A team of city planners and consultants is two-thirds through an 18-month master planning process for what could be a megadevelopment on the Sunnyside Yards—a site six times the size of Hudson Yards between Long Island City and Sunnyside.
If their first year of work is any indication, the planners’ task over the next six months will involve navigating a western Queens fraught with development-wary parties from elected officials down to the grassroots advocates and ordinary residents.
“They’re getting into a hornets’ nest,” Steven Lang, a LaGuardia Community College professor of urban studies, says of the master planning team, led by the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
The master plan could lay the conceptual groundwork for a deck across the 180-acre, active rail yard holding thousands of units of housing along with office, commercial, educational and recreational space. In 2015, Mayor de Blasio included the Sunnyside Yards in his affordable housing plan—the latest in a string of land-use proposals for the rail yard over the last century.
The mayor’s proposal has gotten the furthest, with a $2.6 million feasibility study in 2017 concluding that decking over the site is possible. The study proposed scenarios that included up to 24,000 units of housing—including up to 7,200 affordable units—in residential buildings as high as 69 stories, surrounded by as much as 52 acres of open space.
Local pols state skepticism
The planning team, announced in May 2018 as a sprawling body of agencies, consultants and a steering committee of local community leaders, hit its first bump the moment it stepped out the door when Assemblymember Catherine Nolan and Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, who had both expressed reservations about developing the site, complained that they were not consulted on the formation of the team ahead of the announcement. Since then, Nolan and Van Bramer, along with State Senator Michael Gianaris and Congress Member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other elected officials, have been listed as members of the steering committee on the master plan website, but disagreements about membership and the proposal persist.
“I am not a member of EDC’s planning team and never agreed to be listed along with Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Michael Gianaris on their website,” Van Bramer tells City Limits. “I don’t like what EDC is proposing for Sunnyside Yard,” he says, adding, “There are certainly listening sessions run by EDC but it remains to be seen if people are really being heard.”
“Usually we’re just listed,” Nolan says. “It doesn’t indicate support.” She said, “We feel that the city has much more to do to engage the community.”
In a similar vein, a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, who was brought into the process after taking office in January and whose district borders the site, says, “We’re not seeing a lot of evidence that community voices have been implemented,” in regards to issues such as affordable housing. Ocasio-Cortez’s team has only attended one of five quarterly steering committee meetings so far.
Representatives for Congress Member Carolyn Maloney, who wants the state to fund a Long Island Railroad station and transit hub at Sunnyside Yards, have attended the steering committee meetings and scoping sessions, and her chief of staff has met with the EDC on the master plan multiple times, a spokesperson said. But Maloney is also worried about the proposal. “The Congresswoman is concerned about the impact on infrastructure, particularly the sewer system, transportation, schools, parks and resiliency, but we also believe there needs to be a new transportation hub,” the spokesperson added.
Similar concerns had cropped up when Amazon entered into a short-lived deal to build a headquarters in Long Island City before backing out earlier this year, citing opposition from “state and local officials.” Many saw Gianaris, a vocal opponent of both Amazon and the Sunnyside Yards proposal, as key to that decision. (The senator has not responded to requests for comments.)
More process than pronouncement
But an underlying criticism of the Amazon deal was the lack of public review and local involvement in the process. The EDC’s Sunnyside Yards planning team has made an effort to involve the same community by creating the steering committee and by holding a series of public meetings.
Along with business improvement districts, local civic associations, planning and real estate experts, the 27-member steering committee involves local activists who oppose or are associated with groups that oppose the Sunnyside Yards proposal. Several of them tell City Limits that a real conversation has taken place at their meetings.
“There were certainly a mix of proponents, opponents and people who I think were ambivalent,” Sheila Lewandowski, a Community Board 2 vice chair and executive director of the Chocolate Factory Theater, says. “I’m opposed to the plan that they have put forth,” she says. “It feels like we’re being listened to as a means to achieve a compromise.”
“We have been vocal about the community’s skepticism of the project, community distrust of the EDC,” says Melissa Orlando, founder of Sunnyside-based transit advocacy group, Access Queens and a steering committee member. “It’s not like people can’t express their opinions in the (steering committee) meetings.”
Lewandowski and Orlando say if development were unavoidable, they would accept a plan to use the space for a large park. “Ideally, it’s parks and a plan for additional transportation,” Orlando says.
The public meetings, meanwhile, brought skepticism and dissent to the table.
More than 375 people, most from the neighborhoods near the site, attended the planning team’s first public meeting at LaGuardia Community College on October 24, according to EDC’s summary documents. “I was shocked by the big line on Thomson Avenue,” Lang says of the meeting. Note cards scribbled with opinions filled up at topic-focused “stations” around the all standing room. The EDC came away with the public’s top concerns in the western Queens area as “the lack of affordability,” “aging infrastructure,” “mass transit’s capacity to withstand population increases” and “overcrowding of schools.”
With the exception of a walking tour attended by only about a dozen people, in connection with a city planning conference, the team held no further public events until March 26, six weeks after the Amazon deal fell apart. More than 200 people filled the auditorium at P.S. 166 in Astoria, summary reports found. After a slideshow presentation, a question and answer session got heated when some shouting about gentrification occurred, and locals asked pointed questions about concerns such as the cost of decking over the site. The feasibility study had put a $16 billion to $19 billion price-tag on the potential deck. But most of these questions could not be answered with specifics yet.
