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The Sunnyside Yard site in 2019.
Max Touhey

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What does a good megadevelopment look like?

Considering the future of megaprojects—and the future of New York City—through the lens of Sunnyside Yard

The first of my recent conversations about megadevelopments with Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), took place in early February, when the world was a different place. There was a new coronavirus out there, but for New Yorkers, it was still largely an abstraction; a bad thing happening in some other part of the world. He and I conversed the old-fashioned way, in person, at his office just north of Union Square.

At the time, the project I’d hoped to discuss with him was off-limits. His firm had been hired in 2018 to create the masterplan for Sunnyside Yard, a 180-acre site in Queens that’s currently home to one of the country’s busiest rail yards. A mile and a half long, and owned jointly by Amtrak, the MTA, and General Motors, it sits in the middle of a rapidly changing section of the borough. It is the designated site of New York City’s next monster development, a behemoth of urban density built on decks above the train tracks. Chakrabarti, one of contemporary architecture’s great talkers, had been asked by the city’s Economic Development Corporation not to say a word because the official plan—like all big plans in New York City, a contentious one—was still under wraps.

When that plan was finally unveiled on March 3, it outlined a bountiful project, so idealistic that it was almost unbelievable. Here’s a capsule description from a press release: “12,000 new 100 percent affordable residential units, 60 acres of open public space, a new Sunnyside Station that connects Western Queens to the Greater New York region, 10 schools, 2 libraries, over 30 childcare centers, 5 health care facilities, and 5 million square feet of new commercial and manufacturing space that will enable middle-class job creation.”

About a week later, on the same day that President Donald Trump announced a travel ban in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Chakrabarti and I had a second conversation, this one on the phone, about the details of the Sunnyside plan and how it might be executed. We also chatted about how the coronavirus was beginning to touch our lives, forcing us to cancel travel plans, but it still mostly felt like an inconvenience.

On April 1, we spoke again. By this time, New York City was largely shut down. Most people were either out of a job or working from home. We’d begun to realize that the city was going to experience the full force of the pandemic, much like Italy, with overloaded hospitals full of dying patients. Someone I knew personally had died from the disease. I wasn’t sure that it still made any sense to write about megadevelopments.

Given the circumstances, what was striking in this conversation was Chakrabarti’s optimism. While others, notably eminent suburbanist Joel Kotkin, were predicting that the virus would bring about “the end of New York,” Chakrabarti argued that the city always “comes roaring back.” His position is that the pandemic could actually be a catalyst for the construction of Sunnyside Yards.

“This is part of why you do master planning,” he said. “You don’t know something like this is going to happen. But it tees things up for the future.”

I began to contemplate the future of New York City at a moment when it wasn’t entirely clear there’d be one. I understand that Chakrabarti’s upbeat assessment is, in a way, as self-serving as Kotkin’s death wish; it’s an integral part of who he is professionally. But optimism, unrealistic as it might seem, is also on my agenda. As we slog through this catastrophic fourth year of the Trump presidency, I’ve become convinced that the best response to a destructive, short-sighted administration is a compelling, nuanced, well-defined vision. Imagining a better future with as much detail as possible is both an exercise in sanity and a necessary political strategy. Being against something is good; being for something is better.

My intention, when I first started working on this story months ago, was to make a case for the good megadevelopment, to locate the exemplary version of what we used to call urban renewal. I had hoped to make the argument that it’s possible to build consensus about what this city should be, and, based on that, create a neighborhood that is well-integrated into the surrounding city, providing homes, workplaces, and shopping for ordinary New Yorkers, not just tourists and billionaires.

Counterintuitively, it was Hudson Yards, with its isolation from Manhattan’s street grid, its glittering shopping mall, and its apartments for the pied-à-terre class—a place that does everything wrong, urbanistically speaking—that made me start thinking that it might be possible to build a megadevelopment that makes New York a better city. For me, Hudson Yards is the lens through which almost every other development in New York City, new or old, looks good—or, at least, better.

Take, for instance, the Domino development on the Williamsburg waterfront: One afternoon, I found myself drawn to One South First, the 45-story CookFox-designed mixed-use tower, which has more pizzazz than the stubbornly generic towers that have sprung up along the East River. I was happily ignorant of the fact that the building’s thick white concrete window frames were supposed to evoke sugar crystals; I only knew that I liked the way they looked: sculpted, with a handmade appearance.

Or look at Essex Crossing, the long overdue buildout of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. It sits on 20 acres south of Delancey and east of Essex Streets that were condemned, emptied of low-income residents, and bulldozed in the 1960s. The planned urban renewal never came and the depopulated blocks remained parking lots until 2015. Now, Essex Crossing nests comfortably within New York City’s grid; there are no superblocks or barriers that might limit access to the site. But the key distinction for me is that the ground floor of the complex’s flagship building is anchored by the Essex Market, the same public market that had occupied a series of buildings on the opposite side of Delancey Street since 1940. It has a mezzanine level, where tables overlook the streets and long dining counters offer views of the maze of food stalls and shops below. It’s a comfortable, unpretentious, genuinely public gathering place—like a park, but indoors.

