To Build a Neighborhood in Queens
The Sunnyside Yards causes anxiety.
Mayor Bill de Blasio faced a young woman in a packed town hall, in one of the more confrontational moments in the three hour event. It was 8:15, more than an hour in, and the woman, bespectacled Katharine Maller of Sunnyside, was the first to mention the Sunnyside Yards. She cited a study that found most people in her neighborhood are rent burdened, and argued the potential project would only push those rents higher. Then she made a demand: “It needs to be 100 percent affordable.” There was applause.
The mayor stood in the open space surrounded by hundreds of people on four sides, accompanied only by City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer. Both held microphones. Only the mayor responded. “First of all, I like the demand,” he said. “Second of all, I’m not sure I agree with your analysis and I want to challenge you.”
After a wandering spiel about his proposal for a new neighborhood in Western Queens, he got philosophical. “I don’t agree with the assumption, that when the market rate housing goes in, all the dominoes fall, and the cost of the neighborhood is moved by that market rate housing.” There were moans and murmurs. “I would argue the cost of the neighborhood is moving already.”
He then admitted that the vision he shared more than two years ago for a high-rise district above a giant rail yard, has obstacles. “If we ever got there it would be because we would satisfy the community’s concern about the amount of affordable housing, the income levels of affordable housing, and the transportation we would have to create to support it.”
Councilman Van Bramer, who could likely be the ultimate gatekeeper to anything being built over Sunnyside Yards, said nothing.
Several days later in a phone interview, the councilman said, “I don’t have a position for a proposal that doesn’t exist.” That is to say, the city council has not received a rezoning request yet. But, he added, “There are not going to be 50 story towers all over Sunnyside and Woodside. That’s just not going to happen as long as I’m a councilman.”
The prospect of the mayor’s vision for building a neighborhood over Sunnyside Yards — a project that would noticeably alter the city’s landscape, providing housing for tens of thousands of New Yorkers — rests on the politics of Western Queens, and, almost certainly one person: the council member for the 26th District, now Jimmy Van Bramer. Elected before two-year term limit rules were passed in 2010, Councilman Van Bramer is eligible for reelection to a third term at the end of this year. Though the councilman will not state an official position, his statements indicate an almost inevitability that a proposal would be denied by the city council. That is especially the case, if stirrings in the community turn out to be mainstream, or influential. Not unlike other communities throughout the city, there is in Western Queens an uneasiness about major housing proposals and rezonings. The Sunnyside Yards concept has its particular obstacles, but represents the broader conflict for a mayor bent on meeting the demand of a growing population and tackling what he calls the “affordability crisis,” by promoting affordable housing projects that constituents say will bring more problems than good.
“Any discussion of Sunnyside Yards, it creates a great deal of anxiety in my district,” said Councilman Van Bramer. “I think it’s everywhere, in virtually every sector — some folks on the community board, some civic organizations, just some folks that I know and am talking to, there’s a great deal of anxiety.”
One of the more dramatic representations of that anxiety so far, but not necessarily from a camp most likely to influence Councilman Van Bramer, occurred outside his house. In April, a week before the town hall, dozens of protesters, under the banner Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, concluded a march at the councilman’s address, targeting three items: Sunnyside Yards, a separate rezoning plan for Long Island City, and the proposal for the Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar, as potential sources of gentrification. “It’s what we see as three heads of a hydra,” said Jeremy Magno, from one of the affiliated groups, Queens Is Not For Sale. One of his fellow protesters suggested that pressuring Councilman Van Bramer holds an extra level of strategic value, given his prominence as council majority leader. “Jimmy Van Bramer is not just a city council member,” said Amir Khafagy of People Power Movement. “He can be the speaker of the city council next year.”
That protest scene was accentuated by the quaintness of the setting. Councilman Van Bramer lives in the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District, a series of blocks of two story structures built in the 1920s, quiet and flush with greenery. People watched the protesters from their windows.
There was mention on the periphery of the crowd that the councilman wasn’t there because he went to a funeral. “Unfortunately,” read a leaflet passed out by his staff, “a death in my family does not allow me to attend your rally today.”
A few blocks over is where the Sunnyside Yards district would stand, at the nexus of Long Island City, Sunnyside and Astoria, and not far from Woodside. The rail yards, a long slab along the Long Island Railroad and Amtrak tracks, a site larger than the Central Park Reservoir, stretches about 15 blocks between Northern Boulevard and Skillman Avenue. The EDC defines the ends as 47th Avenue in Long Island City and 43rd Street in Sunnyside. It would extend the existing Long Island City skyline in a way that would stand out to any viewer accustomed to the area.
