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The BQE.
Max Touhey

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7 unfinished NYC infrastructure projects poised to change the city in the 2020s

These major NYC projects have been in the works for what feels like forever—and many still have a long way to go

New York City is no stranger to colossal infrastructure and development projects that often come with harrowing delays. The past decade was no exception, with a handful of major projects that have been years (or decades) in the making finally coming into focus—though some are still a long ways off from crossing the finish line.

Some of these efforts, like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, have chugged along through the terms of several governors and mayors, but finally made significant progress in the past 10 years. Others are on the cusp of completion after excruciating setbacks, and others still—including the Willets Point and Sunnyside Yard megaprojects—are still in the planning phases. It remains to be seen how these massive developments will reshape their surrounding communities.

Below we’ve broken down some of the decade’s unfinished business in New York City, with seven highly-anticipated projects for which the next 10 years will prove pivotal.

New York City’s Transit Authority Gives Media Tour Of Tunnel Connecting LIRR Trains To Grand Central Station
Construction on East Side Access, circa 2015.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

East Side Access

When the MTA’s massive project to link the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal was formally proposed in the mid-1990s during Gov. George Pataki’s administration, it was estimated to cost $4.3 billion and was scheduled for completion by 2009. But the effort moved at a bewilderedly sluggish pace due to poor planning, with budget overruns and numerous delays. It has outlived several governors—the baton passed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he took office in 2011—and nearly tripled in price to $11.1 billion. Now, the whole thing is finally expected to wrap up in 2022, 13 years behind schedule. (“We’re going to finish this if I have to go down there with a shovel myself,” an exasperated Cuomo said of the project in April.)

After 12 years of construction, it seems East Side Access—which includes building seven miles of new tracks under the East River and a cavernous set of new train platforms beneath Grand Central—may actually be on the verge of completion. The effort is more than 70 percent done, but finishing East Side Access requires $798 million in the MTA’s next five-year capital plan—the latest price tag bump for the project.

The new link, which MTA officials say will begin ferrying commuters in December 2022, will accommodate some 160,000 riders per day and is expected to save commuters some 40 minutes by allowing them to bypass Penn Station.

Second Avenue Subway line in New York City
The Second Avenue subway on its opening weekend in 2017.
Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Second Avenue Subway

After taking nearly a century to complete, the first phase of the Second Avenue subway opened to much fanfare in 2017. The effort, which cost about $4.4 billion, was the most ambitious expansion of the city’s subway system in a half century.

That said, it’s much shorter than what has long been envisioned for the Second Avenue line. Initial plans proposed new tubes running the length of Manhattan to help ease the burden on the Lexington Avenue line. For now, it is a two-mile extension of the Q line with new stations at 72nd, 86th, and 96th Streets. Eventually, the MTA will extend the line north with three more stops at 106th, 116th, and 125th Street in East Harlem, and planning is making incremental progress. The Federal Transit Administration green-lit the second phase in late 2018 by issuing what it calls a “Finding of No Significant Impact” designation.

But there are still other obstacles beyond approvals and securing funding. Building the second phase will require taking over dozens of properties and could displace up to 505 employees and 170 residents along the line’s future path. It remains to be seen precisely how many properties the authority will need to acquire, and officials don’t have a timeline or cost estimates for such acquisitions. It will also have an enormous impact on the area, turning a swath of it into a construction zone for years, and leaving neighbors little choice but to flee or endure years of noise, dust, and major impacts on local businesses.

A landscape with bare trees, potholes full of water, and tires and trash on the street. Three glass buildings rise in the background.
Part of Willets Point in Queens in 2018.
Nathan Kensinger

Willets Point

Plans to redevelop a gritty corner of Queens known as the Iron Triangle were first conceived in the early years of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, when an advisory committee crafted a master plan for what the mayor dubbed one of “New York City’s next great neighborhoods.” The multi-billion dollar effort to transform the area near Shea Stadium (now Citi Field) into a mixed-used megadevelopment with thousands of apartments earned City Council approval in 2008, and seemed poised to progress unimpeded.

But gradually, staunch advocates for the project grew disenchanted as Bloomberg rejiggered the deal with developers (currently Related Companies and Sterling Equities), sending nearly 2,000 affordable apartments into a nebulous future. And when a revised 2012 plan introduced a gigantic shopping mall, community advocates felt betrayed. A 2015 lawsuit by local leaders all but killed the plan when a state court ruled that the city could not take a hunk of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to build the mall.

Now, the project is back in play after the de Blasio administration resurrected the effort in 2018 and struck a new deal with the original developers. A mall is notably absent from the new plan; instead, the latest proposal includes 1,100 apartments for low-and middle-income New Yorkers, a 450-seat school, and open space on six acres at Willets Point Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue. A vision for the site’s remaining 17 acres is currently being determined by a community advisory committee, which in January recommended a pair of development scenarios: more mixed-use development or a 25,000-seat soccer stadium. The developers will use that input to draft plans for the city, but there is no deadline for when that new proposal will land.

A section of highway with cars.
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in 2019.
Max Touhey

Brooklyn-Queens Expressway

Transportation officials have debated overhauling a long-decaying stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway since the 1990s. At the start of this decade, a handful of contentious proposals were on the table, but those conversations went nowhere while a 1.5-mile span of the highway between Atlantic Avenue and Sands Street languished.

