National News

A Troubled Bridge Over a Queens Neighborhood

Posted February 24, 2018 12:14 a.m. EST

NEW YORK — Every few minutes, Nathalie Reid’s health food store in Kew Gardens, Queens, gives a shudder with bottles of kombucha and boxes of Ezekiel cereal rattling on their shelves as Long Island Rail Road trains pass below. She had paid the shaking little mind even as it seemed to grow worse every year — after all, her shop is one of 12 built along a roughly 100-year-old train overpass that is the de facto main street of this Tudor pocket of Queens.

Then she found the hole that had opened up in her storeroom.

“You could see the train tracks below,” Reid said, standing between boxes of organic soap in the back of her store, Thyme Natural Market, and on the spot where workmen had laid a plywood patch over the 1-square-foot hole after it appeared a few years ago. “Through the floor in my shop!”

The bridge over the railroad tracks is Queens’ rickety answer to the store-packed Ponte Vecchio in Florence. It doubles as the hub of the bedroom community, with restaurants and stores on either side of the crossing. But it is also a crumbling mess, in dire need of drastic repairs, according to the agency that owns it, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. To the dismay of the tight-knit neighborhood, the MTA says the best way to fix it is to tear the bridge down as well as the shops.

Now, the community is scrambling to find other answers before 2020, when the leases of all the business on the bridge expire. The MTA said it will not permit the leases to be renewed while it makes plans for the bridge’s fate.

One suggestion from the neighborhood has been to stave off demolition by building a new bridge underneath the existing span to prop it up. The agency has offered a glimmer of hope, saying it would consider other options for the dilapidated bridge if a study were produced outlining the feasibility of alternatives. But the MTA has said it is unable to pay for such a study, which it estimates would cost $1 million. State and local lawmakers who represent the area have said they will push to fund the study.

“The platforms are approximately 90 years old and are nearing the end of their useful lives,” said Jon Weinstein, a spokesman for the MTA. “We’re committed to working with the community to ensure the best outcome for this location.”

This is not the first time the bridge has come under threat since it was erected in the 1920s. Though the MTA owns the structure, a lease agreement allows an outside company to manage the buildings on the bridge and sublet spaces to retailers. In the early 1990s, the bridge was in crisis after the management company at the time let it fall into disrepair, which drove out some businesses.

Then, as now, there were fears that the transit agency would give up on the bridge and its potentially costly rehabilitation and sell it to a developer. Then, as now, the community feared that it would be replaced by a structure that would be jarring to the neighborhood, like the Park Lane, a large apartment complex that straddles the railroad tracks. Though it dates to the ‘60s, the Park Lane is still spoken of like an evil invader that has diminished the village-like feel of the area.

“If the center of the village turns into a high-rise development that is out of scale architecturally, that’s out of character and out of the typical economic profile of the neighborhood, that’s how you destroy a neighborhood,” said Tia Keenan, a cookbook author who lives near the foot of the railroad bridge. “If it’s any of those things we’ve lost a community.”

The bridge’s buildings are now overseen by Zee N Kay management, a Long Island-based company that took over in 2010. Residents say that in 2018, the history of the ‘90s is repeating itself: about a third of the storefronts are again empty. Out-of-business signs hang in the window of a grocer and a jeweler, their closing prompted by the possible demolition as well as by poor maintenance, according to Sylvia Hack, a local resident and activist.

“These stores have provided income to the MTA for 93 years, they have collected money for 93 years, what happened here?” Hack asked, standing in Thyme market on a recent afternoon. “Where was the money? Did anything get reinvested?”

Hack is among a number of local residents who believe the lack of upkeep was intentional, designed to drive out businesses and pave the way for pulling down or selling off the bridge to a developer.

The MTA said her theory is wrong. “We completely reject this notion,” Weinstein said.

Kunal Kapoor, a co-owner of Zee N Kay Management, said his company’s agreement with the Long Island Rail Road, which is part of the MTA, specifically prohibits him from making repairs to the bridge itself — only the shops. His company’s hands were tied, he said, as “chunks of concrete fell from the underside.”

“The MTA has never provided evidence that there is no other way” out of the situation than razing the bridge, Kapoor said. “It seems like the railroad is just trying to get out of something.”

On a recent afternoon, Murray Berger, 93, made his way beneath the bridge along the railroad platform to show a reporter the pocked underside, the rusting bits of exposed rebar and the visible hole into the health food store above.

The town had long ago stopped being afraid of the bridge’s disrepair, he said, and was almost running out of hope for its future. “We are conditioned to it,” he said later. “We are conditioned to being neglected.”