Sunnyside Yards

Adi Talwar

A 2017 Sunnyside Yards feasibility 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.

 

Over the last year, the quasi-private, city-affiliated NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC) has been peddling yet another megaproject for southwestern Queens. This time the proposal focuses on decking and developing over Sunnyside Yards. Through a series of public meetings the agency asked residents to imagine and think big about how this new development could meet community members’ needs and solve the ongoing and exacerbating challenges they and their neighbors face. 

But as organizers and activists have asserted from the beginning – most recently with a public statement signed by 43 grassroots groups across the city and a press conference on November 25th – development over Sunnyside Yards cannot address the challenges Queens’ communities are facing. Further still, development of Sunnyside Yards is emblematic of a broader and fraught city-building process, which is churning communities across the city and displacing working-class communities while building new neighborhoods for wealthier, whiter households. To boot, we also know that the real winners of this remaking of our city are already-wealthy real estate developers and private equity firms.

More to this point, grassroots opposition is rooted in a holistic understanding of past and present development across our neighborhoods. This broader scope renders Sunnyside Yards and the underlying development agenda as one that reifies and exacerbates existing inequalities and promises the continuation of past state-led harm. Through this expanded scope, the only responsible decision to development over Sunnyside Yards is “NO!”.

To understand this further, let’s recall the evening of April 30th, 2019 when EDC held a “public workshop” regarding development over Sunnyside Yards at the Jacob Riis Neighborhood Settlement, a community center in the heart of Queensbridge Houses. The focus of this workshop was “sustainability and green infrastructure”, and after outlining the “who”, “what” and “where” of the project’s planning process, they shifted to talking about climate change in NYC. An introductory slide highlighting Sandy’s 44-person death toll, $19 billion financial loss, and the deadly-nature of worsening extreme temperatures suggested the agency was aware of an impending crisis. And yet nothing suggested they were aware of the ongoing crisis that already existed in the place where they stood. 

NYCHA tenants on the whole, including those living in the local campuses of Queensbridge, Ravenswood, Astoria and Woodside Houses, are living with $25-32 billion worth of unmet capital needs. This means buildings are deteriorating around residents as they work to make a life for themselves and their families. Most commonly we hear about the outdated boilers, unreliable heating systems, or the lead paint, but residents also have mold, rodent infestations, large appliances in disrepair, cracked and leaking pipes, broken windows and elevators and more. These issues are not new, and have been worsening exponentially with time, in tandem with state and federal funding cuts. More so than the growing price tag needed to remedy this situation, it’s tenants’ health and quality of life that are on the line.

The city’s consistent response to the declining habitability of these buildings and units has been that in our $90+ billion annual budget, there is no money. Instead, their solution is to outsource management and repairs to predatory equity firms through a program that we know—and the city knows—will displace existing residents.

And yet, for the succession of megaprojects the city has proposed for the region including Sunnyside Yards, there are always billions of dollars available. Specifically, $2.7 billion for the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX); $3 billion in public subsidies for Amazon HQ2; and if Sunnyside Yards is anything like its predecessor Hudson Yards which cost taxpayers $5.6 billion, then this project will not only follow suit, but it will be the most expensive in the trifecta.

These patterns of public investment are evident in relation to smaller-scale projects as well. The city recently allocated millions of dollars for community resources in Hallet’s Cove, the peninsula that’s also home to Astoria Houses. This investment directly coincides with a new private development that borders and will soon overshadow its NYCHA neighbors. 

Paradoxically, this investment roughly equates to the amount needed to replace the boilers in Astoria Houses which could provide tenants with reliable heat and hot water. It is not fair to say that Councilmember Constantinides forgot about the peninsula’s existing residents. However, the $1 million he allocated to improve security and lighting for Astoria Houses’ residents does nothing to improve the habitability of residents’ apartments and buildings, and quality of life overall. 

Similarly, the city’s $180 million investment strategy to address infrastructure needs in Long Island City claims it will address capital repairs at Queensbridge and Ravenswood. However, the plan for the fastest growing neighborhood in the US offers no specifics. Moreover, the plan’s accompanying press release allocates $95 million for sewers and water mains, $60 million for a new school, $10 million for transit, and $15 million for park improvements. Totaling $180 million already, this suggests none of the money has actually been allocated to address repair needs in Queensbridge and Ravenswood. 

In justifying these patterns of public investment, the city’s long-time promise has been jobs. Yet, data showing employment trends in LIC (zip code 11101) between 2002 and 2015 suggests an inverse relationship between development and employment for public housing residents. 

