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Sunnyside Yard plan is a utopian vision for an urban future

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The plan calls for 12,000 units of affordable housing and prioritizes pedestrians over cars

An interior streetscape shows mid-rise buildings, pedestrians, and people on scooters.
PAU’s master plan prioritizes contextual buildings, pedestrians, and the use of micro mobility like scooters.

After years of planning, the city released the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan that will guide the creation of some 12,000 affordable units and 60 acres of parks and public infrastructure atop a sprawling train yard in western Queens.

The plan, by Practice For Architecture and Urbansim (PAU), has been in the works since 2014, when Amtrak approached the city to gauge its interest in coordinating efforts to deck over the existing rail yard. If carried out as outlined, the result will be the city’s largest development of affordable housing since the the 1970s when roughly 15,000 middle-income units were built at Co-op City in The Bronx.

Unlike other major megaprojects of late—like, say, Hudson Yards—Sunnyside Yard will create new publicly controlled land. At that, the master planning process has sought community input that effectively guided what the development could look like. Through public meetings, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC, who’s behind the project) drew out three themes of most importance to the community: the need for affordable housing, investment in the area’s transportation infrastructure, and the creation of open green space.

An aerial view of the Sunnyside Yard master plan.
Roughly 115 of Sunnyside Yard’s 180 acres would be decked over in PAU’s plan. That’s about the size of two Grand Central Terminals.

The plan delivers on addressing those needs. As outlined, PAU’s vision calls for 6,000 units of rent stabilized housing, 3,000 of which will be restricted for families earning below 30 percent of area median income (AMI), or about $29,000 per year for a family of three. Three thousand additional apartments will be earmarked for households earning less than 50 percent of AMI, or $48,000 for a family of three.

The remaining 6,000 apartments would be affordable homeownership units modeled off of the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program that would be available to moderate income households earning 100 percent of AMI. The plan also calls for the scale of housing development to reflect the existing character of western Queens, with high-rise buildings closer to Long Island City, higher density buildings edging on existing transportation, and mid-rise buildings closer to Sunnyside.

When it comes to developing that housing, the plan calls for prioritizing minority- and women-owned firms. It also looks to prioritize alternative land ownership models such as community land trusts and embracing green building technologies like mass timber, passive and highly efficient buildings, and rainwater capture.

The one thing the plan does not include much of is car-forward design. As outlined, the plan emphasizes pedestrians and the use of micro-mobility like scooters and e-bikes. The 20 percent of the yard that cannot be built over owing to rail engineering and track layouts would be connected to the surrounding neighborhood by pedestrian bridges rather than car bridges, stemming the flow of traffic into the area.

A linear park dissects two rows of mid- and high-rise buildings.
In addition to new parks, the plan calls for the creation of a central greenway.
A rendering of snow-covered streets with high-rise buildings in the background.
New decking technology would allow the project to largely integrate with the existing street grid.

But increased access to public transportation is a priority, with calls for a new Bus Rapid Transit line connecting Sunnyside and Midtown and, eventually, a new subway line in Queens. The plan also calls for the early creation of Sunnyside Station, a new regional transit hub served initially by the Long Island Rail Road and eventually by Amtrak and other regional rails like Metro-North.

The design also seeks other community-oriented developments like the creation of 10 to 12 new schools, two new libraries, over 30 new child care centers, and five health centers. A network of greenways and public parks would bring much-needed greenery to the neighborhood.

But of course the plan is a roadmap, not a destination, and is likely to change given the protracted timeline of the development. So what’s next? First off, more analysis will be conducted to turn the plan into reality. The city and Amtrak are also formalizing an agreement that will protect the vision of the master plan while creating a nonprofit to oversee efforts to realize it.

It will be a long while before a deck is built over the rail yard at an estimated cost of $5.4 billion. First will come the city’s public approvals process, or its Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), that will include environmental reviews and land use actions. The plan, however, does lay out a few suggested initial steps, like creating Sunnyside Station and a handful of new parks in the area. Phase timelines have yet to be sussed out, but assume Sunnyside Yard will be a decades in the making megadevelopment.

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