his wife told him last summer that they would become parents. He asked himself, “What will his life be like?” He said, “It’s a walkable neighborhood and not uncommon to see older kids walking by themselves to school or even to shops. One day, my kid will be one of those kids and will go to Austin Street with his friends, and I want him to be safe.”
They were advised by other parents to avoid Austin Street, since pushing a stroller can pose a challenge. “We also heard from the elderly, who rather socialize in MacDonald Park than go into those crowded, narrow sidewalks,” he continued.
A main reason that they moved to Forest Hills was Austin Street’s appeal, but as the pandemic dwindled, congestion increased. “I want to restore that feeling my wife and I had when we first saw it, back when all we noticed was the Tudor-style architecture and cute, quaint little street packed with commerce. Now it is hard to look up and relax when you have to be constantly looking out for cars, mopeds, or even just people.”
As part of the plaza plan, he said, “We would love to work with Rego-Forest Preservation Council. Having more space dedicated to pedestrians would make space for plaques showing off the history of Forest Hills and Austin Street. I also want to see more Tudor facades preserved and designed.”
Rodriguez explained his urban planning vision, but admits that Neighbors For A Safer Austin Street is not comprised of traffic engineers. “We want the DOT to give the same amount of love to Austin Street that they seem to give to Manhattan, Brooklyn and western Queens,” he said. Agora Taverna had a productive dialogue. “The restaurant owner told us that in his hometown, there was a very similar street to Austin Street, which was also clogged with traffic, making the experience horrible. He mentioned that the mayor banned all motor vehicles, but permitted pedestrians and cyclists. He also told us that he also planted lots of trees. It worked, since the street became calm and more popular, causing businesses to thrive.”
Rodriguez pinpointed that the DOT confirmed this in last year’s “Streets For Recovery” study, where the more appealing an area is, the greater the desirability for visiting. “Although I would love to see something like what the Agora Taverna owner explained, I do not think it’s necessary to ban all car access from Austin Street, and I also do not think it is possible given the garages on and off Austin Street. DOT has shown on 34th Ave. in Jackson Heights that they can keep vehicle access, while essentially ending congestion. They disallowed through traffic, which means you can still enter, but can’t drive through it. This calmed traffic and opened lots of space for community use.” He envisions such a plan for Austin Street, which bears a similar configuration, since there are several small streets feeding into the thoroughfare.
The consensus is that residents and visitors recognize the need for a safer, neighborly and more appealing Austin Street, but they have varying visions for accomplishing that, in order to benefit pedestrians and small businesses.
Diane Lehrenbaum lives in Hollywood, Florida, but her sons reside locally. She believes that fewer cars would “lead to less frenzy.” As a former resident who traversed Austin Street as a parent with a stroller, a daughter with an elderly father and a busy pedestrian, she recalls much congestion. “Over 15 to 20 years, I also saw the local shops be replaced by big name stores and streets getting more crowded with cars and people. Whenever I go back to the old neighborhood, it seems like less and less of a neighborhood,” she said.
Eric Zolov, an over 10-year Forest Hills resident, submitted testimony to CB 6. “Having experienced the effect of pedestrian-only streets in other parts of the world and briefly during the ‘street fair days’ at home, the logic for businesses and the benefits for pedestrians and the community are incredibly obvious. The current traffic and safety of Austin Street are unsustainable,” said Zolov. He realizes that concrete issues would need to be resolved, such as access for deliveries, entrance points for pick-up/drop-off of people and the impact on traffic patterns in greater detail. “This should not distract from the imperative of transforming Austin Street into a vibrant, aesthetically attractive shopping thoroughfare,” he continued.
“I believe the city can do more to make Austin Street a more inviting downtown street for the community and create the conditions to increase foot traffic around shops and restaurants,” said Daniel Solow, a nearly two-year resident. He cited Fulton Mall in Downtown Brooklyn as an example of prioritizing pedestrian spaces. “Our street fair is definitive proof that Austin Street has sufficient demand to support this proposal,” he continued.
Chaya Sara of Forest Hills explained various concerns over pedestrianizing Austin Street. Her foremost reason is senior citizens, the disabled and others with medical conditions relying on Uber and family members driving them to shop. She explained, “It’s important to park in front of shops or nearby. Also, even if Access-A-Ride is permitted on Austin Street, there are many who don’t qualify. Many will not be able to walk to and from any parking garages.”
Sara also feels that a pedestrian plaza will contribute to further congestion on Queens Boulevard and side streets bordering Austin Street. “There will be lots of new traffic on streets close to any parking garages as well. Also, if the major concern is Austin Street’s congestion, the outdoor dining sheds can be removed.” To increase pedestrian space on sidewalks, she envisions regulations to prevent e-bikes from parking there.
Elyse Elkin, a resident since 1976, is also opposed to the proposal and referenced major concerns over an elder population that cannot walk long distances to parking lots, and attempting to walk along steep driveways is troubling. She continued, “Think about the small businesses that depend on customers. Not everyone is local. We have had enough businesses close and we don’t need an empty Austin Street.” She proposed making the street one-way and adding traffic lights to help pedestrians cross.
Michael Gluck is a longtime resident of Forest Hills and Rego Park, who recalls driving from Alderton Street to 1970s-era Austin Street, with his favorite mom and pop shops, including Dominic’s Barber Shop, Pinsky’s, The Homestead, Block & Falk for sandwiches and Peter Pan Bakery. “Turning Austin Street into a walking Mall will not increase business. Everyone who parks on Austin is patronizing a local business.” He wonders about a feasibility study to see how local businesses would be affected by a pedestrian mall.
Gluck echoed Elkin’s concerns, including revisiting the proposal from years ago to convert Austin Street into a one-way street. “This is a much better alternative to control vehicular traffic and conserve parking spots. Also, adding a couple crosswalks in strategic spots will reduce pedestrian hazards crossing the street. If residents want a pedestrian area, they should further explore approving the Queensway, which would improve the neighborhood, creating safe walking and bike paths,” he said.
Rodriguez does not want to see any more of the street’s small-town charm being lost. He explained, “Austin Street just isn’t working for anyone, as drivers hate it, pedestrians are endangered, bus users are stuck, and small businesses are closing, only to be replaced with smoke shops and medical facilities. Cars have also gotten bigger.” He asked, “Are we going to let one of the main attractions of our neighborhood decay away, or are we going to take many steps to finally fix Austin Street?”