CNU CITY SPOTLIGHT: Pedestrian Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens

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This post is part of a new series on the CNU Salons, CITY SPOTLIGHT. City Spotlight shines a light on the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.

The below post is a City Spotlight on the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens, NYC, and comes courtesy of longtime CNU member and assistant professor at Touro Law Center, Mike Lewyn.   

Jackson Heights is a neighborhood in Northwestern Queens, mostly built in the 1920s to take advantage of the extension of the New York subway to this part of Queens.  The community was initially planned as a “garden suburb” for middle- and upper-income commuters.  74th Street, one of the main streets of Jackson Heights, is dominated by shops appealing to the neighborhood’s large South Asian community (that is, people with roots in India. Pakistan and nearby nations).
Until 2011, the intersection of 73rd Street and 37th Road, near one of the neighborhood’s subway stops, was plagued with traffic and with traffic accidents.  New York City’s Department of Transportation sought to eliminate this problem by eliminating the traffic-  in particular, to create a one-block pedestrian plaza on 37th Road.
The mall has been quite controversial.  Although it has received some favorable press coverage (most notably on, newspaper coverage of the plaza has been quite critical.  Stories by neighborhood and citywide newspapers have emphasized merchants’ complaints that the plaza’s street furniture attracts panhandlers and drunks, and that the elimination of car traffic, bus traffic, and parking spaces deprived the merchants of customers.  I visited the plaza recently, and what I saw was somewhere in between those extremes: I saw a couple of down-and-outers, but many solid citizens; on the other hand, the plaza seemed to me to be slightly less busy than nearby commercial streets.

Why hasn’t the plaza been more successful?  What separates this plaza from successful pedestrian malls such as Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, or from the successful pedestrian islands near Manhattan’s Times Square? I can’t say for sure, but I do have a few possible explanations:

*Most pedestrian malls (both successful and otherwise) are in downtowns, creating a guaranteed source of visitors, at least during daytime office hours.  Others are in places that would be tourist destinations even in the absence of a pedestrian mall (e.g. Miami Beach, Times Square).  By contrast, Jackson Heights is just one middle-class area among many in Queens.

*Most pedestrian malls are at least a few blocks long, and thus have a critical mass of stores that might attract customers.  By contrast, the Jackson Heights plaza’s stores are merely a drop in the bucket of Jackson Heights commerce, so you wouldn’t go there unless you really wanted the “pedestrian mall” experience.

*Many pedestrian malls are in cities more car-dependent than New York.  I’m not sure whether this factor helps the Jackson Heights plaza.  Here’s why: in car-dependent Denver or Miami, a pedestrian mall is such a novelty that people may want to visit it to get an experience that they cannot get in most parts of the otherwise car-clogged city or region.  By contrast, in Jackson Heights less than ¼ of commuters drive alone to work, so walking is not such an exciting and unusual experience.  Moreover, the nearest commercial strip, 37th Avenue, is full of interesting South Asian-oriented businesses, so the pedestrian mall has lots of competition.

Another possible problem with the mall is its purpose.  Larger pedestrian malls are usually created in order to make a downtown busier and/or more walkable.  By contrast, much of the press coverage of the plaza suggests that the city was motivated in large part by congestion concerns- not always the wisest reason for an urban policy decision, since the city's desire to reduce congestion might not be completely consistent with its desire to bring commerce to a neighborhood. 

The city is trying to save the plaza by cleaning more regularly and installing security cameras. 

Photo: Photo: Marcus Woollen/Flickr, courtesy, Streetsblog



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