BQX Fall 2016 presentation; Sunnyside Yards Feasibility Study Executive Summary

Renderings from the Economic Development Corporation of a streetcar, and of a potential build-out model for Sunnyside Yards.

Over the next decade, western Queens could be poised for a significant transformation. Not only is the city proposing to rezone Long Island City, building on several earlier rezonings by Bloomberg, it’s also put forth a proposed streetcar called the Brooklyn-Queens Connector and a vision for building over the Sunnyside Yards Amtrak and MTA rail yard.

While developers and some business owners see these projects as a chance to improve the quality of life for Queens’ locals, many community leaders, particularly those directly involved in anti-displacement organizations, view these projects as contributing to gentrification in the area, believing that their completion would push out long-time residents.

The Three Projects

The Department of City Planning (DCP) is currently studying the possibility of upzoning parts of Long Island City, between Sunnyside Yards and Queensbridge Houses, to promote a mixed-used neighborhood with commercial, community facility, and residential space. A portion of the housing would be permanently rent-restricted under the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing law. The city’s forthcoming plan for the neighborhood will also seek to address other needs, from access to open space to job development, according to DCP.

Then there’s the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX. A streetcar system that would run along a 15-mile stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, it would be emissions-free and provide major relief for the overburdened subway lines and streets, according to a project summary put out by Friends of the BQX, a non-profit created to support the initiative. Its supporters say it has the potential to be a big step toward transit equity, creating access to jobs, academic institutions, and cultural centers for residents of areas along the waterfront that are currently transit deserts. However, its financial feasibility has been called into question, particularly in light of a leaked memo from Mayor de Blasio’s office that said that the project may not pay for itself, as was originally intended.

And last but not least is the Sunnyside Yards project, which aims to build a new neighborhood on top of the existing rail yards, according to a feasibility report put out by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) in February. The imagined community would provide public and economic benefits for the surrounding area such as space for schools, parks and office space, while blending with the existing communities and not disrupting the operations of the yard, the report says.

Building over Sunnyside Yards has been a dream shared by many of the city’s administrations over the years, but the most recent study on the project, which the EDC claims to be more thorough than any of its predecessors, gives the impression that starting the overbuild is becoming more likely now than ever before.

Even so, the project is far from breaking ground; there are still issues that need to be resolved, such as engineering challenges and funding logistics outside of projected real estate tax revenue. Additionally, Governor Andrew Cuomo has stated that the state-run MTA, which own parts of Sunnyside Yards, would not help due to what he sees as the unrealistic nature of the project.

If it were completed, Sunnyside Yards would be the largest and most complex urban development site in the city, according to EDC. The report envisions that at least 30 percent of the total 14,000 to 24,000 housing units would be rent-restricted—an estimated 4,200 to 7,200 affordable units. It would be funded by a mix of public investment, real-estate taxes, and the sale of the land and development rights to a developer, though the complete financial model is still to be developed.

But many community leaders and members believe that these three projects, while sounding beneficial, will instead push out the current low-income residents they are supposed to serve.

Concerns about Affordability, Job Access

Elder Diane Brown of the Justice For All Coalition—an alliance of Long Island City and Astoria residents, faith leaders, and advocates—is not pleased with the proportion of affordable housing that would be created by the Sunnyside Yards project.

“That piece of land is public property,” says Elder Brown. “They need to build 100 percent affordable housing if they’re going to build anything on it at all.”

She also expressed a concern that recent development in the area has not created jobs for locals. (Developers receiving a certain amount of city subsidy are required to make a good-faith effort to use the city’s local hiring program, HireNYC, but these requirements do not apply to private developers of non-city sponsored projects.) Her group wants any rezoning to come with more jobs for locals and housing that is actually affordable to the lowest income residents.

While the group hasn’t come up with a formal position on the BQX yet, according to coalition leader Slyvia White, coalition members are also skeptical of the streetcar. Brown cited the cost of the project, saying that if the city “put the money they were going to put into BQX into fixing what they already have, into getting more buses, it would cost less, and benefit the community more.”

The Justice for All Coalition is hosting a march on June 22 to protest luxury development in western Queens and in particular the mayor’s plan for Sunnyside Yards. The group plans on demanding the use public land—a reference to Sunnyside Yards—for public good rather than private gain, more money for NYCHA, and “just rezoning,” among other demands.

Arianna Martinez of Queens Neighborhoods United, an organization based in and around Jackson Heights, echoed worries about how the BQX, Sunnyside Yards, and rezoning LIC would lead to displacement.

“There’s a lot of evidence to show that these projects will have huge gentrification pressures, and those will presumably trickle down to both residential, and commercial rents. Private developers are driving all of those projects,” Martinez says.

“QNU is not against development,” she added, “but we are definitely opposed to this kind of hyper-rapid investment.”

Another group is calling attention to the expectation of gentrification implicit in the city’s proposed funding models. NYCEDC has said the revenue gained from increased real-estate tax value along the BQX corridor will pay for the entire project. The administration similarly expects the Sunnyside Yards project to be funded by increased real-estate taxes.

