Last Thursday, members of Queens Neighborhoods United joined local residents, health care workers and political candidates to denounce the development. Standing in front of Elmhurst Hospital, they said the construction and addition of new residents and cars would make local streets more congested.
That could potentially lead to slower response times and ambulances getting stuck in traffic, endangering the lives of community members, advocates said.
Jomarie Cruz, a nurse who works in the labor and delivery department at Elmhurst Hospital, said her main concern is her patients. She noted that last year, the maternity ward delivered more than 3,000 babies.
“Some of these deliveries were the result of high-risk pregnancies,” she said. “When a woman goes into labor early, or if there’s a pregnancy-related emergency, the ability for her to get to the hospital and to get to the unit is a matter of life and death.”
Cruz also works with postpartum patients, many of whom have complications, such as pulmonary embolism or high-blood pressure, that require hospitalization immediately. She expressed fears that the proposed development will prevent that them from getting treatment quickly.
“The development, the way that it’s proposed, will delay access to her care,” she said. “For that, I think this is a really terrible idea for the community.”
Response times are already a challenge for many locals. East Elmhurst resident Leticia Ochoa recalled when her son suffered a recent seizure, which she called “the scariest thing” in her life.
Her son was sleeping on top of her when he woke up, started crying and then began shaking.
“His face turned white, and his lips turned purple,” she said. “He wasn’t responding, so I really thought he died in my arms.”
Even after she called 911, Ochoa said it took “awhile” for an ambulance to arrive because she lives by LaGuardia Airport, which is undergoing a massive reconstruction project. Ochoa said then getting to Elmhurst Hospital through local streets was “horrendous.”
“I was panicking and screaming and crying,” she said.
For Tammy Rose, the owner of two preschools in the area, local streets are already too congested. In the 16 years she has operated the schools, she has had three children sent to Elmhurst Hospital because of allergic reactions, including her own daughter.
Rose recalled being in the ambulance when her daughter needed care, and then getting stuck on Roosevelt Avenue. She said she fears that other young children will face similar issues should they need to go to the hospital.
“They’re in our care while the parents are at risk entrusting us to care for their loved ones,” she said. “In order to truly care for them, we have to have access to the health care we need.”
Two candidates seeking elected office in the area also spoke out against the rezoning, calling for the City Planning Commission and Councilman Francisco Moya to reject the proposal.
“We cannot be the kind of community that lets people die while stuck in traffic,” said Assembly candidate Catalina Cruz.
State Senate hopeful Jessica Ramos added that while Elmhurst Hospital is not in her district, residents in her district are served by the site. She said the 13th senatorial district has no hospital beds, which worsens health crises in the area.
“Now, we’re going to have to deal with congestion on both Baxter [Avenue] and 82nd Street in order to get to the hospital,” Ramos said.
The development at 40-31 82nd Street would bring 120 units of housing and a Target store at the site of the former Jackson Heights Cinema, which closed in 2014. Under the developer’s new plan, 42 units would be permanently affordable, including 24 apartments at 40 percent of the area median income (AMI).
The project has the support of both Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilman Francisco Moya, who negotiated with developers Sun Equity Partners and Heskel Group to deepen affordability.
Tania Mattos, a member of the activist group Queens Neighborhoods United, said the developers overlooked the $30 million expansion to Elmhurst Hospital’s emergency department that will increase the number of patients coming in.
Mattos, who lives on 81st Street, said she hears ambulances all the time, and sees just how much traffic there is on her one-way street.
“Imagine a hospital much bigger than this,” she said. “These developers did not consider this in their plan.”
She said the City Planning Commission and Moya have the ability to stop the development. Otherwise, she said, people’s lives are on the line.
“If Councilmember Moya is okay with having the lives of people on his hands, I don’t know what to say to him,” Mattos said.
In a statement, Moya said from the project’s inception, he’s had “serious concerns” over traffic issues that the development could cause. He said his office is already talking to Elmhurst Hospital and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to identify and mitigate traffic problems.
“I understand there are those who want to use this issue to get their names in print, but I have been talking about these issues for months,” he said, “not to politicize it, but to solve it.”
Moya also blasted Cruz, who helped publicize the rally last Thursday, for her role in the development before she began her run for office.
Cruz was the chief of staff for former Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who signed off on the project and allowed the Target to sign the lease, he said.
“It’s surprising to me how brazenly hypocritical her newfound activism is, given that she helped pave the road for the Shoppes at 82nd Street,” Moya said.