At 7 a.m. each morning, 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, transforms from a typical thoroughfare into something more.
Children walk to and from school in the middle of the street, as residents of the diverse neighborhood run, jog and bike past exercise and meditation classes taking up the spaces where car traffic used to be. Different blocks host weekly food and clothing donation centers, and, weather permitting, English language and school tutoring classes.
The avenue is the city’s largest Open Streets plaza, closed indefinitely to traffic for most of the day, and one of about 200 Open Streets areas around the city that cater to pedestrian access for a consistent portion of the week.
“It makes the neighborhood feel like a small town,” said Jim Burke, a co-founder of the 34th Ave Open Streets Coalition. “I have never met so many people in my life.”
Applications to designate an Open Streets area are now open — and just about anyone can apply. Here’s how to submit an application for Open Streets in your neighborhood.
Biking @34_ave from Junction Blvd to 69 St & passed lots of people biking & walking plus all the kids from IS 230 & @30Q398 taking full advantage of our #OpenStreets.— JimRockaway (@JimRockaway) January 9, 2023
Also passed an access a ride -so nice to see a passenger can board safely & without a line of cars honking. pic.twitter.com/F8FoLofNCD
What is an Open Streets area?
The city created the program in April 2020 as a way to encourage quarantine-weary New Yorkers to safely gather outdoors, without fear of car traffic. It was a hit, with many neighborhood groups, schools and business associations seeking designations to close off traffic for portions of the week.
The program ballooned to cover 83 total miles of streets in 2020 before shrinking considerably to about 20 miles last year, according to an analysis by the New York Times. (The city’s Department of Transportation, which administers the program, declined to provide a recent mileage total.)
Many small business owners have said that having an Open Street on their block was the determining factor in keeping their business afloat during the first year of the pandemic, according to a report released by the city. The DOT also sees the Open Streets program as a first step towards potentially redesigning the blocks permanently, creating eventual traffic-free zones.
Who can apply?
The majority of Open Streets applicants are schools — who can apply to close a block to traffic for drop-off and dismissal times — as well as neighborhood groups, nonprofits and business associations. Some larger organizations manage several Open Streets areas throughout the city.
Yet individual businesses, such as restaurants, and even small groups of residents can apply on their own.
“Our streets are our collective front yards,” Vincent Barone, a spokesperson for the DOT, said in an emailed statement. “We welcome community organizations, institutions, and business groups to apply for the 2023 season.”
All you need to do is fill out the application — just plan to have enough people in your group who can manage the Open Street. The DOT administers the program and selects winners from the applicants, but the sponsoring organization is responsible for setting up barricades, supporting programming and getting local residents and leaders on board.
How does the application work?
Applications are free, and are open now. If you want to launch your Open Street before June 30, you have to apply by the end of January, and if you can wait until July 1 or later, the deadline is April 14. (That’s also the deadline for any school applying for the 2023-2024 academic year.)
“They have made it a lot easier now,” Burke said of the process. “It’s really not that onerous.”
Applicants can seek one of two designations. Limited Local Access allows vehicle traffic, as well as parking, but cars and trucks must yield to pedestrians and cyclists. Full Closure prohibits any vehicle traffic, and restaurants can set up seating in the street. (Schools can apply for full-closure permits as well, with slightly different requirements.)
There are some limitations on where you can put an Open Streets area. Streets with bus routes or streets that see significant truck traffic may only be eligible for Open Streets access on weekends. Local emergency services providers, like fire departments and police precincts, can also veto an Open Streets designation if it interferes with their work.
Applicant groups need to submit a series of documents. The site plan must show how the Open Street will incorporate an emergency access lane, while the operations plan details who will manage putting up and taking down city-provided barriers and hauling away trash. Applications also require a budget and an outreach plan that describes how you plan to make residents aware of the Open Street and get them involved.
Perhaps the most important part of the application, however, are the three letters of recommendation that signal your plan has broad community support. Typically, Open Streets groups seek letters of support from local elected officials, groups like Business Improvement Districts or Community Boards, and nearby institutions like schools and places of worship.
What goes into managing an Open Street?
Different Open Streets require different levels of volunteering. 34th Avenue has a network of 147 volunteers, while some single-block Open Streets in Manhattan are run by small groups. Broad community buy-in can make the fundamental pieces of running an Open Street, like setting up barricades, much easier.
“The one feedback we've heard is about maintenance — it’s a very demanding feat,” said D’Shandi Coombs, a schools organizer at Transportation Alternatives. “You really need the school and community support to make it sustainable.”
The DOT has some resources to support Open Streets, and applicants can apply for grants to have the Horticultural Society of New York assist with adding planters and cleaning the blocks.
The key to the success of an Open Street, in Burke’s experience, is asking your neighbors what they want. If they want a class on urban gardening, or access to city services, or want classes with local artists, he said, program those in.
The 34th Avenue Open Street has held weekly running races for kids who just wanted a place to race, as well as weekly walks with health professionals, yoga classes and hula hooping.
“You want to ask people from your neighborhood what they want to do, because that’s what’s gonna be popular,” Burke said.