Everybody Wants Something — But Especially Transit — at Sunnyside Yards

Everyone wants something from a proposed development at Sunnyside Yards. Photo: Laura Shepard
Everyone wants something from a proposed development at Sunnyside Yards. Photo: Laura Shepard

The city is moving forward with some plan to deck the Sunnyside Yard, but western Queens residents strongly called for any future development to improve, not worsen, the area’s transportation needs. 

Hundreds of people lined up around the block to pack a LaGuardia Community College atrium to share their hopes and concerns with the city as it begins forming the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan, which will be the result of an 18-month public input process that began Wednesday night.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti of the Practice for Urban Architecture, which is in charge of the decades-long, multi-phase planning process for what could be built over one of the nation’s busiest rail yards. The area could become a new neighborhood between Sunnyside and Astoria with homes, schools, parks, hospitals, and stores. Chakrabarti aims to create place where residents’ daily needs can be met within a 20-minute walk.

From space, you can see how the yard cuts through several neighborhoods. Photo: Google
From space, you can see how the yard cuts through several neighborhoods. Photo: Google

“Rethinking what streets can be is an important part of the project,” Chakrabarti said. “Streets are one of the most basic building blocks of public space, but they’re not always the friendliest places. They’re often dangerous and full of traffic.

“A big question we ask is how can we deliver a better quality of life for residents?”  Chakrabarti added. “There are a lot of daily indignities we put up with as New Yorkers, including noise, garbage, and those huge slush puddles that form after a snowstorm. Everyone generally understands that this is an opportunity for western Queens to think about its future and address some of these things that have always been problematic here.”

In February 2017, the city and Amtrak announced that it is possible to deck 80-85 percent of the yard, which would create space for a massive development. Housing is critically needed in New York, but so is better transportation, existing residents said, citing massive development already beginning to be occupied in Long Island City.

“I’m concerned about transit infrastructure being able to support this project because the 7 train is a nightmare right now,” Sunnyside resident John Zrinzo said. “With all of the building in Flushing and LIC … will the line be able to support it?”

Beyond the Sunnyside Yard, the city projects that the population of Queens will increase by 80,000 in the next 20 years. As such, there was a contingent of steering committee members that opposes new housing on the site in favor of public transportation and open space.

“These are things we need now, even if nothing happens,” said Sheila Lewandowski, a member of the steering committee. “The steering committee could walk out saying the best thing to do is leave it alone.” Melissa Orlando, another steering committee member, said she also favors the status quo, too, but acknowledged that accessible transit and green space are desperately needed.

Several people also brought up the possibility of a multi-modal transit hub, which could connect a new subway line or station, a Sunnyside LIRR station and a bus terminal. There is a proposed Sunnyside LIRR station at Skillman Avenue and Queens Boulevard, in the East Side Access plan, but it’s not currently funded. 

For many, the bottom line was to not mess up the opportunity.

“I’m not afraid of development,” Astoria resident Rob Reichenbach said. “Now we have a wasteland that divides Sunnyside and Astoria. Development can knit the communities together.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    “There is a proposed Sunnyside LIRR station at Skillman Avenue and Queens Boulevard, in the East Side Access plan, but it’s not currently funded.”

    How about that. Another thing we won’t get after all that money was borrowed.

    This should be a non-starter. It’s being pushed by DeBlasio’s real estate donors, but will constrain the yards from then on.

    The real estate industry is placing $billions in bets based on the future availability of a transit system that isn’t going to be working much in a decade or two. It’s ridiculous.

    We’re probably talking about having the city borrow money, and then exempting the development from property taxes for 45 years.

    Because that’s “progressive” if it helps DeBlasio run for President or Senate or something.

  • ortcutt

    Our zoning policies are crazy in that we are considering developing Sunnyside Yards at great cost (building over an active rail yard is expensive) and we can’t even get zoning for high-rise development on Northern Blvd. It’s like running the LaGuardia Airtrain in the wrong direction.

  • Mike

    “Several people also brought up the possibility of a multi-modal transit hub, which could connect a new subway line”

    I wish this was a possibility but these people are dreaming. It took 100 years to get the second ave line built and they only managed to do about 30 blocks; and the population density of Sunnyside is much lower than the UES. I think the best they can hope for is to increase the number or cars/frequency on the 7 and adding a LIRR station. I think an LIRR station would help a lot, especially if the proposal to only charge the Metrocard fare on the LIRR for travel within the city limits is implemented.

