Bringing farmers market to nabe a struggle
by Micki Steele
Oct 27, 2009 | 2364 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Forest Hills resident Marina Kubicek reads labels not only on packaged foods, but also on fresh fruits and vegetables. When she noticed one day that her local grocery only carries tomatoes from Holland, 3,700 miles away, she left tomato-less and very disappointed.

Kubicek, a married mother of two, says she’s “very aware” of the origin of the food she feeds her family and believes produce shipped long distances loses its nutritional content and increases carbon emissions. To her, getting local farmers to come to Forest Hills is a must.

“Not a single grocery store in Forest Hills had even Jersey tomatoes during tomato season,” she said.

Just when Kubicek and other local residents thought a farmers market would be scheduled on October 4 as a test, officials of the city’s open-air farmers market agency canceled the week before. Now the frustrated residents are hoping to continue talks with the agency, called Greenmarket, to establish an outpost in Forest Hills no later than next spring.

“Everyone’s dying for it here,” said Jennifer Oppenheimer, who works in Forest Hills.

Two years ago, a group of residents, including Kubicek, informally organized to appeal to Greenmarket to bring locally grown produce to their neighborhood. They circulated a petition and collected nearly 1,000 signatures.

Of the six Greenmarket sites in Queens, the nearest one in Atlas Park is too far to walk, Kubicek said. And almost half of all Forest Hills residents do not own a car, according to city-reported statistics.

The residents seemed one step closer to their goal when Leslie Brown, head of the local chamber of commerce, and Michael Hurwitz, director of Greenmarket, tentatively agreed to schedule the test market in late September. But that timing conflicted with a Jewish holiday, so October 4 was discussed as a way to expose the test market to a wide audience during the annual Forest Hills street fair.

Hurwitz had issues with the new date and the venue.

“A one-day event is not a [farmers] market and street fairs aren’t really the way to do a market,” he said.

Brown, however, had a different explanation for the test-market cancellation.

“They [Greenmarket] didn’t have enough time to get farmers together for the fair,” she said.

Hurwitz said the real problem is location. A new farmers market should be tested in an ideal spot and, to him, in Forest Hills that would be 70th Road between Queens Boulevard and Austin Street.

The west side of 70th Road is home to two retail businesses — Ann Taylor Loft and Blockbuster Video — and a five-story brick building. On the east side, restaurants offer cuisines ranging from Asian to Cuban to Mexican.

Greenmarket would like to use the west side of the street in front of the brick building, closer to Queens Boulevard, for local farmers. The market would not block the two retail businesses, Hurwitz said.

So far, the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce has refused to give its endorsement of this location. That’s because local business owners fear the farmers market will close off streets, block available parking spaces for their customers, and make it more difficult to walk along the strip, known as “Restaurant Row.”

“They pay taxes and rents and feel it’s going to cut into their business,” said Brown. “And landlords are not in favor of it, because they’re protecting their tenants.”

Several factors affect the choice of location, including community board approval of street closings and funding for sanitation and policing, Brown added.

Not giving up, the petitioners have suggested nearby McDonald Park as a compromise, but Hurwitz had issues with the park, as well.

Divided by chess tables and benches, the park is about a block-long and doesn’t offer the type of unbroken expanse required to stage a market with long, wide strolling lanes and ample space for farmers’ displays and equipment, he said.

Brown recommended a local schoolyard as another option. Greenmarket, however, hasn’t shown an interest.

“A schoolyard would get the approval of local business owners,” she said.

At least one resident said 70th Road would not have to be closed for the farmers market. James Voketaitis, who was instrumental in arranging one of the first meetings between Forest Hills residents and Greenmarket staffers, would like the chamber to resubmit the location proposal and explain to local restaurant owners that it wouldn’t hurt their business.

“Greenmarket is good for the community and once Mike [Hurwitz] has a chance to meet with business owners, I’m certain they’ll be able to work it out,” he said.

For now, Forest Hills will have to wait until planning begins for the spring season, but Greenmarket is a willing partner, Hurwitz said.

“Forest Hills absolutely should have a farmers market,” he said. “[To get the right location], it’s a matter of meeting the right people.”

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