Plaza in Jackson Heights Causing Controversy One Year On

A year after the city pedestrianized parts of 37th Road in Jackson Heights, local South Asian businesses are split over the move. Some say the plaza has spelt financial disaster, while others rave about the new business opportunities it has created.

The city’s Department of Transportation installed the plaza last September, following an 18-month transportation study for Jackson Heights. With the approval of Community Board 3, it created the pedestrianized block on 37th Road between 73rd and 74th Streets.

Bangladeshi businessman Anwar Rahman, who works at the Queens of Sheba Candy Store along 37th Road, protested the creation of the pedestrian-friendly space last year.

His opinion hasn’t softened with time.

“Business has gone down by 60 percent since the plaza,” said Rahman. “It’s been very bad. People are just sitting down. They are not buying anything.”

Rahman is not the only one to see his business plummet. Bhatia Attinderjit, the Indian owner of Jessi Emporium, proudly showed off his brilliant array of saris. One mention of the plaza, however, and Attinderjit’s smile fades.

“Everyone knew it was going to be bad for business,” he said. “I’ve seen my revenue decrease by 30 to 40 percent now. It is gradually getting worse.”

Some businesses, however, have not seen a net loss. Suresh Ghandi, owner of an Indian travel agency along the plaza, said that his revenue remained steady after the block was transformed.

For some businesses, one of the main complaints is that the plaza has become a haven for the homeless. For Ghandi this has proved to be its biggest draw.

“The best thing is that the homeless people used to sleep right outside my shop,” he said. “Now they sleep across the road outside of the other stores or use the plaza chairs!”

Other businesses are not so amused. Bangladeshi-born Abjall Miah, who works for the Jackson Heights Music Center, said the gathering homeless has made his life miserable.

“All the bums sit in the chairs,” said Miah. “Every week we have to call the cops three or four times to deal with the homeless and the drunks.”

The plaza has long generated controversy. When it was first proposed, some local businesses questioned whether the location was the right one.

“In the beginning we wanted it to be moved to the next block because we thought that would be better for those coming by car, especially for people coming from outside the area who find the roads confusing,” said Mohammad Pier, president of the Jackson Heights Bangladeshi Business Association. “But now most of our members are happy with the plaza. We need it to make the area a nice one.”

The issue of parking and whether pedestrianizing this block has eased problems is still unresolved in the minds of some shoppers and business owners. According to shopper Muhammad Malik, people regularly used to double-park, causing a nuisance.

Miah, however, disputes this. He said it was a thriving shopping area and now there are no parking spaces for customers.

“People will drive around for an hour and 30 minutes trying to find a spot,” he said. “It has got worse in nine months.”

Attinderjit added that families no longer visit the area anymore. “All it is now is a place where people hang out,” he said. “They don’t shop. It’s just full of people with beers in hand.”

People may not seem to be using the tables outside to have a break from shopping or eat from the South Asian cafes but inside the Jackson Heights Food Court, in the plaza on 37 road, business appears to be booming.

Razi Ahmed, the manager of the Jackson Heights Food Court, held the grand opening of the restaurant two weeks ago. Originally a skeptic of the plaza, he has since changed his mind.

“People were confused about the plaza,” said Ahmed. “It was a mess. Most businesses were against it. We spoke to all the politicians. We protested against it but eventually decided that it would be better to go along with it.”

Ahmed said that 37 local South Asian businessmen changed their stance on the plaza in August this year and formed a group supporting it called SUKHI, or “Social Uplift Knowledge and Hopes Initiative.” He thinks that it has been good for the community and hopes to have a patio outside his restaurant with his own table and chairs. He said that without the plaza, this would not be possible.

Ahmed has reason to be happy. The restaurant is full and there is a relaxed atmosphere.

On a recent afternoon, the take-out business was also brisk, with many people leaving with large brown paper bags filled high.

According to local business representatives Ahmed and Pier, the plaza will undergo further improvements to make it a more attractive outdoor space. Pier concedes that concerns over the increase in homeless people may be valid but said his organization has taken steps to address this.

“We spoke to the police and they have said that, wherever there’s a problem, businesses should call them and they will come and take care of it,” he said. “But anywhere there’s a park area you will get homeless people. They have every right to sit there!”

City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who had supported the plaza from the outset, joined forces with SUKHI and the Jackson Heights Bangladeshi Business Association in August, as they signaled their determination to make the plaza work.

Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights, acknowledged the need for cooperation.

“If these stores were empty, that would be the worst thing in the world that could happen to this area,” he said. “So we want to support the businesses. We want to work together with the residents and we want to try to make people as happy as they can possibly be.”

But, as Pier conceded, this may prove difficult.

“Most businesses now agree we need a plaza,” he said. “But there will always be some people you can’t make happy.”

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