I embarked on my series of conversations with Chakrabarti in part because he had been deeply involved with the design of Domino and had a hand in Essex Crossing while a principal at SHoP Architects. More recently, his own firm has been working on several megadevelopments in New York City and elsewhere (Newark, East Palo Alto, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia).

An aerial view of the Sunnyside Yard master plan.
An aerial rendering of Sunnyside Yard.

But mainly I wanted to speak with him because of his work on Sunnyside Yard. The rail yard holds an unbelievable amount of land—it looks more like it belongs on the outskirts of Omaha—and the site has been attracting redevelopment schemes for years. In 2014, for example, former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff suggested relocating the Javits Center from Manhattan’s west side to a platform atop Sunnyside Yard, and paying for the move by selling the old Javits site near the Hudson River for housing. Doctoroff’s pitch was a classic megadevelopment strategy, in which something monumental is positioned as the project’s raison d’etre. It’s exactly the sort of thing that, over the years, has given megadevelopments a bad reputation.

“I don’t love the term megadevelopment because that’s just going to scare the shit out of everyone,” Chakrabarti told me. Fear is baked into the big package; prior to our February talk, the Sunnyside Yard plan had been buffeted by the same turbulence that last year sank Amazon’s proposal to build a headquarters in Queens. Two of Amazon’s foremost opponents, Queens City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer and Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, sent a joint letter in November to EDC that argued that Sunnyside Yard would exacerbate the “housing crisis that displaces communities of color and parcels off public land to private real estate developers.” Then, in January, Ocasio-Cortez, who consistently sent representatives to steering committee meetings, resigned from the effort, writing, “I have yet to see sufficient inclusion of the feedback from those meetings in the current plan.” Her constituents, she said, were asking for “community land trusts, truly affordable housing, and public and green infrastructure of the scale necessary to meet our 21st-century housing and environmental justice challenges.”

But Chakrabarti was forbidden by the city to discuss any of this when we spoke. Instead, he described another plan PAU had devised, one that was considerably less mega. The project involves a 10-acre site where East New York, a historically underserved neighborhood, meets Spring Creek Towers (better known as Starrett City), a classic 1970s planned community that provides affordable housing to its over 13,000 residents. The site is currently an immense parking lot surrounding the Christian Cultural Center, a megachurch whose sanctuary seats 3,800, and whose streaming and broadcast services extend to over 30,000 members. “I very laughingly call this God-Oriented-Development,” said Chakrabarti.

Reverend A.R. Bernard founded the church in 1978 in a Williamsburg storefront; now, it occupies a nearly 100,000-square-foot building completed in 2000. Bernard’s vision for the church is what author Ray Oldenburg, in his book The Great Good Place, labeled a “third place,” a spot where people naturally like to gather. “That’s the idea behind this building,” Bernard told me. “We wanted more than a gathering place on a Sunday. We want to be a destination.”

Working with PAU and the Gotham Organization, an established developer of residential and commercial buildings, the church has come up with a scheme that promises 2,100 “income-based” affordable housing units across nine buildings. The goal is to have apartments accessible to those who qualify as very low- to middle-income. There will also be 25 “maisonettes,” or freestanding houses, intended to engender home ownership. It also includes a performing arts center, an educational complex, vocational training, a public plaza, green space (including, perhaps, a recreational facility atop a garage that will replace surface parking), and non-chain retail. The most revelatory feature is a 24/7 daycare center. The rationale is simple: many people can make better money working the night shift, but only if they have a safe place to leave their children.

In a way, it’s the exemplary megadevelopment I was seeking. “Rev. Bernard had read his Jane Jacobs,” Chakrabarti said. “The four tenets that Jacobs used—small blocks, density, mixed use, a mix of old and new—we’ve got all of those.” But it’s not big enough or central enough. There may be battles over it—the plan calls for more density than the current zoning allows and must go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP)—but it isn’t likely to have the whole city choosing sides.

The Sunnyside Yard scheme, on paper at least, is every bit as virtuous as what Bernard intends to build. Unlike Hudson Yards, where the developer sank about a billion dollars building a platform over the West Side rail yards—and almost every building atop that platform is designed to recoup the investment—the city itself will build the Sunnyside Yard deck, and use much of the newly created acreage as the site for things that aren’t especially profitable, like schools, libraries, and daycare facilities.

Adam Grossman Meagher, the EDC’s director of the Sunnyside Yard project, explained that the estimated $5 billion cost of the portion of the deck that will support buildings works out to $250 to $300 per square foot, “slightly higher than the cost of buildable land in Long Island City today.” That amount doesn’t count an additional $5.4 billion needed to build the portions of the deck that support “public infrastructure” like streets and open space; then, there’s another billion or so for constructing the streets themselves, nearly $2 billion for utilities, and so on. The underlying infrastructure—in essence creating land that doesn’t exist—will cost nearly $9 billion. The case for spending so much is laid out in the project’s executive summary: “The amounts are, like those associated with any major infrastructure project, substantial, but the alternatives are virtually nonexistent.… Purchasing land and assembling such a site by other means is and will remain practically impossible.”