Under Mayor De Blasio, the city’s main promise has been “affordable housing”. Yet, as activists and advocates from around the city have made clear – the number of “affordable” units is far too few, and their “affordability” is not deep enough. 

For example, the 20% of “affordable housing” included in the 2,400-unit Hallet’s Cove project serves households earning at minimum $34,355 per year, which is more than one full-time, minimum wage worker in NYC can earn from one job. Moreover, this meager fraction does not even begin to meet the needs of the 400,000+ public housing residents, the hundreds of thousands on waiting lists, the 62,000+ residents sleeping in city shelters nightly, or the thousands more sleeping in subways, parks, streets or doubled and tripled up with friends and family.

Meanwhile, exorbitant monthly rates for the 80% “market-rate” apartments are bolstered and justified by the new community resources, which ultimately enhance the appeal of the neighborhood to wealthier residents and ensure developers’ profit margins are met. Moreover, high market-rate values diffuse outwards from these new developments, driving up land values across the region, and intensifying housing insecurity for existing residents.

While the profits of landlords and developers soar, tax breaks further inhibit the city’s ability to address the needs of the populations excluded and harmed by these decisions. The city claims that tax exemption programs like 421-a are necessary for enticing private developers to build affordable housing. They fail to mention the billions these programs cost us each year. Nor do they highlight that nearly 80% of developments receiving 421-a exemptions offer no affordable housing in exchange

This reading of the context highlights a class-based nature of current patterns of public investment and city-building. It also highlights a race-based exclusionary nature. More than ninety percent of public housing residents and the city’s sheltered population are Black and/or Latinx. Households of color are similarly overrepresented among working-class and lower-income households, and when we look at the spatial distribution of race in southwestern Queens over the last two decades, we see that the Black community remains concentrated in public housing while the areas experiencing new development have seen an influx of whiter residents.

Race-based exclusions are evidence of past, often state-led, racially-discriminatory policies like redlining, urban renewal, and planned shrinkage, which locked working-class communities of color out of consideration or benefits related to city-building. Projects like Sunnyside Yards reify past harms while also extending this collective legacy of state-led disinvestment and violence imposed on working-class communities of color into the present, and potentially the future (EDC says Sunnyside Yards will be a reality in 50-100 years).  

This trajectory of city-building becomes disturbingly grim when we look more broadly at the city’s budget-allocation decisions; specifically the recent decision to allocate $11 billion to build four new jails across the city. Working-class communities of color suffer disproportionately from policing and imprisonment. Taken together with land use decisions like Sunnyside Yards, but also “smaller” developments like Hallet’s Cove, these decisions suggest that the city is more interested in building cages to warehouse working-class communities of color rather than taking any steps to improve their quality of life and well-being.  

It is from this reading of the context that grassroots groups are rejecting development over Sunnyside Yards and calling for a moratorium on new major development across the city. 

In remaking their approach, the city should center community needs while locking out real estate interests; abolish the EDC who itself benefits financially from gentrification; and rework its budget priorities and city-building practices, beginning with allocating all $32 billion needed to make public housing habitable, as is humane and their legal responsibility.

Until these demands are met, you will find more and more residents from across the city standing together, disrupting public meetings, and halting city plans. 

Kristen Hackett is a member of the Justice For All Coalition (https://j4ac.us/), a group of LIC and Astoria residents fighting for dignified housing, good jobs and just development in Western Queens, and a doctoral candidate and fellow at The Graduate Center, CUNY. More info at https://kristenhackett.info/.

5 thoughts on “Opinion: Stop Sunnyside Yards! Reparative City Building Now!

  1. How would the NYC Economic Development Corporation’s proposed multi billion dollar Sunnyside Yards development project work, without significant transportation improvements? Both Amtrak and NJ Transit use the existing Sunnyside Yards for mid day and overnight storage, along with positioning of equipment for rush hour service. The MTA, LIRR and Metro North have their own future potential plans to use portions of Sunnyside Yards for construction of a station. The MTA, LIRR, Amtrak New Jersey Transit and Metro North Rail Road all will play a role in the success of any development plans for Sunnyside Yards.

