Mayor Bill de Blasio spent last Wednesday night in Corona answering questions from residents about a variety of local and citywide issues, including protecting immigrants and creating affordable housing.
Right off the bat, residents asked the mayor about the Department of Transportation (DOT)’s plan to redesign 111th Street by adding bike lanes, taking away one lane of traffic on both sides of the thoroughfare and shortening pedestrian crossings. The proposal, first pitched in 2015, has been stalled by opponents in Community Board 4.
The mayor said the improvements have gone through a long process, but he was comfortable with overruling the board’s delays.
“The right thing to do is move ahead with our efforts to protect people on 111th Street,” he said. “This plan is ready to move, so we’re going to move it.”
CB4 voted two weeks ago to table the project, but the board’s role is advisory. The mayor has pushed through projects he felt were appropriate in the area, such as bike lanes along Queens Boulevard.
“What I’ve said about 111th Street, that’s a final decision,” he later added.
Transportation advocates cheered the announcement. Juan Restrepo, Queens organizer with the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, said he looked at the hundreds of people who packed IS 61’s auditorium as the mayor answered the question. Although some looked dissatisfied, many were happy about the decision, he said.
“There are people in this community, in this room, who came out and brought out supporters to see this happen,” he said. “The mayor listened to them. I think that’s very respectful.”
He added that Queens has the “least infrastructure” for biking safely compared to other boroughs like Brooklyn.
“Queens really lags behind, there honestly is so much that can be done,” he said. “There’s so much room for improvement for pedestrians and other road users.”
Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who moderated the town hall, later released a statement noting how hard the community worked for the safety improvements for three years.
“Mayor de Blasio’s announcement tonight that the implementation of Vision Zero on 111th Street will move forward is a victory for our community and will save lives,” Ferreras-Copeland said. “For too long, 111th Street has been dangerous and residents of Corona deserve a safe way to enter Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Now, a solution is on the way.”
The Department of Transportation will start implementing the changes this summer.
Many residents also asked questions about the federal government’s actions toward undocumented immigrants. De Blasio assured them that New York City will remain a sanctuary city, and that city officials will never ask for someone’s immigration status.
“New York is the ultimate city of immigrants in a country of immigrants,” he said. “We have to fight for today’s generation of immigrants and protect them.”
On the issue of affordable housing, one resident asked about the possibility of converting basement apartments into affordable units. The mayor noted that he used to live in a basement apartment in Astoria.
“That was my last bachelor pad,” he said with a chuckle.
Many basements can be “updated and rehabilitated” to fit all of the health and safety codes, the mayor said. But others “cannot be made safer” and are now being rented illegally.
While his administration hasn’t made a final decision on basement units, de Blasio said he needs to look at more exact numbers to see how it would work.
“I think it would be perfect for the city to be involved, whether it’s grants or loans, to bring those apartments up to code,” he said, “but on the condition that they be affordable housing.”
Other residents were concerned about the city’s growing homelessness crisis. Earlier this month, de Blasio announced a new plan to tackle homelessness by adding 90 more homeless shelters throughout the city.
The proposal will aim to align the number of shelters in a community with the amount of homelessness.
The mayor noted that Corona has too many shelters, so the city will close down two in the next few years.
“We will be able to, over the years, get out of some of the shelters, starting with two hotels that are in this district,” de Blasio said. “Our plan is to get out of those two hotels and stay out.”