sunnyside yards and skyline

Adi Talwar

During the community engagement meetings last year participants shared some skepticism over whether Sunnyside’s community concerns were actually being heard.

After five years of planning, Amtrak and the de Blasio administration released the Sunnyside Master Plan last week, outlining a massive, $14 billion dollar framework that will guide the future development of 180 acres for affordable homes, jobs, transportation, social infrastructure and open space on a deck that will cantilever above Amtrak’s Sunnyside Yard’s property in Queens.

New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which has been working with Amtrak on the planning process, said in an interview with City Limits that the plan is a blueprint of recommendations for future development on the site and there will be much more comprehensive public engagement opportunities in the near future. 

According to an NYCEDC spokesperson, the current vision is nowhere near a “shovel-ready mega-development plan, but rather a long-term framework to guide decisions, which deliver on public goods that strengthen the neighborhood and the city.” 

However the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan does include two immediate priorities. One is to facilitate financing with the MTA and the city to create the Sunnyside Station over the next five to 10 years. The Sunnyside Station was designed at a high level as part of the LIRR East Side Access Final Environmental Impact Statement.

The other is to form a nonprofit planning entity. The City and Amtrak have committed to forming a nonprofit planning entity in partnership with local elected officials, community members, and other key public stakeholders. This entity will steward implementation of the Master Plan and ensure that future decisions reflect the public priorities established by the plan—including affordable housing, open space, transportation, and sustainability goals—and help coordinate early investments such as Sunnyside Station, the city says.  

Currently, Sunnyside Yard serves Amtrak, LIRR and NJ TRANSIT which handle passenger trains. In 2014, Amtrak approached the city about coordinating long-term planning for Sunnyside Yards. NYCEDC and Amtrak began the Sunnyside Yard master planning community engagement process in 2018 with a steering committee made up of over 40 community leaders, local and citywide advocates, and policy experts. The city says the planning was defined by feedback from over 100 public interviews, four community workshops, three large public meetings, a digital town hall, walking tours, and group discussions with over 145 organizations. 

During those meetings, the city said they learned issues such as displacement, rising costs, overcrowding within an aging infrastructure and access to public transit were top concerns for participants. 

Decades of to-dos

“Sunnyside Yard presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a new model for affordable housing and equitable development. With a plan that delivers a new Sunnyside station along with 12,000 affordable homes, equitable homeownership opportunities, open space, schools, and more, we are fighting for a New York New Yorkers can afford,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a press release.

Surrounded by Astoria and Long Island City, neighborhoods that have seen a development boom over the last decade, the Sunnyside Yard Plan calls for creating approximately 12,000 affordable homes to be built on top of the master deck—a plan that will be decades in the making. The master deck will cover 80 percent of Sunnyside Yard. Of the 12,000 homes, half will be split between households earning below 50 percent of area median income (AMI), which is $48,050 annually for a family of three, and households earning below 30 percent of AMI, which is $28,830 for a family of three. 

According to the plan, the remaining 6,000 homes will be affordable homeownership opportunities for households earning 100 percent AMI annually (which is $96,100 for a family of three) through a financing mechanism based on the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program,  which uses special low-interest mortgage loans and tax breaks in order to keep prices below market-rate. Eligible borough residents will be given priority for these programs. 

According to the Furman Center, the median household income was $68,644 in 2017  (11 percent higher than the citywide median household income) in the Sunnyside and Woodside neighborhoods. The real median gross rent in Woodside and Sunnyside increased from $1,320 in 2006 to $1,640 in 2017 while advertised rent prices on average were at $2,420. An estimated 24 percent of renter households in Woodside and Sunnyside were considered severely rent burdened because they spent more than 50 percent of their household income on rent. 

The de Blasio administration says the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan will become the largest single planned affordable community in New York City since Co-Op City in the Bronx was completed in the early 1970s, according to the press release. The city has emphasized that this is a Master Plan, not a transaction with a developer, and that there will be formal public-review processes for development and land use actions.

