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Sunnyside Yard future debated at heated public meeting

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The city aims to deck over the rail yard to build a megaproject larger than Governors Island

An aerial view of Sunnyside Yard, one of the busiest train yards in the country, in western Queens.
New York Economic Development Corporation

The city is moving forward with envisioning a new neighborhood above Sunnyside Yard in Queens, as some in nearby neighborhoods continue to question the project and say they’d rather see greater investment in existing communities than have city dollars go toward creating a new one.

On Tuesday, city officials held the latest in a series of public meetings to gather input on future development at the 180-acre active rail yard, which could be decked over to create a blank slate for new housing, schools, parks, and myriad other infrastructure needs for a city struggling to cope with population growth.

Since the launch of the master planning process last summer, officials have worked to collect feedback from dozens of residents, business owners, and community groups. According to Cali Williams, the director of Sunnyside Yard for the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), three key themes have emerged: a dire need for affordable housing, the creation of open green space, and investment in the area’s transportation infrastructure.

The city is juggling that input and has begun to explore what a new community above a rail yard larger than the whole of Governors Island could look like.

“This is a big stovetop with lots of dishes cooking at once,” Vishaan Chakrabarti, the leader of the project’s master planning consulting team and the founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, told attendees Tuesday. “There are lots and lots of things we need to think about, from the rail system to building design, community input, transportation engineering, financial model—we’re trying to cook all of that at once to make sure we come up with a tasty meal.”

To build over Sunnyside Yard, which is jointly owned by Amtrak and the MTA (with the city retaining air rights), officials would need to deck roughly 30 feet—or three stories—over the tracks. That could lead to unique ways to access the upper deck, such as inventive structures or grassy slopes. How to configure blocks for the new community is something Chakrabarti and his team are in the midst of exploring, looking at Barcelona’s famed superblocks, Portland’s tight street grid, and other cityscapes for reference.

A feasibility study published by EDC in 2017 estimated the rail yard could accommodate up to 24,000 new housing units—4,200 to 7,200 of those below market rate—as well as new retail, parks, and schools. The study also raised the possibility of high-rise towers, but Chakrabarti said his team is looking into smaller, denser buildings to stray away from turning the new neighborhood into a mini-Midtown.

“We’re looking at whether you could build more of a tabletop and spread more mid-rise—meaning 6- to-15-story density as opposed to 30 or 40 story towers,” Chakrabarti told the crowd. “That’s just an exploration at this point but it’s one of the things we’re interested in looking at.”

Locals stressed the desire for higher density at a smaller scale after the general presentation during an urban design workshop. Attendees also had the option to weigh in on transportation needs and designing green space at other post-presentation planning sessions Tuesday.

But not everyone is sold on the vision of Sunnyside Yard’s transformation, which will likely be created through a public-private partnership, and worry about the impact it could have on those living in surrounding neighborhoods.

“They’re talking about design when people are talking about being displaced. It shows where their priorities are,” said Dannelly Rodriquez, a native Astoria resident with the Justice for All Coalition who says a handful of his friends have been priced out of nearby neighborhoods.

Rodriquez fears the Sunnyside Yard project could become a doppelganger for the luxury Hudson Yards development, which recently opened with much fanfare, and could push out longtime residents of neighboring communities.

Opponents of the project passed out fliers tilted, “Raising questions about the Sunnyside Yard project” that challenged the need to spend billions toward creating a new neighborhood when there is systemic need in existing public housing, schools, and transportation. “There are people and places that exist now, in public housing now, that could use the city’s help,” said Jasmin Arroyo, a history teacher and longtime Sunnyside resident. “Let’s use the city’s time and resources for things that will help New Yorkers now.

But Williams pushed back on those concerns and stressed the importance of using the rail yard to plan for the city’s future need.

“I think it’s important while planning for improvements in existing infrastructure to also be thinking longterm,” said Williams. “Sunnyside Yards provides an opportunity to think about what local stakeholders ... need in the near-term as well as future generations—our children and grandchildren.”

Regardless of what is built on Sunnyside Yard, it will take decades for it to come to fruition. In the meantime, the city plans to host four public workshops on the project in April and May and expects the completion of the master plan by the end of this year.