In 2018, the de Blasio administration approached the project with renewed vigor that was also borne out of necessity. That section of highway in Brooklyn Heights has deteriorated to such a degree that the city would need place weight restrictions on it by 2026—or close the expressway altogether by 2036—if nothing is done.

With that in mind, the city’s Department of Transportation put forward two proposals to renovate the BQE: an incremental, lane-by-lane approach; or a faster plan that would require building a temporarily elevated roadway where the Brooklyn Heights Promenade currently sits. The DOT’s approach faced fierce pushback, with numerous community groups and elected officials advocating for a dramatic reimagining of the highway with parkland, trimming traffic lanes, or converting the span into a truck-only expressway. The city has received nearly a dozen alternative proposals.

After mounting pressure, Mayor Bill de Blasio assembled a 16-member expert panel to evaluate the best path forward. The panel, which initially planned to announce its recommendations this summer, now aims to release its recommendations by the year’s end. But with years of city, state, and federal red tape on the horizon for whatever path is chosen, there is precious little time for repairs.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood And Sen. Charles Schumer Announce NYC Infrastructure Project
Trains at Hudson Yards during a Gateway announcement in 2013.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Gateway Program

If you want to travel between New Jersey and Manhattan by rail, the North River Tunnel is currently your only option for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains. The result is a prodigious bottleneck at a crucial northeast connection point for Amtrak’s rail system. To add sorely needed capacity, transportation officials proposed the $29.1 billion Gateway project in 2011 to forge a new link under the Hudson River, replace the Portal Bridge in New Jersey, and repair existing infrastructure. But since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, the Gateway effort has stalled and is at the center of a political grudge match between the president and local officials.

The Trump administration declined to follow through on an Obama-era commitment for the federal government to foot half the bill, prompting serious concerns about whether officials can secure the necessary funds to move forward. Those spearheading the effort, a nonprofit called the Gateway Program Development Corp. (soon to be replaced by the recently-formed Gateway Development Commission), have worked to trim cost estimates by $1.4 billion and are gradually locking in funds, but to move forward, the Federal Railroad Administration must finalize and approve an environmental impact statement on the project. Therein lies the rub. Deadlines have come and gone, and it remains unclear when that key review will be approved.

The Gateway project isn’t the first time that officials have sought to repair the aging infrastructure under the Hudson River: There was also Access to the Region’s Core (ARC), which called for building a new tunnel to ease congestion on New Jersey Transit. But former Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed that project in 2010, and eventually diverted the funding for new tunnel and road projects.

A building under construction. A large skylight is visible, with several cranes hanging over it.
Construction on the new Moynihan Train Hall within the James A. Farley Post Office building in 2019.
Max Touhey

Penn Station

Pennsylvania Station is one of New York City’s most unpopular buildings—a claustrophobic labyrinth of bland corridors that lacks the architectural grandeur and function of its predecessor—and desperately needs to be updated to accommodate 21st-century crowds. After years of delays, construction on a new 255,000-square-foot train hall in the James A. Farley Post Office is making progress, and may actually be completed within the next few years.

The idea of converting the old post office building (designed by McKim, Mead & White, the architects responsible for the old Penn Station) into an extension of the train depot first emerged in the early 1900s. In the 1990s, initial plans came into focus with a “sweeping parabolic arch that would form a skylight over the central court of the Farley building.”

The effort lumbered on with a series of setbacks and false starts; it wasn’t until 2016 that Cuomo revived the project with reworked plans for a mammoth overhaul of the transportation hub. Construction finally began on the Penn Station-Farley complex in April 2017, and in June of that year, Cuomo declared plans for the revamp have been finalized. The state-led Empire State Development Corporation and a trio of private developers—Related, Vornado, and Skanska—are in the midst of the $1.6 billion revamp of the Farley building into the Moynihan Train Hall, which will include a 92-foot skylight that’s meant to evoke the look and feel of the Penn Station of yore. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is designing the new station.

The entire Pennsylvania Station-Farley Complex will include the Moynihan Train Hall, along with a redeveloped Long Island Rail Road concourse and new subway stations to service the A/C/E and 1/2/3 lines. The effort, God willing, is scheduled for completion in 2020.

The site that will may become Sunnyside Yard, circa 2019.
Max Touhey

Sunnyside Yard

At his 2015 State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced initial plans to develop thousands of affordable apartments above Sunnyside Yard, a Queens rail yard six times the size of Hudson Yards. Proposals for the active rail yard, which is jointly owned by Amtrak and the MTA (with the city retaining air rights), range from a convention center, to a stadium, to residential development dating back to 1971, but none of these ideas have made it off the ground. The De Blasio’s administration’s plan has made it the furthest, with a $2.6 million feasibility study concluding in 2017 that decking over the 180-acre yard is possible and could create 24,000 apartments, including up to 7,200 below-market-rate units.

An 18-month master planning process is currently unfolding, with Practice for Architecture and Urbanism acting as the lead consultant on the effort. This fall, the planning team unveiled a draft proposal that spells out the vision for high-density buildings on the northern portion, and low-density development in the central and southern sections. Other components include a 60-acre network of parks; a foundation for residential and business districts; new shared streets and bike lanes; and a new Sunnyside train station to serve as a transportation hub for the area.

Officials have stressed throughout the planning that the masterplan is not a “development plan” and instead “a framework to guide future decision-making.” There are no estimates of construction timelines, and the planning team says fully realizing the colossal undertaking could easily take up to a century. The next decade of planning will likely be key in determining if such a vision can truly come to fruition.

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