Currently, the site, sitting in a kind of valley, is made up of storage tracks for resting trains, several facilities, parking lots, and an array of items such as pipes and concrete in piles. The city would have to build an enormous deck over the site, which is 1,600 feet across at the widest part. The site, at 180 acres, is six and a half times larger than the Hudson Yards site where a deck is now holding skyscrapers under construction on Manhattan’s west side.
The largest development for the mayor’s proposal came in February, when the city’s Economic Development Corporation produced a feasibility report for the deck and neighborhood. The report found that the undertaking would be structurally complicated but doable, at a cost gauged from $16 to $19 billion, and housing-wise, would fall short of the original goal. The mayor had called for 11,250 units of affordable housing. The report found between 4,200 and 7,200 are more likely. The rest — of somewhere between 14,000 and 24,000 total units — would be market rate. (As the mayor suggested, there is no knowing what the levels of “affordability” would be. The administration says of the 62,500 affordable units it’s financed so far, more than a quarter went to, on the low end, people making less than “$31,100 for an individual or $40,800 for a family of three,” but most units under the mayor’s plan as it is, are projected to go to people or families making between $40,800 and $65,250. On the high end some will go to people making over $130,000.)
The feasibility report also gives an idea of what the neighborhood could look like. The study envisions using three existing bridges — Queens Boulevard, Honeywell Street and 39th Street — connecting to a higher platform and a central avenue called Sunnyside Boulevard. “Sunnyside Boulevard, in addition to serving important multi-modal transportation purposes, would be a broad civic street with a planted median and stately canopy trees that offer shade, contribute to placemaking, and help to establish a sense of identity for Sunnyside Yard,” the report reads.
Along Sunnyside Boulevard, diagrams in the report show more than 20 buildings. The “types of buildings being considered” include residential buildings 15 to 69 stories tall and office buildings 18 to 44 stories tall. The site would also have “schools, civic and cultural facilities, neighborhood retail” and “31 to 52 acres of open space.”
When the report was released, the mayor said in a statement, “This is the first step in understanding whether development of the Sunnyside Yards is possible, and what it could contribute to the city and surrounding communities.”
Patricia Dorfman also lives in the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District. She met me at her house hours before the town hall meeting. She said she disagreed with the idea to protest at the councilman’s house. She directed me to a post on her Facebook page, in which she described the move as “easy theatrics before there is dialogue” and wrote that Councilman Van Bramer “is not the enemy and is indeed, a crucial person to save Sunnyside, Woodside and [Long Island City] from overdevelopment.”
Dorfman, the president of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, walked with me to a restaurant on nearby Skillman Avenue, but it was not open for lunch. Neither was the next place, but the owner, who seemed to know Dorfman well, let us sit in the back.
“If I drop dead tomorrow, this still would be a huge opposition,” she said.
On the other side of Queens Boulevard, in one of the six story buildings that are common in the neighborhood, I spoke to Melissa Orlando and Brandon Mosley of the group, Access Queens, in Mosley’s living room. The group, a Queens growth watchdog, which Orlando says has eight members on its steering committee, is known for its 7 Train advocacy. Orlando organized the group to address the potential impact of the yards neighborhood on infrastructure — a key argument is that the 7 Train can’t handle an influx of more riders. “I started the group because I wanted to prove that there was not sufficient infrastructure to put tens of thousands of people over Sunnyside Yards,” she said.
I asked Dorfman what she thought the biggest issue of all was. “The cost of living shooting through the sky,” she said. When I asked about infrastructure, she said, “Who pays for the infrastructure?” When I asked what is infrastructure, she listed: public transit, schools, parks, fire, hospitals, water, sewers and electricity.
Thomas Grech, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, used some similar language in a phone interview. “If you add 10,000 people in a certain area, you need to make sure that there are sufficient public services as well as private services,” he said. “Public services include transit, schools, police stations, fire houses.” Grech sounded much more agnostic about the proposal, and was preparing to hear from the EDC at an expo.
Amadeo Plaza, founder of the Court Square Civic Association, which covers an area of Long Island City, shared a nuanced opinion. “There’s a lot of potential for both harm and good,” he said in an email. “Obviously, things like transportation strain and funding are massive concerns,” he said. “It’s a valiant endeavor, but there are still a lot of questions.”
At the town hall, I sat behind Michael Gianaris, the state senator whose district covers the yards. I asked him what he thought about the findings in the feasibility report. “This study just shows that physically this could be built,” he said. “This is an area where the infrastructure is already stressed,” he said. “My main concern is the surrounding community.”