“I’m wondering why,” a woman in the audience said at the meeting, “instead of investing in our existing neighborhoods long ignored by the city, the EDC wants to build an entirely new neighborhood over the Sunnyside Yards.”
“It’s important,” Cali Williams, then-director of the planning team replied, “while planning for improvements in existing infrastructure, transportation, open space, to also be thinking long term.” The Sunnyside Yards is an opportunity, Williams said, to “think about what future generations, our children and grandchildren will need.” If approved, the project could unfold over decades.
That night ended with three workshops, including an urban design workshop that drew 120 participants who broke into groups of about 10. The groups worked with maps of the site, blank note cards and stickers and contemplated preferred density and layouts for the site. (The most preferred was a Floor Area Ratio common in mid-to-low-rise Sunnyside.) But most of the spokespeople for these groups, reporting back to the room, used the platform to call for community land trusts, for no private development on public land (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority owns 31.2 acres of the site) and to demand that any development there should be 100 percent affordable with worker-owned businesses. The EDC’s summary report of the meeting notes “consistent emphasis on the importance of affordability.”
Substantive discussions, and disagreements
Vishaan Chakrabarti, whose firm Practice for Architecture and Urbanism is the lead consultant for the planning team, observed the workshop from the side of the room. A former director of the DCP Manhattan office and principal for SHoP Architects who had a hand in major New York City projects such as the Domino Sugar redevelopment, Essex Crossing and the Hudson Yards, Chakrabarti—who was also an outspoken supporter of the Queens Amazon headquarters—brings a pro-growth perspective, dismissing the protesters.*
“A lot of people want to put up a ‘closed, we’re full’ sign,” Chakrabarti said in an interview. If no additional housing is built in western Queens, a central location in New York City, working-class people of color will be pushed to the periphery anyway, he said. “People make this fundamental mistake with this topic. They believe that if you do nothing, nothing will happen. That’s not the way a market economy works.”
Asked if the development of the Sunnyside Yards should involve investment in infrastructure and transit in the general region of western Queens, Chakrabarti said, “Infrastructure does need to get built in order for it to occur.”
Chakrabarti has also tried to distance the master plan from the feasibility report, which envisioned high-rises across the site. “What density is appropriate for Sunnyside is still very much an open question,” he said.
The planning team followed the large public meetings with four thematic workshops at schools and community centers in Woodside, Sunnyside and Long Island City. The best attended workshop drew 35 people; the least popular attracted less than 20. There were protesters and off-topic discussions.
But many locals who participated stayed on topic. One group of participants at the open space-themed workshop at P.S. 199Q in Sunnyside drew a large circle on a Sunnyside Yards map showing where a big park could be in the middle. (Other ideas included a High Line type linear park through the site.) A member of that group, Janet Yoon from Astoria, had seen TV news coverage of the second public meeting and decided to take part. “I wouldn’t love it but I know that it’s bound to happen,” she said about the proposed development. “But it would be great if we could work with the developers.”
When that workshop wound down, Christine Coulombe, a retired librarian who’s lived in Sunnyside for 35 years, approached Williams to give her take on the overall plan. “I’m not opposed to building there,” Coulombe explained later. “I don’t want to see development that’s going to stress the infrastructure. I don’t want to see housing that’s called affordable when it’s not.”
“I don’t think people in Western Queens want high density development because we live in Queens. We don’t want to live in Manhattan,” she added.
Two events were held at New York City Housing Authority facilities, including a second urban design workshop at the Woodside Houses and a sustainability workshop at the Queensbridge Houses. But unlike at the first public meetings, the planning team did not collect information on where the attendees lived, so it was not clear if NYCHA residents attended the workshops. Ann Cotton Morris, president of the Woodside Houses tenants association, attended the Queensbridge workshop. But that is the only workshop that Cotton Morris, listed on the planning team website as a member of the steering committee, attended. She tells City Limits that she was unaware she was on the steering committee. An EDC spokesperson said Cotton Morris was invited to attend the committee meetings.
Melissa Orlando attended the final, transportation workshop at Growing Up Green Charter School on May 1 in the Dutch Kills section of Long Island City. Popular ideas discussed there included a regional rail station, keeping the site a “pedestrian-only zone,” adding an F-line stop and extending the G train.
“There are a lot of ideas about what could potentially be at Sunnyside Yard and I think this is a really great moment of time,” Williams said before stepping down as director of the planning team in June. EDC vice president Adam Grossman Meagher took her place.
“I really do believe that they took it seriously,” Lang said of the EDC’s outreach so far.
The planning team “really went out and met—and are still meeting with—lots of people,” Lewandowski said.
Williams had told the attendees at the transportation workshop, “Our goal here is to be as inclusive as possible.”
Since the workshops, the planning team has been trying to reach more people by setting up tables at community events such as “Taste of Sunnyside” and “LIC Springs” and will be at NYCHA Houses Family Day and other events over the next few months.
Another public meeting is planned for the fall. After that, the master plan is expected to be released by the end of the year, which may precede an environmental review and a public approval process if the city decides to move forward.
*An earlier version of this article mentioned Vishaan Chakrabati as a former City Planning Commission member. It has been corrected to mention Chakrabati as the former Dept. of City Planning director for the Manhattan office.