On Sept. 21, the third and last section of the High Line was opened to the public. The 1.45-mile linear park, built over an abandoned elevated railway in downtown Manhattan, is a major success with locals and tourists alike. It has become an emblematic example of recycling a neglected urban structure into something both beautiful and useful.
Across the East River, central Queens also has an abandoned railway track. It goes for 3.5 miles, from Rego Park to Ozone Park, passing through Forest Hills, Forest Park, Richmond Hill, and Woodhaven. The last train to travel the route was in 1962. The tracks and bridges are broken and rusty, and most parts of the line are covered with trees. So when a group of residents, inspired by their Manhattan neighbors, started a campaign to transform the track into a park—the QueensWay, a path aimed at both walkers and bikers—it seemed destined to be another public success.
Not with the Woodhaven community—or at least an important part of it. Woodhaven is a residential neighborhood with around 50,000 people living mostly in houses. Where others see a beautiful place to exercise and see nature, they see a highway for unwanted foot traffic that will dramatically disturb their way of life.
“We don’t need a park. We have a park right there,” said William Ortiz, who has lived on 98th Street for twenty-three years. He was referring to the Forest Park, which has roughly half the area of Central Park and sits at the northern border of Woodhaven. Ortiz is one of the 80 or so residents of the east side of 98th Street whose backyards abut the abandoned railway. His concerns are about privacy and safety. “All the riff-raff would be going through it.”
The safety issue was raised by many other residents, even some who don’t live by the tracks. “They’re gonna kill the neighborhood,” said George Griffin, who has lived in Woodhaven for thirty-five years, on the opposite side of 98th Street. “The park is gonna be dangerous for everybody here.” He wonders who is going to patrol the park during the night.
Juan Gavilanes, who has been a homeowner here for twenty years, said that before the accesses to the abandoned tracks were efficiently closed, it was a dangerous spot. And it could become again depending on the new accesses. He also added another concern (speaking in Spanish): “The house values—will they go up or down?”
At least the foot traffic generated by the park would be good for the local businesses? Not according to Maria Thomson, Executive Director of the Woodhaven Business Improvement District: “It’s not gonna add anything to the economic life of the community, because they’re not gonna come down from the QueensWay and shop on Jamaica Avenue.”
Thomson, who has had a leadership role in the Woodhaven community for more than 30 years, also contrasted her tranquil tree-lined neighborhood with the High Line’s urban surroundings: “The High Line in Manhattan is in an all concrete area, very little greenery. So it serves a purpose. Here in Woodhaven and QueensWay area, we have Forest Park right here. We don’t need a QueensWay.” She also joined the chorus of residents worried about safety and privacy.
These two issues, followed by real state prices, were the common concerns raised in interviews with a dozen residents. They were also the main worries found in a community survey led by Scott Larson, director of the Office of Community Studies at the Urban Studies Department at Queens College. The full results of the survey are expected to be released by the end of October.
Thomson and other Woodhaven locals support an alternative plan endorsed by assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) that tries to please different neighborhood needs. By this plan, the QueensWay would be divided in three sections. North of Woodhaven, it would be a park. South of Woodhaven, it would be a reactivated transit track, which would connect the subway with the Atlantic Avenue LIRR line, reducing South Queens residents’ transit time to Manhattan. And the Woodhaven portion would be left untouched.
The conversion of an abandoned railway into a park, or more specifically into a walking and biking path, is not a new idea. John Crompton, a professor at the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University, said the “rails-to-trails” projects became popular after the 1988 Transportation Bill. The trails, when bikes are allowed (which was not the case of the High Line), enter in the category of “enhancement programs,” and get 80% matching funds from federal government if the city puts up 20%.
Professor Crompton was not surprised by the disapproving voices in Woodhaven. “There are about seven or eight studies out there which have looked at this situation, and the situation is always the same. When you retrofit a trail such as this, and you put it through an existing neighborhood, there’ll be opposition.” And the concerns will generally be crime, privacy, and property values. He said the studies show that crime rates are not affected by the trails, and the property values tend to go only slightly up. “When you go back five years later, after the trail has been put up, and you ask residents if they are in favor of the trail, the answer generally is yes, they are ok with it. They are fearful of something that doesn’t happen.”
This fear of the unknown is at the root of the QueensWay opponents’ reaction, in the opinion of Tom Sexton, director of the Northeast Office for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that supports the creation of rail-to-trail projects. “It’s new, and if people haven’t been to a similar rail-trail, they may have some scenarios that just don’t fit with what we’re seeing throughout New York and through the U.S.”
Sexton said there is no evidence that trails promote crime or illicit behavior, and that there is more potential for such activity in unmanaged pieces of land, such as the rail line is now. Many trails, in fact, become the main streets of the communities. “I would only ask people to look at similar trails.” They would have plenty of options to choose from: Rails-to-Trails supports over 20,000 miles of trails—and 9,000 miles more are waiting to be built.
These 3.5 miles in debate here had a big push on Oct. 14, when the project leaders, Friends of the QueensWay and the Trust for Public Land (TPL), unveiled the results of The QueensWay Plan, a yearlong study funded by a $467,000 State grant. The plan was supported by a dozen community leaders and elected officials—though none of them representing Woodhaven.
Marc Matsil is the New York State director of TPL, a nonprofit organization that has aided the development and construction of more than thirty similar projects around the country. He emphasized that their group conducted a participatory design process, with the involvement of the communities along the QueensWay, and that they have addressed the Woodhaven residents’ issues.
“We know there’ll be a reduction in crime and illicit activity by virtue of that you have eyes on the QueensWay,” Matsil said, borrowing urban theorist Jane Jacobs’s concept of the “eyes on the street.” Matsil is sure that it will be a great improvement from the current situation: “The place is a trash heap now,” he said, “there’s needles, crack piles, tons of beer cans…” Adding some extra eyes, the QueensWay proposers plan to have PEP (police enforcement patrol) officers circulating in bikes along the path. The park is planned to close at dusk.
Susannah Drake, the principal of dlandstudio, the design firm selected to do the feasibility study for the trail, also stressed that everything in the plan for the park was done to reflect the community needs. She said that the privacy of the adjoining neighbors was carefully considered. There will be fences with vines in the houses’ backyards, addressing privacy and safety concerns. The different lanes for walkers and bikers will also help: “The bicyclists are on the space that’s closest to the houses, they’ll be moving fast and looking forward.”
The QueensWay leaders are trying hard to please the community. But if most of the opposition in Woodhaven is related to reasons common to similar projects elsewhere, at least one specific cultural trait is present here. Around fifty-percent of Woodhaven residents are Hispanic. Domengo Jimenez, one of them, said, speaking in Spanish: “We are culturally different from the Americans. The Americans like the outdoors. We’re not like that, we like to be at home.”
This Hispanic characteristic is supported by Nasar Ahmed, a professor of epidemiology at Florida International University who has done research on preventive health behavior. “Almost half of the Hispanic people are inactive.” They are the most inactive group when compared to whites, blacks, and Asians. But Professor Ahmed believes that if a park is created and advertised well, “People will walk,” he said. “People will do it.”
This may ring a bell with the ultimate judges of the QueensWay project, the parks commissioner, Mitch Silver, and the mayor, Bill de Blasio. When the mayor nominated Silver earlier in March, one main goal was “expanding access, sustainability, and public health initiatives” throughout the city’s parks.