The mayor’s proposal picks up on a series of proposals to build over the yards going back at least 90 years. One of the first ideas to gain traction was in 1925, when a city transit official, looking to ease Manhattan congestion, proposed building a railroad terminal over the site. It would serve commuters coming from the north over the Hellgate Bridge. The vice president of the Long Island Railroad said he “objected to giving up any facilities which would be needed in years to come by the Long Island for the present benefit of commuters from Westchester.” The official went on to present the plan anyway. The cost of the terminal would be paid for, the New York Times explained, by a “great office building” on top of it. The Queens Chamber of Commerce hosted a conference where opposition flared. The Queens Chamber supported making the terminal for Long Island commuters. The State Suburban Passenger Transit Commission eventually agreed to that. But two years later, the chair of the Transportation Board, a city commission that oversaw the city transit system before the state took it over, said a terminal at the yards would benefit commuters at the expense of Queens residents.
Only five years later the early Regional Plan Association proposed, as part of a full Queens Plaza makeover, a major transit hub and office tower centered over the Queens Boulevard bridge “of a size that would dominate all this part of the borough of Queens.” The Queens Chamber revived RPA’s concept of a transit and business hub in 1951. The site would include, the Times noted, “a television studio center, a convention hall, a sports arena tripling Madison Square Garden in size, hotels, restaurants, shops, and offices.” ReThink Studio, a think tank headed by urban strategist Jim Venturi, has recently presented its own but different plan to convert the site into a transit hub.
At the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970, the state Urban Development Corporation held an exhibition called “Another Chance for Cities.” Various displays showed ideas for revitalization projects, including housing and commercial space above the Sunnyside Yards. Almost a year later, the UDC brought the idea — apartment buildings up to 20 stories high with 17,000 units for low to mid-income families and the elderly, and businesses for 35,000 workers — to the Queens borough president’s office. The agency would later say it shelved the idea because of a weak market for office space and bad timing for getting needed federal funds.
In 1973, the state Racing and Wagering Board proposed building a sports complex — a race track, football stadium, hotel and convention center — over the yards. Mayor John Lindsay was reportedly annoyed that the city wasn’t alerted to the plans. And the New Jersey governor, trying to build a Giants stadium, was really annoyed. (For a moment there the existence of Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands seemed to hinge on the existence of a stadium on the Sunnyside Yards). The plan involved selling the Aqueduct Racetrack, which was a controversial idea. But Governor Nelson Rockefeller pushed for the project. City Councilman Thomas Manton, who’d later represent the area in congress, argued the project was a waste of money and the traffic would have a “disastrous” effect on the area. He said alternatives should be considered, telling the Times, “This is tremendously valuable property, and one of, if not the only, remaining undeveloped open spaces in the heart of the city.” By the time a feasibility study was finished in 1975, the New Jersey stadium was a go, the sports complex turned out to cost at least $700 million, and Rockefeller was Vice President.
At a Municipal Arts Society summit in 2012, Daniel Doctoroff, who served as a deputy mayor under Mayor Michael Bloomberg until 2008, and is known for leading the city’s bids for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, pitched moving Manhattan’s west side Javits Center to the Sunnyside Yards. He said the rail yard “forms a scar through the middle of Queens.” He then jokingly said it could also be used for an Olympics stadium. But it was revealed in May 2014, that Doctoroff brought to Governor Cuomo the idea of a new Olympic bid and building a stadium over the yards. The governor said he’d consider it, but by the end of the month, Mayor de Blasio said he wasn’t interested in pursuing the bid. Doctoroff went back to his drawing board for the time being.
That fall, Joe Conley was just two months away from stepping down as chair of Queens Community Board 2, after serving the post for more than 20 years. It was early October, 2014, when the board agreed to Conley’s suggestion to ask the borough president to review a possible deck over a portion of the railroad tracks from Queens Boulevard down towards Hunter’s Point. There wasn’t a clear idea of what it would hold, though Conley did suggest affordable housing. The rezoning would build on the 2008 rezoning of the waterfront, a stretch renamed as Hunter’s Point South, designed to create 5,000 units, the majority of which would be affordable. The project, still underway, was headed off by two fully affordable high-rises. Conley’s idea for a next big project, even for a strip of rail yard well within Long Island City and relatively far away from Sunnyside, was controversial on the board. But Conley understood the concerns. “There are a lot of things that have to be discussed: transportation of course, traffic, schools, all the things that we live with,” he said, the Queens Courier reported. He added,“but at least it starts the dialogue to say what if.” Conley was quoted in the New York Daily News as saying, “Right now you have this scar that runs down the community.”