The Master Plan does not prescribe zoning heights or density yet but does emphasize that the density and building heights would reflect the existing scale of the neighborhoods surrounding Sunnyside Yards. The city plans on giving priority for development contracts to Minority, Women-Owned, and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises and community-oriented developers, such as nonprofits, and also will prioritize community forms of ownership such as Community Land Trusts (CLTs).

When it comes to public transportation, the city has planned for a new Sunnyside station served by LIRR and Metro-North located along Queens Boulevard Bridge, just to the east of Queens Plaza and west of Woodside on the LIRR Main Line (with potential Amtrak service and trains from New Jersey). It also wants a new subway station and a new Bus Rapid Transit line connecting Queens and Midtown Manhattan. 

On 60 acres of new public open space, the plan will include new parks, athletic fields, nature paths and an outdoor market . Streets will be designed with wide sidewalks and separated bus and bike lanes.

Other plans for the public land would also include 10 to 12 new schools, a education and research hub, two to three new libraries and over 30 new childcare or healthcare facilities and five million square feet of new office, retail, industrial, and institutional space to host an estimated 7,000 potential new jobs. The work of building the site out is expected to create 30,000 temporary construction industry jobs. 

The Master Plan also boasts a sustainable and resilient approach by planning for “elevated land away from the floodplain, infrastructure designed to withstand climate-intensified weather, and ambitious goals that embrace carbon neutrality, circular systems, and green building technologies.”

Skepticism about the process and the product

During the community engagement meetings last year participants shared some skepticism over whether community concerns were actually being heard in the wake of the failed Amazon deal (you can read more details on the meetings here). 

This past November, community groups such as the Justice for All Coalition, Stop Sunnyside Yards, Take Back NYC and Woodside on the Move, along with several other community activists rallied against the plan and demanded the city to put a stop to the it altogether. 

Kristen Hackett, executive committee member for Justice For All Coalition (JFAC) and an Astoria resident, said the group is often represented as completely against development but JFAC members say the group supports community-led development that is rooted in the community’s concerns. 

But in the Sunnyside Yards Master Plan the city has produced, Hackett says, the community was an afterthought, “[NYCEDC] came to Jacob Riis (NYCHA Queensbridge Houses) and there was no discussion about NYCHA. They were showing all these like flashy, futuristic, sustainable housing examples in the middle of Queensbridge where there is an environmental justice and housing crisis,” said Hackett. 

Hackett said the NYCHA meeting with NYCEDC officials felt like an item on the check list. “Our major concerns were the [Sunnyside Yards Master Plan] wouldn’t go into meeting the needs of the community, but really that this was the a profit machine for private investment, like we’ve seen with other development projects around the city,” she said. 

One major concern for community groups like JFAC is that Amtrak’s Sunnyside Yard was declared a state superfund site according to a report by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. The report refers to a “Sewer System beneath the Yard of the Amtrak Sunnyside Yard site, a Class 2 inactive hazardous waste disposal site, ” a classification that is reflects a “significant threat to the public health or environment” and requires action. The report was released two years before Amtrak approached the city about the large development project over the site. 

Hackett said Sunnyside’s wider community is now facing large development projects happening simultaneously, including the Sunnyside Yards Master Plan, the streetcar system on 15-mile stretch along waterfront Brooklyn-Queens Connecter better known as the BQX and the Anable Basin development plans. 

But urban planning experts say the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan will take several years before any type of development plan comes to fruition and the plan’s principles serve as a guide for future developments.  

“First of all, this is the first detailed, comprehensive plan for Sunnyside Yards that has emerged from extensive, government research and planning and engagement with the community and different stakeholders,” said Chris Jones, Regional Planning Association (RPA) senior vice president and chief planner. (RPA president Tom Wright sat on the Sunnyside Yards Master Plan steering committee.)

Jones said the plan addresses three main goals: affordable housing, economic opportunity and climate change, and he does not expect the plan’s driving principles to shift significantly in any direction as long as the economy continues to thrive.

“The land just becomes that much more valuable because the city’s economy is strong and there’s enough public funding to subsidize, there is enough  private demand for it that construction costs come down enough and the plan itself would go through some type of revision to make it work economically,” said Jones.