“The BQX trolley will raise property values along the entire route from Astoria to Sunset Park – in fact, this is part of the strategy for paying for the project,” wrote the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, a volunteer organization in Queens, in an e-mail to City Limits. “The city’s strategy of using ‘value-capture’ to finance the project is a technical euphemism for gentrification and displacement.”

Supporters see economic opportunities for all

Others, however, believe the three projects will have tremendous benefits. In an opinion piece for Observer, Brooklyn-based small business owner Colin Touhey wrote that the BQX is exactly what both job seekers and businesses in the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront area need.

“The BQX is our best chance to make the connective tissue of the waterfront sturdier by opening the economic opportunities happening here to all New Yorkers,” he wrote.

The Friends of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, a non-profit that works in support of the BQX proposal, is the group behind the development study that was crucial to gaining the city’s interest in investing in the project. The group is popularly characterized as being solely made up of wealthy, private developers. This is not truly the case, however, as numerous community-focused organizations, such as the non-profit Urban Upbound, support the project and hold seats on its Board of Directors.

Urban Upbound’s director Bishop Mitchell Taylor believes that the proposed project “leverages the real estate values of the well-to-do for the common good,” he wrote in an opinion-piece for the New York Daily News.

“The BQX can be a game-changer for residents seeking employment in new job opportunities along the waterfront,” he continued. “Even better, by making sure the project hires local workers and gives contracts to women- and minority-owned businesses along the corridor, we’ll see jobs long before the BQX is completed.”

Michelle de La Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee and also a member of the Friends of the BQX board, similarly says the project has the potential to connect isolated low-income public housing residents at Red Hook Houses and Queensbridge Houses to employment centers, education and workforce training. She does, however, understand concerns about the way the project will be financed by increases in real estate property taxes, and says it will be important to ensure that rent-stabilized buildings and job-providing industrial businesses are protected from any real estate property tax increase, so as not to incentivize displacement.

“I think any time gentrification and displacement concerns are raised they should be taken seriously, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think there’s an opportunity to get the positive and mitigate the negative,” she says.

In respect to the potential triple impacts of Sunnyside Yards, a Long Island City rezoning and the BQX project, de la Uz adds that it’s important the city undertake an environmental impact statement that examines the cumulative effects of all three projects.

Stephanie Báez, Vice President of Communications at the NYCEDC, told City Limits that based on the studies they have done, she believes these projects would be immensely helpful in meeting the needs of the growing population.

“The findings from the Sunnyside Yard feasibility study determined that potential developments can bring quality jobs closer to residents and make significant transportation improvements to serve the area,” said Báez in an email to City Limits. “In that same vein, the BQX project aims to increase affordable transportation options for a growing population that lack sufficient access to reliable mass transit.”

Vying for Van Bramer

Ultimately, whether the de Blasio administration is successful in pushing through these projects will also depend on the support of the City Council—and because the Council usually defers to the local councilmember, that means the position of Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer is key.

Van Bramer has not been afraid to defy the administration’s affordable housing projects in years past, but he has yet to declare a definite and clear position on these proposals.

In a letter to the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, which led a protest against the three projects on April 20th, Van Bramer vaguely stated that he has been “publicly critical of plans the city has put forth that would do more harm than good,” but did not specifically state his position in relation to the projects that are of concern.

In reference to rezoning, Van Bramer has promised to remain vigilant of its effects, but has not condemned its implementation: “Any rezoning in LIC must take transportation, schools, and culture into account. 7 train riders already suffer from crowding and delays. If we want to add more people to the neighborhood, we must improve public transit,” he told City Limits last year, adding that he wants to keep Long Island City a haven for artists and that he would “make sure any rezoning includes provisions to keep artists in the neighborhood.” And last month, when discussing the Sunnyside Yards overbuild, Van Bramer told City & State that his ideal project for the space would be a large park.

Van Bramer has, however, expressed more support for the BQX, saying in a February 2016 statement to the mayor’s office, that he “looks forward to working with this Administration to develop this state-of-the-art connection.”

When contacted by City Limits, the councilman’s office declined to comment for this piece. But Andrew Hausermann, director of organizing at Faith in New York, says that in a conversation with him and the Justice for All Coalition last week, Van Bramer expressed his concerns about the proposed rezoning in Long Island City and the amount of development that has already occurred. Van Bramer also, according to Hausermann, shares concerns about the BQX and Sunnyside Yards development, and was very open to the suggestions that the Justice for All Coalition put forth in the meeting.

Hausermann told City Limits that they were “excited about the content of the conversation and the shared concerns.”

UPDATE: Van Bramer reached out to City Limits on June 21 with the following statement: “As with any land use proposal, I will listen to my community and voice their concerns directly to the Administration that is proposing it. If the community is opposed to a project, I will oppose it, as I have done in the past.”