2017-05-10 / Front Page

LICP Welcomes EDC To Talk About Rail Yard Plan

By Thomas Cogan
The Long Island City Partnership welcomed the city’s Economic Development Corporation last week, so an EDC’s spokesman could explain parts of Sunnyside Yard and the Future of Western Queens, the study, some 200 pages long, that was issued in February.  It examines the possibility and feasibility of a project to develop the vast, empty space over the Sunnyside Yard as a residential, commercial or mixed-use area.  Speaking for the EDC was Tom McKnight, who began by saying that development of the space over the rail yard has been “thought about for generations” since it was opened in 1910. 

On a screen he showed an aerial photo of the yard in 1929 when, he said, it was surrounded by heavy industry.  In later years, heavy industry gave way to commercial business, and lately residential space has been added.  He said that at present, Long Island City is enduring “growing pains” that the right Sunnyside Yard project might alleviate.  Just what the right one is, or if any plan at all would be right, is the question.  The study, published in February, was launched in the summer of 2014, during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first year in office, and points to a few situations that must be considered before the first step in any direction can be taken.

 No doubt the most important consideration is the state of the rails, over which go Amtrak and Long Island Railroad trains, and the yard, where maintenance of stock and daytime parking of New Jersey Transit trains remain necessary.   “Given the intense level” of the railroad’s significance, McKnight said, rail dictates what is possible in any Sunnyside Yard project.  Of the yard’s total of180 acres, which looks rather whale-shaped on a map, Amtrak has air rights over the central portion, comprising 142.2 acres, while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has rights over a thin slice to the north and west of Amtrak’s territory, comprising 31.2 acres; and General Motors brings up the rear with rights over a 7.4-acre patch that looks like the whale’s next meal.  

“The feasibility of an overbuild at Sunnyside Yard is influenced by several factors that are in flux,” the study’s summary says, concluding that its findings “can aid the initial coordination between multiple ownership entities” that would allow platforms and subsequent construction to be done.  The situation is more easily described than realized, McKnight said, because the topography at track level is not as flat as one might assume and construction would be like “building over a bathtub.”  He said that railroad activity would restrict or prevent overbuild on 15 to 20 percent of the yard, but that would leave 80 to 85 percent as feasible.  The four bridges over the yard—at 39th Street, Honeywell Street, Queens Boulevard and Thomson Avenue—would be left alone.

As for what might be constructed, he presented what are called three test cases, entitled (1) Residential, (2) Live-Work-Play and (3) Destination.  All would include residences, offices and neighborhood commercial units; elementary and secondary schools and, in one case, higher education; and parking spaces and open spaces.  The Residential case was well-named, since it would have between 18,000 to 24,000 residential units, 5,400 to 7,200 of them classified as affordable.  In contrast, Live-Work-Play would have 14,000 to 19,000 units, 4,200 to 5,700 of them affordable; and Destination would have 16,500 to 22,000 units, 4,800 to 5,600 of them affordable. 

Only one, Live-Work-Play would have any office space at all.  Residential would have the greatest emphasis on schools:  between 13 and 19 of them, while each of the other two would have between 10 and 14.  Residential would also have the least number of parking spaces, between 2,400 and 3,300, while Live-Work-Play would have between 3,300 and 4,500; Destination between 3,800 and 5,300.  Floor area wouldn’t vary greatly, the least being 2,030 square feet, the most 2,880.  Open space would have some great contrasts, however:  Residential would vary from 38 to 52 acres, Destination from 31 to 42 acres; but Live-Work-Play would vary from 37 to a whopping 80 acres.

McKnight concluded by saying there would be a lot of engagement with nearby communities this summer.  A master plan is expected to follow this engagement, showing details of the projects to come, should there be any.  Mayor de Blasio made an announcement several months ago that a platformed-over Sunnyside Yard would be a wonderful opportunity for construction of affordable housing thereon.  He looked to the circulating assumption that New York would attain a population of nine million in the next 15 years.  With that, a lot of new housing would be needed and much of it would have to be affordable, and not merely market-rate, if these new New Yorkers were not all to be millionaires or billionaires, of domestic or foreign origin. 

The reaction at the time from those nearby communities concerning what the mayor envisioned was not unanimously favorable; some current residents believed it gave new meaning to castles in the air.  Such negativity is bound to be expressed anew when the EDC attempts to engage with the communities this summer, in keeping with its pledge. 

Nothing turbulent occurred at the LICP meeting, though neither was there enthusiastic approval of the three test cases outlined by McKnight.  Alan Suna of Silvercup Studios called the expanse of railroad tracks “a river” separating two sides of Long Island City—but rather than see builders attempt to unite them with a newly-created urban segment of high residential and business towers on the platforms, he suggested that a park be built, which he said would be a far larger park than any other in western Queens and would fill an obvious need.  It would be connected by at least one suspension bridge, which would be limited to pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Further news can be expected out of that promised engagement with the communities this summer.       


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