The Dark Side of Sunnyside Yard

Issue 247

Derek Ludovici Jun 5, 2019

If a New York City Economic Development Corporation proposal goes through, western Queens would become the site of a massive development eight times the size of the recently completed Hudson Yards.

Like Hudson Yards, the project would require building a deck over an active railyard: Sunnyside Yard, a 180-acre site owned mainly by Amtrak and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, now used for train storage, Long Island Railroad tracks, and Amtrak’s routes to Westchester County and New England.

The new neighborhood built on top of that deck could hold 14,000 to 24,000 new market-rate units, according to an EDC feasibility study completed in 2017. “The initial phase of market-rate residential development at Sunnyside Yard could reach current price levels observed in the Court Square/Queens Plaza submarkets,” the study said. Residential condominium sale prices, it added, are expected to be comparable to those on the Long Island City waterfront, “given the level of amenities and finishes expected.”

Another 4,200 to 7,200 apartments would be permanently “affordable,” in order to receive tax breaks and gain permission to build taller under the de Blasio administration’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing guidelines. What is “affordable” would be determined by the federal area median income for the metropolitan area, so those apartments could rent for more than what most city or neighborhood residents actually could afford.

As with the Amazon plan, local officials are becoming suspicious of the proposed mega-development.

The cost of building the deck is estimated at $16 to $19 billion, depending on what kind of structures are to be constructed on top of it. It would require reconfiguring the railyard, creating enough space between the tracks to build the deck supports. Larger towers would require additional planning, and it would cost more to anchor them to the deck or the ground below the platform.

Like the city and state effort to have Amazon build its satellite headquarters in Long Island City, the plan has drawn substantial opposition from area residents. The public meetings to discuss it have been very contentious.

Because building on the site would be so expensive, “the only thing that would support its cost and still be lucrative for developers and investors would be luxury housing and national and international businesses,” says Emily Sharpe, a resident of Sunnyside and founder of Stop Sunnyside Yards.

Many don’t believe the project will actually deliver affordable housing. “Units promised never materialize, or the federal guidelines for setting the income brackets are much higher than most people can afford here,” says Joanne, an elderly resident of Sunnyside who asked that only her first name be used. “We’ve tried [looking] before when the first buildings went up in Long Island City, and the income rates were ridiculous.”

Accessibility and transit will also be major issues. The deck will sit up to three stories above Sunnyside. Most accessibility points will be pedestrian stairways, with fewer ways in and out for vehicles. The EDC study also suggests building a new station for the #7 subway line and the LIRR.

Another concern of residents is the environmental impact. The federal and state Environmental Protection Agency has named Amtrak and the LIRR as “potentially responsible parties” for the nearby Newtown Creek Superfund site.

The EDC feasibility study also projected that the development would have 0.97 acres of public space such as parks per 1,000 residents, less than the city Environmental Quality Review target of 1.25 acres. It says that would be “equal to or above what is provided by other large-scale developments in New York City.”

Both the EDC and the lead consultant, Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, discount the feasibility study. “There is no plan for Sunnyside Yard — yet,” the project’s website says. “We are in the middle of an 18-month process to collectively develop a plan for the site and determine what would be built there over many decades.” The actual master plan, it goes on to say, will build “off the technical findings of the Feasibility Study” and take “a fresh look at the site in partnership with local and regional stakeholders to create affordable housing, open space, transportation, schools and more in Western Queens.”

Practice for Architecture founder Vishaan Chakrabarti, who headed the Department of City Planning’s Manhattan office during the Bloomberg administration, gave a similar answer to neighborhood residents at a public planning meeting March 26.

Emily Sharpe calls meetings like that, supposedly to get input from neighborhood residents and businesspeople, “a sham.” “The EDC or Department of City Planning meet with residents and ‘stakeholders’ multiple times over the course of a year or so and keep a tally, which they frequently tout, and intimate that that means approval of their plan by the community,” she explains.

“Are we going to be a pale imitation of Midtown East?” asks local historian and Astoria resident Mitch Waxman. “The problem we have is Manhattan. Manhattan does not present the solution. Manhattan is how we ended up in the situation we are in right now municipally.

“Part of the way that you get away with doing development projects in areas that you shouldn’t in north Brooklyn and western Queens” he adds, “is by creating a very narrow, almost looking-through-a-soda-straw view of the particular lot you want to build on, and you stop looking at things holistically in terms of transit, where the drainage and parts of the deck are going to go.”

As with the Amazon plan, local elected officials are also becoming suspicious of the proposed mega-development. “My issue is always the same, if they want to do this, they better explain to us first how the neighborhood is going to handle it,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris told residents April 6, in his mobile office at the Woodside Library. “How the trains are going to handle the people. Where the schools are going to be.”

“You are doing exactly what you need to be doing,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told project opponents at that meeting, “because you are right. What happens is that we’ll go out and take that bold stance and as we saw [with Amazon] what happens is people turn around and try to slam you with ‘This is wrong. Everybody disagrees with you.’ I feel very confident in our position, because we know the community organized against it.”

The surrounding communities are gearing up for what could be a long fight. “Even many homeowners feel that the predicted increases in home values will not be worth living in the towers’ shadows,” says Sharpe.

Photo: Emily Sharpe in Sunnyside. Credit: Leonardo March.