The plan, which would remove spaces near the intersection of Skillman Avenue and several side streets in order to increase automobile visibility, would be devastating to stores on the street, say business owners who have complained that the amount of currently available parking is insufficient.
Skillman Avenue has a long history of traffic problems. As a wide street running parallel to Queens Boulevard, it has become something of an alternative route for drivers commuting to Manhattan via the Midtown Tunnel.
Its success as a small business district, with a number of specialty stores and restaurants, in a quiet neighborhood has also made it a popular destination for pedestrian shoppers and family outings, creating heavy sidewalk traffic in addition to the numerous cars that use the route.
Between 1995 and 2001, there were 11 accidents on Skillman Avenue, several of which have lead to pedestrian injuries. In response to these accidents, residents of Sunnyside formed the Safer Skillman Avenue Coalition to improve conditions on the busy street.
Since it was formed, the organization has successfully worked with Department of Transportation (DOT) to, among other initiatives, re-time the street’s traffic lights, effectively slowing the once excessively speedy traffic. The installation of bike lanes on Skillman Avenue has also narrowed the street, which has slowed traffic as well.
A 2008 study conducted by Transportation Alternatives at the behest of Safer Skillman Avenue Coalition recommended that, in addition to more traffic lights and speed bumps along the street, that a parking space should be removed from every side street as part of a “daylighting” procedure that would increase visibility at stop signs and allow for drivers to observe traffic on Skillman Avenue from a clearer vantage point and without obstructing cross-walks. Their requests for the street also include the creation of sidewalk extensions, angled parking, and bicycle lanes.
“In September, we conducted a petition of Skillman neighbors, 200 of which wanted daylighting,” said Angus Grieve-Smith, one of the leaders of the Safer Skillman Avenue Coalition. “We don’t want anything to happen to the business owners, and we don’t want to see them lose any revenue, but there are hundreds of children walking on Skillman.”
While many neighbors are hopeful that DOT will enact some or all of their requested improvements to the avenue, many business owners fear what the removal of parking spaces will mean for their businesses.
Gary O’Neil, co-owner of Aubergene Café, a popular Skillman Avenue coffee shop and the scene of one of the streets many recent accidents, explained that the parking situation is already difficult.
“Parking is paramount for our business,” he said. “I think Safer Skillman has done good work, but they don’t understand the unintended consequences of taking away parking spaces. Anybody that drives will tell you that parking is hard to find.”
“Trying to park is almost impossible,” added Luke Adams, president of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce. “We had an event at a restaurant on Skillman, and people had trouble coming. It is a problem, but we all want safety.”
O’Neil also expressed skepticism that opening up the parking spaces would make the street any safer. Many of the accidents on Skillman Avenue, he said, were caused by drivers racing through intersections to beat red lights or by drivers ignoring stop signs. “Even if that same driver has a better view of the stop sign, they won’t stop, and it won’t make the street any safer,” he argued. “The argument is flawed on the safety side.”
Grieve-Smith acknowledged that the business owners were reluctant to lose parking spaces.
“We don’t want to see anything happen to the business owners,” Grieve-Smith said. “We don’t want to see them lose any revenue.”
To that end, the group has refocused their efforts on Skillman Avenue, downplaying the need for daylighting and pushing solutions like extending sidewalks into the street.
“We want to have a broad coalition, and after reaching out to business owners on Skillman, we want to focus on other ways to improves safety,” Grieve-Smith added.
Grieve-Smith was eager to work with business owners on a better plan, but said that he could not discount the petition that specifically requested daylighting.
“We’ll see what the DOT has to say about the matter, and focus on other solutions until we can get a consensus,” he said.
At a recent meeting of Community Board 2, DOT Queens Borough Commissioner Maura McCarthy was asked about the possibility of removing parking space on streets intersecting with Skillman Avenue.
“We typically don’t remove parking spaces unless there is a site problem,” replied McCarthy.
She indicated that DOT would take a look at parking on the avenue, and also said that the street was on a waiting list for new muni-meters, which would increase the number of available parking spaces.