Councilman Van Bramer said he was “opposed to the concept” of the deck, the LIC Post reported. “The idea gets floated whenever there is an economic boom… but I think it would be bad for the surrounding community.”
A few weeks later, the Urban Land Institute held a real estate conference at the Javits Center, where Anthony Coscia, chairman of Amtrak, which owns almost 80 percent of the Sunnyside Yards, said the railroad company was considering a plan to develop over its property there. He said Amtrak had been in talks with the de Blasio administration.
The panel was moderated by Daniel Doctoroff. Just over a month later, Doctoroff published an op-ed in the Times called “New York’s Next Big Thing,” arguing the Javits Center should be moved to the Sunnyside Yards. The city lagged far behind other cities in convention centers, he said, and a center in Queens, where cheaper hotels popping up in Long Island City would make the trip more appealing than staying in Manhattan, would create tens of thousands of jobs and billions in city revenue. The vision included up to 14,000 apartments, half of which would be affordable. This time he said the site “carves a nasty scar through the heart of Queens.”
“I’m offended every time someone says there’s a scar running through the neighborhoods that I represent,” Councilman Van Bramer told the Daily News. “I have never had a constituent tell me that what we need is a convention center built smack dab in that neighborhood,” he said.
A 12 member committee, including Patricia Dorfman and Melissa Orlando, launched a petition, achieving 100 signatures in the first week, telling elected officials to oppose development at the yards. “The subways are overcrowded and our school district is one of the most overcrowded in New York City,” it read. “There are already 5,000–10,000 units coming to LIC/Sunnyside as it is — and residents don‘t know how the area will be able to absorb these incoming residents.”
Shortly later, on February 3rd, 2015, de Blasio, at his second State of the City address said, “Right now, there are 200 acres of land in the heart of Queens, land that exists in the form of a rail yard — and only a rail yard. Let me emphasize, that railyard has provided jobs for generations of people. It’s a good thing and it needs to be there and it will be there. But, it’s a fact that those tracks could be underground, allowing us to build housing, on top.”
He compared what the site could be to Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, Co-op City in the Bronx, Starrett City in Brooklyn and the Big Six Towers in Queens. Housing complexes built for middle class tenants between the late 1940s and the early 1970s. His closest parallel was the oldest, StuyTown, created in 1947 with the same number of affordable units, 11,250. “A community where trees and parks, and shops dotted a landscape from which residents could actually see the sky.”
That same day, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office responded with a statement. “The MTA uses Sunnyside Yards as an important facility for our transportation system, and it is not available for any other use in the near term,” it said. Later in a video the governor said he agreed with the push for affordable housing but “Sunnyside Yards specifically is problematic.”
It was reported that the mayor didn’t tell the governor about the plan until the night before the speech. The episode was seen as a part of the messy relationship that had evolved between the two in just the first year of de Blasio’s mayorship. This could be seen as its own setback, because Albany runs the MTA, which owns a 32 acre strip along almost a whole length of the site. And the MTA has been using the site to construct the East Side Access tunnel, where Long Island Railroad trains will part off the main branch and head to Grand Central Terminal.
Mayor de Blasio had some support. While the MTA voiced concerns regarding East Side Access, Amtrak, already interested in profiting from its assets, sounded game. So did Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. “Partial or complete decking of the Sunnyside Rail Yards has the potential for extraordinary development,” she said in a policy statement.
But local elected officials, including Senator Gianaris, were on the defense. State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan said at a hearing in Albany, “We know we need to bring affordable housing to our city, but we treasure the quality of life that we have in Long Island City and in Western Queens. We think the yards are an important industrial heritage; they give us open space and light and air.”
The mayor had conversations with Councilman Van Bramer on the topic before the speech, but the councilman spoke against it at the outset. He told Capital New York (now Politico New York), “though density works in some places it doesn’t work in others.”
After the State of the City address, Melissa Orlando started a closed Facebook group called 7 Train Blues.
“Another day, another missed meeting. Eff you 7 train for the lost income.”
“Waited ten minutes for a train. The local blasts right through. Ugh, 7 train.”
“40th st: full platform. Full 7 just went by.”
Those are typical, recent comments on the page. The group now has more than 2,400 members.
“I didn’t want to be someone who just complained,” said Brandon Mosley, next to Melissa in his apartment, about his part in Access Queens. He described his 7 Train blues, how when he moved to the neighborhood in 2012, he’d arrive at the platform at 8:15, which became 7:45, which became 7:30. “It was very frustrating to be stuck.”
