April 12, 2021 By Michael Dorgan
This year it will be different.
That was the message from officials at a virtual public meeting Wednesday who plan to make sure that there isn’t a repeat of the unruly activity that took place along the Long Island City waterfront last summer.
The meeting, which was organized by the non-profit Hunters Point Parks Conservancy, brought together elected officials, city and state park representatives as well as local law enforcement.
Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris spoke at the meeting, along with representatives for U.S. Congress Member Carolyn Maloney and Assembly Member Cathy Nolan.
Around 150 residents were on a Zoom call that lasted nearly two hours.
“What happened last year… was wholly unacceptable,” Gianaris said, referring to the late-night booze parties, illegal fireworks and dangerous drag racing that took place in the area.
“This is a neighborhood with a lot of families, a lot of young children and the kind of activity that was going on… cannot be allowed to happen again,” Gianaris said.
A record number of parkgoers visited the waterfront parks last year, according to the HPPC, with many discarding litter—leading to piles of trash. Food vendors also stayed open late to serve large crowds.
Detective Luis Diaz, who represented the NYPD 108th Precinct at the meeting, said that the entire force was overstretched last summer – given the outbreak of COVID-19 and civil unrest across the city. He assured residents that there would be more boots on the ground to tackle any problems like those that surfaced last year.
“Last year was a perfect storm with the pandemic and protests – we didn’t have enough police officers to address these issues and we apologize,” Diaz said. “But this year will be different.”
He said that Capt. Lavonda Wise, the NYPD 108th Precinct’s new commanding officer, has made Center Boulevard a policing priority.
Diaz said that the precinct is also changing the work hours of its officers—to ensure that more cops will be available on weekends.
He said there will be a greater “uniform presence” with a lot of NYPD auxiliary officers also on patrol this summer.
The precinct, he said, is also coordinating with NYS Parks Police, New York State Police and NYC Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) to enforce the 10 p.m. closing time at both parks.
Diaz, and other cops on the Zoom call, said the precinct is also working with these agencies to surveil the area and thwart any illegal activity—noting that the four agencies carried out several joint operations at the parks last year.
Officials with the NYS Parks Police and the Parks Enforcement Patrol, which is an arm of the NYC Parks Dept., said they would approve overtime hours for officers to work past midnight, if necessary, to bolster security at the parks. The officers typically work up until midnight.
NYS Parks Police oversees Gantry Plaza State Park, a state park, while PEP officers enforce park rules at Hunters Point South Park, a city park.
Queens Park Commissioner Michael Dockett said that anyone inside the parks after 10 p.m. is “technically trespassing.”
Diaz called on officials to improve the lighting at the parks, noting that it would discourage people from staying out past 10 p.m. and make it easier for the police to conduct operations if necessary.
“When we go in its dark, the lights have a nice ambiance but tactically we are at a disadvantage,” Diaz said.
The DOT, a city agency that is in charge of pedestrian lighting at Hunters Point South Park, said it would work with the NYC Parks Dept. to try and make improvements to the lighting.
Significant portions of Gantry Plaza State Park are dark at night because of faulty wiring and NYS Parks, which is responsible for the lights at that park, says its planning to fix them.
The precinct, in responding to a question about preventing fireworks, said that its officers will issue summonses but noted that often when they arrive on the scene the suspects have fled.
The 108th Precinct, the officers said, has been busy carrying out operations in the area over the past few months to curtail vehicle meet-ups and drag racing – which was commonplace at the parks last year.
The officers said that two weeks ago cops came across a group consisting of around 60 cars at 30th Street and Hunters Point Avenue, which is about a mile away from the waterfront.
They issued a driver—who was playing loud music—with a summons and confiscated his speakers. They said that similar operations are being conducted along the waterfront and will remain in place throughout the summer.
The precinct, the officers said, has also been arresting people in the area for reckless driving and issuing summonses.
Van Bramer said that the drag racing and dangerous driving in the neighborhood is a major issue.
“These are very real quality of life and safety concerns and they must be addressed,” Van Bramer said, adding that his office has put forward several traffic-calming proposals to the DOT to tackle the issue.
“We have asked DOT over several years to take very simple and important steps that could and would reduce the speeding and all but eliminate drag racing and make Center Boulevard, 2nd Street and Borden Avenue much safer,” Van Bramer said.
“They have not done so, that is a dereliction of duty on the part of the DOT.”
Van Bramer did not specify at the meeting what types of measures his office has proposed, although he has called for stoplights, speed bumps and other safety devices to be installed along Center Boulevard in the past.
NYC DOT Queens Borough Commissioner Nicole Garcia said that implementing new traffic calming measures is not a straightforward task and that the agency must abide by state and federal regulations.
Speed bumps, she said, can only be put down on a road with a single lane of traffic. Center Boulevard, for example, has two lanes, each going in opposite directions.
Garcia said that curb cuts, as well as vehicular traffic volumes, must also be taken into consideration before installing new traffic calming measures.
“We want to install speed bumps wherever we can but there is a math and a science behind it,” she said, noting the same considerations must be taken into account before putting up stop signs.
She said that another problem with speed bumps is that they can damage heavy vehicles like trucks and buses.
The DOT, she said, will consider requesting exemptions to the regulations and will also look at putting down wider speed bumps with gaps through them as an alternative. These bumps would not impede heavy vehicles, she said.
The DOT, Garcia said, explored installing speed bumps for the southern section of Center Boulevard in late 2019 and its analysis showed that vehicles were adhering to the 25 mph speed limit.
Garcia said that the situation may have changed and the agency is open to reassessing the situation – adding that COVID-19 caused a backlog in DOT projects last year.
The precinct said it is considering closing off 2nd Street and 54th Avenue during the summer to curtail drag racing, a strategy implemented last year.
The DOT, Garcia said, has also received requests to put down painted crosswalks on Center Boulevard in front of the gantries to temper speeding and make the section more pedestrian-friendly. She said the crosswalks are not practical there because the markings would easily lift off the concrete pavers.
Another big issue that sparked controversy last year was the influx of food vendors along Center Boulevard.
Up to 20 food vendors were typically lined up along Center Boulevard on weekends with some double-parked, residents said.
Some vendors operated late into the night – since they have no set closing time – which attracted more people to the area, residents said.
The 108th Precinct said that it has issued parking violations to some vendors for double parking but noted that the Dept. of Health is responsible for vendor operating hours. There was no representative from the DOH on the call.
Residents also said that the high number of vendors contributed to an uptick in litter problems at the parks. The litter situation did improve as the summer went on, thanks, in part, to several new BigBelly trash cans that were put down at Hunters Point South Park.
Meanwhile, Dockett said extra staff would likely be deployed to clean Hunters Point South Park under a new city-wide hiring initiative. The project, announced last week, will see the city employ 10,000 workers to clean city parks and remove graffiti. Dockett said it was too early to say how many workers would be assigned to Hunters Point South Park as part of the program.
Rob Basch, president of the HPPC, said that the meeting was an encouraging step in fixing the quality-of-life problems.
“It was a really good showing and all the stakeholders are aware of the issues so hopefully we will have a much calmer summer,” he said.
Correction: The 108 Precinct was represented by Detective Luis Diaz. An earlier version incorrectly said P.O. Andrew Diaz.