After two years of meetings and behind-the-scenes intrigue over a plan to redesign 111th Street in Corona, Queens, Community Board 4 punted on Tuesday night, saying it needed more time to think about it. While the mayor decides whether to move ahead with this Vision Zero project, the bigger question is what power, if any, community board appointees should have over top city priorities like street safety.
The proposal to add a protected bike lane, pedestrian space, and parking — but not crosswalks, which were removed in a compromise revealed last October — has had more than its share of racism, activism and political maneuvering before Tuesday’s vote.
Just hours before the vote, the mayor donned an orange construction jacket at a press conference to tout his administration’s commitment to redesign streets as part of his Vision Zero goal to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2023.
“Everything we’re doing is to protect life,” he said. “We have to do things very differently. So we understood that Vision Zero had to be aggressive.”
But it’s precisely the de Blasio administration’s lack of aggression with community boards that has frustrated street safety advocates. “It’s really political cowardice to devolve these safety decisions to local power brokers,” says Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “Petty local politics should not intervene in these kinds of important safety considerations.”
City law requires the Department of Transportation to notify community boards about major street redesigns. Instead of just giving notification, the DOT usually seeks community board approval before moving forward, unless the mayor decides on rare occasions to override the board.
Community boards came about in the 1960s and 70s in reaction to centralized planning that did not give enough voice to local concerns. Their volunteer members, appointed by council members and borough presidents, lack official power and don’t have much of a budget — but they can wield real influence.
“They’re strictly advisory, but when the blowback from community boards is so strong, they can stop an agency from doing something,” says Hunter College urban planning professor Tom Angotti. “They are powerless actors acting like powerless actors, by undermining whatever proposal the city puts forth.”
It’s this often-oppositional nature that frustrates advocates, who claim that without major reforms, community boards have outlived much of their usefulness. “They exist to check that centralized, technocratic method that build the Cross Bronx Expressway,” White says. “But we’re not talking about pushing expressways through neighborhoods. We’re talking about proven ways to improve safety on the streets.”
The plan to redesign 111th Street has the support of the local council member, along with a coalition of local residents and organizations, including Transportation Alternatives. But it’s stalled for years at the community board, where a politically-connected board member has enlisted the help of the local assemblyman and another board veteran claimed that bike lanes would not be necessary in the neighborhood after President Donald Trump removes all the illegal immigrants.
“The group that’s making decisions there is unrepresentative of that community, and unrepresentative definitely of Queens,” says Pratt Institute urban planning professor Ron Shiffman. “Somewhere along the line, one has to make a decision, and that decision shouldn’t be solely in the community board’s hands.”
On the other hand, Shiffman says, city agencies can do a better job of planning and soliciting input from community boards in advance, so projects don’t run aground as soon as they’re proposed. “What a difference that would have made,” he says. “It’s a two way street. You’ll find that people would be much more engaged in thinking about these issues, and you would find a larger share of the community board interested in progressive changes.”
But a back-and-forth with local elected officials and community boards takes its toll, eating up staff time that could be spent on other initiatives. “All the transactions that occurring with these projects are very costly for the DOT,” White says. “It really makes implementation expensive when they are treated on a case-by-case basis like this.”
At yesterday’s press conference, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said her agency is moving quickly enough. “I’m proud of our pace,” she said. “We are doing projects at a pace that is pretty unprecedented.”
But if the mayor actually believes that Vision Zero is a life-or-death issue, White says, he has to figure out a different way to move projects forward, instead of waiting for community boards to give their imprimatur. Safer street design should be treated as the default, he says, not as experiments needing community board approval.
“We’re fast approaching, I think, a shift in how these street redesigns are perceived and how they are governed… Heralding a new policy that street redesigns like this will be implemented as a matter of policy would be a big step,” White says. “Hopefully we’re getting very near that place. Perhaps that would be the most important legacy of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero policy.”
In the meantime, the mayor’s office is silent about whether it will move ahead with the 111th Street redesign or bow to the community board. For her part, the local council member continues to push for the project.
“The experts at the Department of Transportation have done extensive studies and outreach,” Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland said in a statement. “We cannot wait any longer. I urge Mayor de Blasio to move forward with the Vision Zero plan for 111th Street immediately.”
A DOT spokesperson said only that the agency “will report back on next steps soon.”