    Few remember that in 1998, as part of the proposed MTA LIRR Eastside Access project, construction of a passenger station was considered for Sunnyside Yard. It would have provided access to the growing Long Island City business and residential district. Fast forward twenty one years. The MTA has still not advertised and awarded a contract for the new Sunnyside Yard LIRR Station (that was to be built at Queens Blvd. & Skillman Avenue). There is no significant funding included for this project within the current $32 billion MTA 2015 – 2019 Five Year Capital Plan. The same appears to be true under the $51 billion MTA 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan. Even if funding is in place at some future date, the MTA would need to complete environmental review, preliminary and final design followed by advertising and awarding a construction contract. Next, is the notice to proceed, contractor mobilization, actual construction, beneficial use, completion of inspection, acceptance and contract punch list items, receipt of asset maintenance plans, followed by release of retainage and final payment to the contractor. Just to reach beneficial use from start to finish would take five years or more. Ten years ago, the estimated project cost was $400 million. Who knows what the engineers estimated cost would be over the next few years? Don’t be surprised if it grows by several hundred million more. This station will have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and include a number of elevators. The final project cost upon completion could increase based upon responses to bids, along with change orders during construction due to last minute changes in scope or unforeseen site conditions.

    Any future development plans utilizing the air-rights over Sunnyside Yards should include the proposed MTA LIRR Eastside Access project construction of a passenger station at Sunnyside Yard. It will provide access to both Sunnyside and adjacent growing Long Island City business and residential community as well as neighboring Astoria and Woodside. There has been incredible residential and commercial growth in neighborhoods adjacent to Sunnyside Yard. Image the benefits to both residents and commuters. Consider the possible travel options including reverse commuting if a Metro North Rail Road connection from the New Haven line via the Bronx and Hell Gate Bridge on to Penn Station reached beneficial use. This assumes there is a way to find capacity in Penn Station during peak am and pm rush hours for new Metro North service. It should be easier to find space for off peak, evenings and weekends. Both could provide service to a Sunnyside Yard station assuming it could be completed by 2025.

    (Larry Penner — transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA, NYC Transit, LIRR, Metro North, MTA Bus, NYC DOT along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).
    .

  2. Yes please, let’s abolish the Economic Development Corporation. As a former NYC employee, I worked with too many inexperienced, ignorant MBA’s graduating straight into project management roles at EDC. Their only skills are creating pretty powerpoint presentations and wearing business attire competely. They have no knowledge of real New York City communities and our needs. They live in a fantasy world of luxury shopping catalogs and restaurant reviews which they work towards incarnating on our streets.

    They can’t even do it effectively. A year or two at EDC is a ticket to a better paid position at a real estate development corporation. The rapid staff turnover reduces their pace of developing New York City out of existence, but increases their prodigious waste of city funds.

    The agency was created to give mayors power to evade civil service and city procurement rules. They do business with a small cabal of financing, design, engineering and construction firms with little or no competition or oversight. They are a tragic drain on the city’s resources and blight on our neighborhoods.

    • It would be amazing to hear more about your time with EDC.. maybe you should consider writing an oped??!?! Advocates and academics are having a hard time getting the inside scoop because of their quasi-private nature.. FOIA requests have been rejected for example. Maybe we can be in touch.. ?

  3. I’ve always believed in a more comprehensive approach to city planning that integrates the needs of all. We should not see each sector of our city in competition with the other. NYCHA needs renewal while at the same time the city needs to expand and improve it’s housing, business and transit networks. Yes, resources are always scarcer than the demand for them but it’s not a zero-sum game. In a competitive, global environment, not moving forward is moving backward and the City needs to develop approaches that keep all it’s sectors moving forward. I do agree, however, that NYCHA is special. It needs emphasis and certainly restoring heat in NYCHA developments should not be a multi-year project.

  4. Public funds shouldn’t be squandered on Sunnyside Yards, which will net any competent developer billions. Did we not learn from the Amazon fiasco? The City should be focusing on what amenities and mitigation the developer should provide, affordable housing, contributions to a NYCHA repair fund. Most important are the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities such as relocating the Flushing line through the southern edge of the site rather than bisecting it
    Straightening the LIC route kink between Hunters Pt. and 33 St., by running through the Sunnyside yards, will serve the transit desert south of it, including LaGuardia College and the old IDCNY site. The modified route replaces 1.5 miles of blighting elevated route operating at 12mph, with 0.8 mi. of 35 mph open cut. This shorten the entire Flushing line trip by four minutes. This becomes even more critical if the LaGuardia AirTrain is run to Flushing rather than a westbound to Astoria.
    The new geometry enables the route to be converted to IND service (the Steinway tunnel will require only minor modifications). Best of all, you get the operational savings from faster running times and IND conversion and facilitates connection with the L train at Chelsea Piers-Meat Market. This turns two Manhattan stub ends into an operational loop bringing subway service to an area that all but screams for it.

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