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Inside Sunnyside Yards, New York City's Next Megaproject

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The Sunnyside Yards in Queens, the site of two new development proposals, is home to a complicated overlap of trains and neighborhoods. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger visits the in-the-news Sunnyside Yards.

In the past few weeks, the Sunnyside Yards has received an inordinate amount of attention from politicians and press, after being referenced as a possible development site for future megaprojects. Described as "a giant bowl of spaghetti," this vast Queens train yard was included as one of the central proposals in Mayor Bill de Blasio's State of the City address, where he called for a platform to be built over the yards holding 11,250 new affordable apartments. Not to be outdone, Governor Cuomo soon responded by giving support to a different proposal for a new convention center above the tracks. Based on their enthusiasm for these projects, it remains doubtful that either politician has personally explored the entire complicated reality of this 180-acre rail yard.

A circumnavigation of the Sunnyside Yards on foot reveals how huge and complex any plan to build above it would be. Almost two miles long, the perimeter of the yard is surrounded by elaborate fences and intersected by numerous bridges, but its day-to-day operations are largely hidden from public view. What few vantage points there are show a multi-layered system where LIRR, NJ Transit, Amtrak and MTA trains wind and weave above and below ground, enmeshed in a web of power lines and ancillary tracks. Meanwhile, an equally diverse array of neighborhoods borders the edges of the yard, ranging from the post-industrial side streets of Long Island City to the still-industrial warehouses of Sunnyside and the charming residences of the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District.

Walking through this convoluted landscape, it becomes clear that any local pressure to develop on top of the Sunnyside Yards is largely coming from its northwest boundary, where the creeping tide of luxury towers has swept aside industry in Long Island City and reached the very edges of the tracks. In the narrow strip of land between Jackson Avenue and the yards, cranes and construction dominate the skyline, as century-old warehouses are demolished to make way for new residential behemoths. West Chemical and 5 Pointz have now been completely destroyed, Eagle Electric is being gutted and renovated, and several new glass boxes now loom over the yards. The potential creation of up to 28 million square feet of "new" land in the backyard of these projects would doubtlessly benefit some developers enormously.

Residents living in other neighborhoods near the yards do not share the same enthusiasm for these proposals. "It's madness, absolute madness," said Mitch Waxman, a Queens historian who lives two blocks away from the tracks in Astoria. "About every 20 years or so this plan resurfaces," said Waxman. "It is an environmental disaster in the making." The Sunnyside Yards is a New York State Superfund site built on layers of toxic pollution, and currently lacks basic sewage infrastructure. Local politicians have raised concerns that building up to 80,000 new residences in this area would severely burden an already overextended neighborhood. "You are talking about an area that is already a State Superfund site, an area that is a block away from the Newtown Creek Superfund site, and this project would make the area even worse," said Waxman. "How in any way would this be good for Queens?" 

Building over train tracks and train yards for development projects is not a new idea for New York City, and there is no doubt that, given enough time and money, engineers could create a platform above the Sunnyside Yards to support any number of different uses. Riverside Park was built by Robert Moses above covered tracks, a large swath of Midtown Manhattan was erected on a platform over the Grand Central train yards and developers are currently remaking 28 acres of below-grade tracks at the Hudson Yards.  But the cost of decking over a yard as expansive as Sunnyside would be exorbitant, not to mention the immeasurable environmental and social impacts of a decades-long construction project. 

A more interesting antecedent to the Sunnyside Yards redevelopment proposals can be found buried in the snow near the yards' southwest corner, at the Smiling Hogshead Ranch. Utilizing a small spur of unused MTA train tracks that were once overgrown with weeds, this community farm will celebrate its fourth anniversary in March. Though its footprint is just 1.5 acres in total, the organizers of this project take a much larger view of how their various programs—including composting, farming, biodiversity and bioremeditation—can impact the surrounding neighborhood. "We're centered around a community garden," said co-founder Gil Lopez, "but we're into the democratization of urban spaces. We want people to realize that we don't need big institutions and government to allow us to better our communities. We can just do it ourselves." Asked about the proposals for the Sunnyside Yards, located just across the street, Lopez succinctly replied: "I think that can be used for something with a higher purpose."

The western half of the Sunnyside Yards, as viewed from Queens Boulevard, is located at the nexus of Long Island City, Hunters Point, Dutch Kills and Sunnyside

The rapid development of Long Island City's eastern edge has expanded to the very borders of the train yard, with new residential towers overlooking passing trains.

A variety of fences and barriers surround the perimeter of the yards. Some are in better condition than others. Public access is mainly limited to several bridges that cross above the tracks.

One of the few public entry points to the yards is at the Hunterspoint Avenue stop on the LIRR, where trains continue on to Jamaica, Queens. 

Amtrak and NJ Transit trains enter the yards nearby, from a series of tunnels traveling under the East River, while some LIRR trains enter from a stop further west in Long Island City. 

An alternate use of the track system can be found at the nearby Smiling Hogshead Ranch, which offers one of the only open spaces immediately adjacent to the Sunnyside Yards. In the winter, it is a quiet oasis, providing respite from the whirling array of trains, cranes and trucks.

This non-profit was started as a clandestine project without official permission from the city, according to Gil Lopez, but now has a garden license agreement with the MTA. It organized over 50 events last year, including neighborhood cleanups and volunteer work weekends. 

In Long Island City, on the opposite side of the Sunnyside Yards, the demolition of Court Square's industrial spaces continues unabated. Many streets in this neighborhood dead-end into the yards. 

Workers on Purves Street are currently tearing down a two story warehouse, while several new residential towers go up on the opposite side of the street. These new buildings will look out over the constantly active train yard. 

Train tracks here were built into the backyard of industrial warehouses. Many factories made use of train spurs here, including West Chemical, which had a loading dock behind its property. 

Several bridges cross over the train yards, but few vistas are available of its daily operations. Chainlink fences and metal barricades block the public view. 

At the center of the yards, underneath the Honeywell Street Bridge, Amtrak and NJ Transit use dozens of tracks to store inactive trains. The Sunnyside Yards contains "the busiest rail junction in the United States," according to a history written by Mitch Waxman for Brownstoner Queens.

Further east, on the 39th Street Bridge, a hole in the barricade reveals a view of a passing LIRR train. Work is underway here to complete over $300 million in improvements to the Harold Interlocking, "where nearly 800 trains pass through each day," according to the NY Post

Besides widening the Harold Interlocking, the project is running new power lines on poles high above street level, creating another impediment to building over the yards. 

At the far eastern end of the yards, a balloon track circles back around underneath exiting trains. This area abuts Sunnyside Gardens, a 1920's historic district that was "the first 'Garden City' development in the United States," according to the Historic Districts Council.

Like Sunnyside Gardens, many Queens residents live in smaller scale residences a few blocks from the yards. Developing a mega project above the tracks may be "great for Manhattan," said local resident Mitch Waxman. "But what about the quality of life in Woodside, Sunnyside, Astoria? This project will destroy the fabric of those neighborhoods."

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Sunnyside Yards coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]