Sept. 17, 2019. By Shane O’Brien
The New York City EDC released a number of design concepts for the Sunnyside Yard at a public meeting in Long Island City last night as the planning process for the gigantic site continues.
The three-hour meeting held at Aviation High School was attended by more than 200 people and was the subject of a planned protest by dozens of activists who are wary of its development. The meeting, for much of the evening, was an orderly affair.
The Economic Development Corporation put forward a number of plans for the 180-acre site. They included a sprawling 60-acre parks system; residential and business districts; roads and bikes lanes; and a new Sunnyside train station, which would serve as a transport hub connecting western Queens with the wider region.
This was the EDC’s third public meeting on the Sunnyside Yard master plan and included the most concrete plans yet. The EDC insists that there is still time for public feedback to make a difference.
The masterplan, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year, will provide a framework that underpins all aspects of the development for decades to come, including the various phases and timelines.
There are plans for a centralized greenway running the length of the Sunnyside Yard project and a large park at the Long Island City end of the yard. The EDC also hopes to double the size of Lou Lodati Park in Sunnyside and add several smaller parks around the perimeter of the Yard.
Vishaan Chakrabarti, the leader of the project’s master planning consulting team, said that the EDC wanted to install a variety of parks, including recreational parks featuring basketball courts and other sports as well as family space.
The EDC also provided details for a road grid at Monday’s meeting. The city plans to develop identically sized blocks and a number of different types of thoroughfares at Sunnyside Yard.
There are plans for shared streets for cars, cyclists and pedestrians as well as plans for the centralized greenway. The shared streets would have a maximum speed limit of 5-10 mph.
There is also a plan to install a corridor on either side of the yard. The corridors would run the length of the yard and connect existing regions in Long Island City and Sunnyside. They would also be used for bus routes.
The EDC plans to develop a train station, which would potentially be serviced by Amtrak, LIRR and Metro North.
The EDC has also developed plans for several retail and office hubs on the yard. The draft plan places offices close to existing job clusters and mass transportation in Long Island City and along Northern Boulevard.
Chakrabarti said that the majority of buildings in Sunnyside Yard would be mid-rise, between eight and 18 stories and he said that such a height was not uncommon for the surrounding area. Some of the plans displayed at the meeting, however, did note that buildings of 30-50 stories are being planned.
Some attendees wanted to know how much the giant project would cost and were unhappy as to the way in which the EDC disclosed those figures. The EDC estimated the cost on a square foot basis and allocated different costs for different areas of the yard, making it extremely difficult to calculate a total cost.
Adam Grossman Meagher, the director of Sunnyside Yard, later said that it would cost at least $17 billion.
The EDC said that the project would be built in phases and may take up to 100 years to fully complete. The organization did not say what its next steps would be after the completion of the master plan.
I just do not see how the massive cost of this project, and the limited benefit to Qns residents and state taxpayers can be justified. It has the earmarks of a boondoggle. Spend billions to create affordable housing? It just doesn’t make sense. There are other ways to do it, far less expensive ways, but of course those ways are less profitable to developers. The plans thus far also do not have nearly enough park space. The numbers sound good eg ‘the size of Astoria Park’, but that space , broken up as it is in the plans, is really insufficient for existing park needs PLUS the needs of all that new development.
How would this project work, without significant transportation improvements? Both Amtrak and NJ Transit use the existing Sunnyside Yards for mid day and overnight storage, along with positioning of equipment for rush hour service. The MTA, LIRR and Metro North have their own future potential plans to use portions of Sunnyside Yards for construction of a station. The MTA, LIRR, Amtrak New Jersey Transit and Metro North Rail Road all will play a role in the success of any development plans for Sunnyside Yards.
Few remember that in 1998, as part of the proposed MTA LIRR Eastside Access project, construction of a passenger station was considered for Sunnyside Yard. It would have provided access to the growing Long Island City business and residential district. Fast forward twenty one years. The MTA has still not advertised and awarded a contract for the new Sunnyside Yard LIRR Station (that was to be built at Queens Blvd. & Skillman Avenue). There is no significant funding included for this project within the proposed $51 billion MTA 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan. The next opportunity for funding would be under the upcoming MTA 2025 – 2029 Five Year Capital Plan. Once funding is in place, they would need to complete environmental review, preliminary and final design followed by advertising and awarding a construction contract. Next, is the notice to proceed, contractor mobilization, actual construction, beneficial use, completion of inspection, acceptance and contract punch list items, receipt of asset maintenance plans, followed by release of retainage and final payment to the contractor. Just to reach beneficial use could easily take four to five years. Many years ago the previous estimated project cost was $400 million. Who knows what the engineers estimated cost would be in 2019? This could increase based upon responses to bids, along with change orders during construction due to last minute changes in scope or unforeseen site conditions.
Any future development plans utilizing the air-rights over Sunnyside Yards should include the proposed MTA LIRR Eastside Access project construction of a passenger station at Sunnyside Yard. It will provide access to both Sunnyside and adjacent growing Long Island City business and residential community as well as neighboring Astoria and Woodside. There has been incredible residential and commercial growth in neighborhoods adjacent to Sunnyside Yard. Image the benefits to both residents and commuters. Consider the possible travel options including reverse commuting if a Metro North Rail Road connection from the New Haven line via the Bronx and Hell Gate Bridge on to Penn Station reached beneficial use. This assumes there is a way to find capacity in Penn Station during peak am and pm rush hours for new Metro North service. It should be easier to find space for off peak, evenings and weekends. Both could provide service to a Sunnyside Yard station in December 2023 or some time in 2024.
(Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years fo the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office)