At a community planning meeting Monday evening on the city’s proposal to construct a massive new development on top of Sunnyside Yard, a functioning railyard covering an 180-acre swath of Western Queens, attendees were provided with post-it notes and sharpies to offer their input on what they hoped to see there. But members of local grassroots groups and urban planners who showed up to protest the plan opted to shout their opinions from atop dining-table benches inside Aviation High School’s cafeteria instead.
“Did we want Hudson Yards? No!” went one call-and-response. “Did we want Atlantic Yards? No! Do we want Sunnyside Yard? No!”
The city’s Economic Development Corporation is nearing the end of an 18-month community planning process to develop a master plan for the Sunnyside Yard development, which would be built over several decades and would potentially include new housing, green space, a regional rail station, schools, and other amenities. But protesters said they didn’t trust that the EDC would really put the public’s interest ahead of developers.
“The EDC has gotten a little bit more skillful in the style of running participatory processes,” said Tom Angotti, a professor emeritus of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, who protested at the event. “But the substance hasn’t changed. At the end of the day, the city is going to go ahead and do what it planned to do in the first place.”
Some critics pointed to Hudson Yards—a privately developed neighborhood with luxury housing, high-end retail, and corporate office space on Manhattan’s far west side that has received some $6 billion in government subsidies—as an example of an EDC-backed development that doesn’t benefit New Yorkers.
But Adam Meagher, director of the Sunnyside Yard project at the EDC, was adamant that the plan would not turn into another Hudson Yards.
“This is very different than that,” Meagher said. “It’s not the same moment in time and they’re not the same communities.”
Meagher said there are different motivations driving the Sunnyside plan. “Hudson Yards happened at a time when there was an Olympic bid and there was a concern about the millions of square feet of office space that was lost downtown,” Meagher said. “We have a different set of objectives here that are around things like providing parks for Queens, building Sunnyside Station, and pulling neighborhoods together over the yard.”
Sunnyside Yard, owned primarily by Amtrak and the MTA, is one of the busiest rail yards in the country. It covers an area more than six times the size of Hudson Yards, adjacent to the neighborhood of Sunnyside Gardens at one end and Long Island City at the other. The EDC determined through a 2017 feasibility study that, for about $16 to $19 billion, it would be possible to cover the yard in decking and then build on top of it, a pricey endeavor because the deck would need to be built while trains continue to pass under it. There will also have to be a massive investment in sewage and other infrastructure. The development costs would be partly defrayed by gross land proceeds from sales to developers as well as tax revenue, according to the feasibility study.
Based on the use cases examined in the feasibility study, the city determined the development could hold up to 24,000 new housing units, 52 acres of open space, and new schools, community facilities, and retail space. But the EDC told Gothamist that after the feasibility study was conducted to determine whether the development would be possible, it started the planning process over with a blank slate. Monday’s event was the third community planning meeting the EDC has held, in addition to public workshops on individual components of the plan such as transportation and open space, in an effort to garner residents’ feedback and inform the master plan.
“We are not saying this is something that we should just automatically assume should happen,” said Meagher. “We should start by looking at the things we think we can achieve here and then people are going to have to make a decision, or really many decisions over time, about whether this is worth the investment.”
Some residents left comments on poster boards around the cafeteria Monday worrying the project would be too costly for taxpayers, while others posted wishlists of what they wanted to see added to the area: schools, performing arts space, parks, bike lanes, buildings that match the character of the neighborhoods they’re in, improved bus and train service, and so on.
Sunnyside resident Sascha Swanson, who was not one of the protestors, said she can see how, if done right, the development could benefit her community and the city as a whole. “We have a crisis of affordable housing in the city,” said Swanson. “We have green space issues in Western Queens. There’s a lot of good things that could come from this.”
But as an electrician and a member of union IBEW Local 3, Swanson is skeptical of the plan. “With Hudson Yards, we were promised it would be all good union jobs,” said Swanson. “And [the developer] Related is now building some of it non-union, which I have a huge problem with because they’re getting tons and tons of tax incentives.” Swanson said she hoped the Sunnyside Yard project would not be dominated by just one or two private developers.
Meagher said that while there would likely be plenty of private development, there would also be enough space in Sunnyside Yard to explore other ownership models such as community land trusts.
The master plan, which will offer more detailed proposals for the site, is due out this winter.