  • Reggie

    “Vishaan Chakrabarti … is in charge of the decades-long, multi-phase planning process….” Just the planning is going to take decades?

  • Samuelitooooo

    If transit is #1 in the ask, #2 should be walkability.

  • Joe R.

    Of course, because we have to employ an army of consultants for every project in this city.

  • Joe R.

    Probably one of the worst ideas I’ve heard in a long time. We know all too well that any development is only going to be yet more luxury condos, with at best some token “affordable” housing which really isn’t affordable (how is $1500 a month affordable when combined with income guidelines like $35K maximum household income?).

    Leave it as is. There is plenty of land elsewhere in the city which can be developed, including a fair number of parking lots, like this one in my area:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7301923,-73.8139091,3a,75y,199.46h,68.43t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sJpkB2aO9xUqJ9o1IhUDmsw!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

    If we want to deck over anything, it should probably be expressways.

    Call this what it is—a big giveaway to developers.

  • Fool

    This site appears to be a complete waste of money!

    Just up zone the car parking lots and single story retail on Northern boulevard.

  • Fool

    I would normally support the addition of new supply of housing. Upzoning existing neighborhoods like the village, astoria, long island city to increase supply and mass affordability (as the so called “luxury” apartments in LIC have done.

    BUT this is a give away to developers and NIMBYs. There is no reason why the city should loose money to build housing when upzoning the village would provide oodles of tax revenue.

  • Fool

    Nothing big physically prevents us from doing some reorganization, shutting down the LIRR west of Jamaica and replacing it with express subway service.

  • Joe R.

    That’s exactly the point. There is plenty of low-hanging fruit if you want to add more housing before you need to deck over rail yards. Just doing as you mentioned in your other post, namely upzoning parking lots and single story retail on Northern Boulevard, would add lots of housing.

  • ohnonononono

    If the developers want to pay to deck over the yards in exchange for building and public benefits, that’s fine, but tax dollar should not go to subsidize this. Decking over rail yards is actually really expensive.

  • Joe R.

    It’s also worth noting that subway cars can physically use LIRR tracks, probably with no modifications beyond reprogramming the computers to allow maximum performance on LIRR tracks. I don’t know where and how many connections exist between the LIRR and the subway, but it’s at least a physical possibility to have subway trains which run part of their routes over LIRR tracks. Or failing that, just slot in subway trains which run entirely on LIRR tracks to provide frequent service within city limits.

  • AnoNYC

    If this goes down just please add a stop to the coming Hell’s Gate Metro North line somewhere here.

    And this should be a very high density neighborhood. We all know how Queens NIMBYs are… A modest upzoning was recently stopped in Sunnyside Gardens along the rail yard by the local NIMBYs.

  • AnoNYC

    Should be hand in hand.

  • AnoNYC

    It’s not that easy.

    It’s much easier politically to create an ultra high density neighborhood over a large rail yard where no one lives than to rezone parcels on Northern Blvd (that would lead to equivalent units).

    We need to get those underutilized lot rezones going, but they will take a long time and will not be as dramatic a change.

    Queens is not the place politically for rezonings, although it makes a lot of sense to do so in many areas. Rather than wait a century, you could make moves in areas that are also transit rich and much more likely to go through with the changes.

    The Bronx is the place for the city’s population growth over the next 10 years at least. Plenty of lots that could be redeveloped with generous existing zoning, in a borough that is receptive to large apartment buildings.

  • AnoNYC

    It’s the NIMBYs. Trying to get a large building through in a neighborhood like Sunnyside is almost impossible. Phipps House requested a modest upzoning adjacent the yard and was shut down.

    https://sunnysidepost.com/van-bramer-to-block-phipps-210-unit-development-plan-essentially-kills-proposal

    Buildings like that are going up all over the Bronx. Queens is a very anti-development, anti-increased density area of the city (exception being LIC, which was/is a mostly manufacturing area, so not as many NIMBYs).

    The Sunnyside Rail yard is a great location, close to the city core/transit and could be an ultra high density transit oriented/walkable district.

    Astoria is now getting bigger projects but they are still smaller than they should be.

  • AMH

    That too, along with the Northern Blvd subway!

  • AMH

    It would be amazing to have an 80mph subway line.

  • AMH

    More than housing, Sunnyside would be a good place to move MSG. NJT passengers could still get there via a new station.