In other words, if we want a neighborhood that lives up to a set of almost unattainable ideals—“the equitable, inclusive city”—we have to spend the money to build it from scratch. It’s a jaw-dropping concept, one that was easy to dismiss as fantasy a month or two ago.

“We’re going to double down on the idea of public goods,” Chakrabarti told me in March. “The whole purpose of building the deck is to create an unparalleled set of public goods. That has to be a public investment, not a neoliberal, public-private partnership. And that’s a sea change in the way we think about economic development in New York City.”

An interior streetscape shows mid-rise buildings, pedestrians, and people on scooters. PAU

There’s a streetscape rendering of Sunnyside Yard that reminds me of the Amsterdam neighborhoods built in the early 21st century on islands and peninsulas that used to be the docklands. In these dense new residential districts, the details that define the historic city—like the way the front doors of houses open directly onto the street—have been turned into a design language for a place that is conspicuously new but retains the warmth of the city’s Golden Age. Ton Schaap, one of the planners involved, explained the underlying design philosophy in a way that resonated: “The main thing is that people like other people here.”

Likewise, the PAU rendering that fascinates me shows a curb-free street—one intended to be shared by pedestrians and vehicles—with a line of low stoops on one block, a neighborhood supermarket on the corner, children playing in an open fire hydrant, and someone navigating in a wheelchair. The message is clear: This is a scenario in which a newly invented section of New York City will still look and feel like New York. It appears to be a template for a new neighborhood built on the assumption that people like other people.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t clear exactly how this utopian scheme was going to happen, how a project so inspired by one mayor’s agenda would be carried forward by subsequent administrations. “For us, the most important thing is not to have an arbitrary 20- or 30-year timeline and try to meet that,” Grossman Meagher said. “This is definitely going to happen in many, many phases—not one or two, but probably 10 or 20. And that’s just a function of how enormous the yard is and how complicated it is.”

The first moves will be relatively quiet: There will need to be an overseer like the Battery Park City Authority, which was formed by the state of New York in 1968 to manage a megaproject that didn’t truly take shape until the 1980s. This entity would be the “guardian of the master plan,” says Grossman Meagher. The first sign of the emerging neighborhood would likely be a Sunnyside Station, which will initially serve the Long Island Railroad, but might eventually offer access to Metro-North and Amtrak trains. “There are traditional funding sources for transit investments like that,” noted Grossman Meagher.

But in March, the day before the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, Chakrabarti was hugely upbeat about the project. He argued that the city’s tax base, driven by a long real estate boom, had enough padding in the discretionary budget to get a massive project like Sunnyside started. And the federal government, as long as Trump isn’t reelected, could easily pick up the ball.

“The fact remains that the city is a very wealthy city at this point,” he said. “And between that wealth and the fact that we now have a series of housing plans that have come out of the Democratic candidates, there is probably in the coming years a significant federal commitment that’s going to come back into housing.…”

When I last spoke with Chakrabarti in early April, things had changed. New York City had become the global epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic. Some 35 percent of households in the city had at least one job loss. The number of coronavirus-related deaths in New York City was on the rise. Anyone who can work from home was doing so.

Now, it’s hard to imagine that the billions of discretionary funds which Chakrabarti believed would be available for an undertaking like Sunnyside Yard will still exist in the city hollowed out by the pandemic. But that bad news, Chakrabarti suggested, might turn out to be good news for Sunnyside. “There’s going to be a long-term unemployment problem that’s going to lead to a housing crisis that’s not a gentrification-driven housing crisis,” he said. “It’s a poverty-driven housing crisis. We need to get ahead of that.”

Nothing about the future, near or far, is clear. What happens when this is over? How do we collectively recover? What will become of the New York City we love, the crowded place where we heedlessly squeeze ourselves into subway cars, bars, parks, and arenas crammed with other human beings? Will we still be a city where people like other people?

If we’ve learned anything from this ghastly moment, it’s the identities of those who are truly indispensable. As it happens, most of the people we can’t live without—the nurses, the EMTs, the grocery clerks, the food delivery guys—can’t begin to afford what’s euphemistically known as market-rate housing. We owe it to ourselves to make sure that those essential New Yorkers will always have a place in this city.

And maybe the good megadevelopment, Sunnyside Yard—the utopian place with the uncannily upbeat name—has gone from being ridiculous to essential. AOC and her allies would do well to come back to the table and insure that the built development lives up to the idealism of its master plan, and that it prioritizes the needs of working-class Queens residents hardest hit by the virus. In Chakrabarti-speak, it’s the perfect launch pad for a “housing moonshot.” And it may just be the future we didn’t know we needed.

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