The feasibility study acknowledges the subway issue. “It is anticipated that the increased demand on transportation infrastructure projected after an overbuild would exceed the capacity of the existing transportation infrastructure.”
A 2016 Long Island University dissertation entitled “New York City Bursting at the Seams: A Review of the Proposed Sunnyside Rail Yards Redevelopment Project,” explores the potential impacts on the community, including on transit. “The proposed redevelopment of the Sunnyside Yards will inevitably overextend the current neighborhood’s municipal services,” author Christina Sutton writes. “With 7 train platforms packed for much of the morning commute, one delay could set off a cascade of complications on an area of the system with very little redundancy.”
Councilman Van Bramer and Access Queens hosted a transit town hall in April 2016 with a special guest: NYC Transit commissioner Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, now interim MTA executive director. “At the meeting Hakim admitted that it was tough to provide immediate relief for a problem that stems from overcrowding and an aging system,” writes Sutton in the LIU paper. Hakim said construction on the line would be wrapping up and some improvements were underway. The 7 is set to be the second line, after the L, to be equipped with an advanced signal system, possibly by the end of 2017. The computerized system would replace the old fashioned analogue system, helping trains run closer together with more efficiency.
Later in 2016, Councilman Van Bramer split with the mayor on a zoning application that may foreshadow the fate of any potential zoning application for the Sunnyside Yards. The nonprofit developer Phipps Houses proposed rezoning a parking lot at 50–25 Barnett Avenue, near the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District, for a 100 percent affordable building ten stories tall. The councilman said the building would be too tall, bring too much traffic and took issue with the developer’s alleged lack of maintenance at its six story building across the street and for not planning to use union labor. The mayor said he’d have a “polite but firm conversation” with the councilman, who replied, the Wall Street Journal reported: “I don’t work for the mayor.” By September, the council, which typically votes how the local member votes on such decisions, agreed to kill the application.
“Jimmy Van Bramer saw that his community was united,” said Dorfman. “I actually didn’t know anyone who was for it.” She said she personally opposed the Phipps project because it would be a “stalking horse” for gentrification, but that there were a host of popular issues. “I have gentrification bias. I’m like a hammer who only sees gentrification nails,” she said, but “most people had their own reasons.”
I asked Dorfman if she thought a new community at the Sunnyside Yards would bring more business, enlivening restaurants that weren’t open for lunch. She said that Skillman Avenue business owners told her they didn’t expect the new neighbors to trek beyond their own new storefronts.
The whole idea that the Sunnyside Yards development would gentrify the surrounding neighborhoods is acknowledged as a possibility in the feasibility report. “Per an earlier Project Team analysis of value premiums associated with large-scale development, this halo effect could increase adjacent residential property land values by 25% to 35% in the project’s initial years, and by 10% to 25% in the project’s later years,” the report reads. The addition of open space — and any improvements to transportation, it notes — could also lift property values. But, it says, “our conservative assumption has been to not include this premium but that it should be studied and tracked.”
When Katharine Maller confronted the mayor about the Sunnyside Yards at the town hall, she cited a 2016 report by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which found that 59 percent of the residents in Sunnyside and Woodside pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent. A city health report on the same area also found more than half — 51 percent — of the households in those neighborhoods are rent burdened.
But Councilman Van Bramer’s top concern for Sunnyside Yards is not that a project there would raise surrounding rents. “I don’t believe that building affordable housing gentrifies neighborhoods. I think that’s counterintuitive,” he said. “What I’m talking about is out of scale and out of character development that also would put such an enormous strain on a community that’s already packed.”
I asked him if his district was doing enough to promote affordable housing. “Oh my God,” he said. He referred to Hunter’s Point South and other new developments which he said collectively bring thousands of affordable units to the district. I asked if approving new buildings with affordable housing gets trickier closer to relatively low-scale neighborhoods like Sunnyside. He said “the affordable housing that we’ve built in Long Island City has also benefited Sunnysiders and Woodsiders,” because the lottery process for applications to the affordable units involved a 50 percent preference for residents of the community district. “I agree with part of the premise of your question, which is Sunnyside and Woodside are low density neighborhoods,” he added. “And the truth is, I want to maintain the scale of those neighborhoods.”
But, is there any possibility, ever, that Councilman Van Bramer will ever come around and agree to a high-rise neighborhood over the Sunnyside Yards?
“If you’re asking me if I’m ever going to come around and approve a 50 story tower anywhere near Sunnyside and Woodside the answer is no.”