  • Joe R.

    When the 2nd Avenue subway was being planned in the 1960s, it was envisioned as a 70 mph line. That’s one reason the R44s were originally capable of 80 mph speeds. Unfortunately, the 2nd Avenue subway project got stalled due to the budget crisis in the 1970s, and only recently was part of it finished. The R44s and R46s both had ATO. ATO was actually briefly used in the late 1970s on the Queens Boulevard line using the R46s. If I recall, they ran the expresses at 65 mph for a while. A crash at 5th Avenue, which was caused by operator error, not ATO, led to the suspension of the experiment.

    That said, it definitely would be nice if some subway routes partially ran on LIRR tracks at 80 mph. That could really speed up trip times for those having a long commute.

  • Andrew

    ATO was actually briefly used in the late 1970s on the Queens Boulevard line using the R46s.

    The Queens Boulevard line has never had ATO.

  • Joe R.

    Look here:

    http://www.subchat.com/read.asp?Id=314683

    and here:

    http://www.subchat.com/read.asp?Id=314797

    I got the same info back in the mid 1980s from a TO who ran the things.

  • Andrew

    Ah, you read it on the Internet, so it must be true.

  • Joe R.

    This might get your interest:

    https://www.nyctransitforums.com/topic/41134-what-did-the-r46-and-r44-cab-interiors-looked-like-pre-overhaul/

    Cabview of the R44/R46 pre-GOH. Note the indicators near the speedometer with different speeds. Both models had what was called wayside-regulated mode where the train speed was regulated by the signals. I’m not sure exactly what modifications were done to the original signal system but my understanding is that wayside-regulated mode was largely an addition to standard wayside signaling so as to maintain compatibility with older rolling stock. Electronically, it was probably similar to cab signaling which the LIRR and the NEC have been using for decades. The train picks up speed codes through the rail. Wayside-regulated mode allowed the train to regulate itself to the speed code.

    More info I picked up was that in wayside regulated mode the R44/R46 had two extra steps of field shunting, making them noticeably faster. Balancing speed in regular mode was ~60 mph. In wayside regulated mode they could go up to 80 mph in theory. In practice there are only a few places in the subway system with enough tangent track to reach that speed. Note this was all pre-GOH. After the overhaul in the late 1980s all the automatic control stuff was removed and the top speed was no different than any other post-GOH rolling stock (~55 mph).

  • Andrew

    I’m aware of the ATO capabilities of the cars. Until the recent interlocking modernization and CBTC contracts were awarded on Queens Boulevard, the signal system on the line was original to its opening in the 1930’s. Nothing has ever run in ATO in passenger service on the line. Perhaps you’re thinking of the 42nd Street shuttle?

    Operating trains well in excess of the signal design speed would have cost lives. What happened on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1995 was with only a relatively moderate increase in train performance – the results would have been far more dire had a train overrun a red signal at the speeds you describe. Operation at those speeds can only safely be accomplished with a complete resignaling of the line, and no such resignaling was undertaken (or even, as far as I know, proposed) in the 1970’s.

  • Joe R.

    Actually, the WB incident was due to a combination of the train have higher acceleration capabilities AND worse braking capabilities, along with the signal spacing in that location. When rebuilt, asbestos brake pads were replaced with compound pads. These had inferior braking capabilities. The brake system pressure needed to be increased to compensate but it wasn’t.

    None of this was applicable to the period I mentioned. The R46s at the time had their original 115 HP motors and asbestos brake pads. They may have had higher maximum speeds than older equipment but not higher acceleration rates. The places where they would have reached higher speeds weren’t the places where signals where more closely spaced, like approaching stations. If you look at signal spacing along express runs, the blocks are typically about 1000 feet. At a deceleration rate of 3 mph/sec it’s possible to stop from a speed of 65 mph within one block, which is probably why they picked 65 mph for the tests. Curvature may have been another. The Queens Boulevard line doesn’t have sharp curves by any means, but I highly doubt they could be taken at 80 mph. Also worth noting regarding the signal system is the fact trains now sometimes slightly exceed 60 mph going down into the 60th Street tunnel. If this was considered too fast for the signaling system they wouldn’t be allowed to do this.

    As for resignaling, as I said that most definitely wasn’t done. What may have been done was installing equipment to send speed codes through the rails. It was so long ago I doubt there is anyone still working at the MTA who was involved with the project.

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