For the residents in Kew Gardens, Queens, their neighborhood’s three-decades-long existential crisis is coming to an end.
A rickety bridge crosses the heart of the hamlet, packed Ponte Vecchio-style with quaint shops on either side. And for more than 30 years, the nearly century-old bridge has been crumbling, even as residents rallied endlessly to save their de facto Main Street and as city agencies mulled razing the structure.
On Wednesday, the Lefferts Boulevard bridge, with its health food shop, pharmacy and Art Deco movie theater, received a stay of execution of sorts. The Long Island Rail Road, an agency of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that owns the bridge above the tracks, announced that it would use $1 million that a City Council member secured to repair and buttress two iron platforms that prop up the bridge.
And just in time, residents say: The bridge is so dilapidated that a few years ago, a hole opened up the floor of one of the shops upon it, affording a view down to the tracks.
“The L.I.R.R. is an integral component of Queens and we understand the importance of these businesses to the character of Kew Gardens. So we wanted to re-evaluate all options,” Phil Eng, the president of the railroad, said in a statement announcing the repairs. This move is a reversal from the M.T.A.’s long-held position that demolishing the bridge might be the best solution. That official view had begun to shift in recent years after prolonged outcry from many in the tight-knit bedroom community who believe that with the Lefferts Boulevard bridge goes Kew Gardens’ soul.
Earlier this year, the agency asked Kew Gardens to come up with $1 million to fund a feasibility study on what to do. Instead, the railroad will now use the money obtained by Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, a Democrat who represents the area, to repair the bridge.
Demolishing and replacing the bridge “would have changed the character of Kew Gardens, and we would have ceased to be the urban village that we’ve been,” said Murray Berger, 94, one of the many residents who has led the charge to preserve the bridge. On Wednesday evening, Mr. Berger and his neighbors toasted the planned repairs with sparkling apple cider in his living room. “The bridge and the architecture of the stores, the Art Deco, the entire surroundings, helps create Kew Gardens,” he said.
But he was quick to point out that the problems are not yet all resolved: While the platforms will be repaired, the outdated superstructure the shops are built on is managed by an outside company that the M.T.A. has contracted. The M.T.A. says that the master leaseholder would be responsible for those repairs, which will cost millions of dollars. In addition, when demolition was on the table, the M.T.A. would not permit the master lease to be renewed when it expires in March 2020, driving out several businesses. Now, according to a spokesman for the M.T.A., the lease could be potentially renewed or bid for by a new management company.
Kunal Kapoor, a co-owner of Zee N Kay Management, which currently holds the master lease, said his company would be interested in renewing. His license agreement with the transportation agency states that the master leaseholder is responsible for repairs to the shops, but not the bridge components. “We think the community deserves to have these stores,” said Mr. Kapoor, adding that he believes his company has been unfairly blamed for the bridge’s condition. “My family and my company, we are very, very happy,” he said. “We look forward to better serving the community for many years to come.”
Muhammed Arif has owned a shop on the bridge for 41 years. He had been bracing to close his current business, Reo Chemists, in two years, when his lease is scheduled to expire. “All of us were very depressed, and we didn’t know what to do after 2020,” he said. “I have a pharmacy for so many years, and I have customers who come here and depend on me; I have served them three to four generations already.”
Mr. Arif said the news that the bridge would be repaired was a relief to him and the community, which had feared that the loss of the crossing would have paved the way for a high-rise to be built over the tracks, a move that has happened in surrounding neighborhoods. “It was like a relief that we are going to stay here,” Mr. Arif said. “I am in this neighborhood 40 years. I want to retire here.”
The repairs to the platforms should extend the bridge’s life for anther 30 years, according to the M.T.A. “Kew Gardens is saved,” Mr. Berger said. “It’s saved for the time being.”
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