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With the city moving closer to potential development atop a sprawling railyard in Sunnyside, apprehensive locals are gearing up for a fight echoing the battle against Amazon.
A trio of Queens politicians, who last teamed against the city’s Economic Development Corporation over the online giant’s plans for a Long Island City headquarters, called out the agency — saying the public input process hasn’t been sufficiently democratic or put enough emphasis on community priorities.
‘Yet Another Mega-Project’
“No one wishes to see the specter of luxury development that is Hudson Yards duplicated in Sunnyside,” reads a joint letter from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, both Democrats.
“The proposal as it stands reflects a misalignment of priorities: development over reinvestment, commodification of public land over consideration of public good.”
In a second letter, state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) writes that the railyard effort appears to the community as “yet another mega-project that inures to the benefit of developers to further gentrification and displacement.”
“This project should be approached with a community-first perspective, with the priority being affordable housing, adequate green space, more school seats and the transformative transportation options western Queens needs,” he added.
Sunnyside Yards, an 180-acre train storage and maintenance facility that opened in 1910, now serves the NJ Transit, the Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak.
Stretching over a mile, the yards are primarily owned by Amtrak, with the MTA controlling the northern and western sections, which the city has air rights over. A small portion is owned by General Motors, which maintains an automotive repair facility there.
The space is six times the size of Hudson Yards, according to the city.
Though talk about possible development has swirled for decades, a concerted push began in 2017, when the city, via the EDC, released a feasibility study concluding it was possible to place a “deck” over as much as 85% of the yard.
The study also determined that development could “bring substantial benefit to the city” in the form of tens of thousands of units of new housing, open space, schools and community facilities — at an estimated cost of up to $19 billion.
EDC did not respond to a request for an updated price.
Plan Coming This Winter
In summer of 2018, the city launched a second step — an 18-month master planning process — to work with stakeholders to “develop a vision and framework” for building over the yard, while preserving rail operations.
The city formed a steering committee with local elected officials and community members, and held three public meetings to collect resident feedback. The list of members advertised on the EDC’s dedicated Sunnyside Yard website includes Ocasio-Cortez, Van Bramer and Gianaris.
A presentation shown at the last community meeting in September proposed a greenway, an expansion of Sunnyside’s Lou Lodati Park, commercial and retail space, and large swaths blocked out for residential units.
An EDC spokesperson said the agency intends to release the master plan in “Winter 2020,” but wasn’t more specific.
“Sunnyside Yard presents an opportunity to build a stronger New York and meet the needs for more open space, transit, housing, jobs and green infrastructure in Western Queens,” the spokesperson said.
“We recognize that in any long-term planning process there will be questions and concerns.”
Van Bramer said it was not apparent what will follow the release of the master plan, and which agencies or officials have a vote.
“Who exactly is making the final call on this is not abundantly made clear,” added Van Bramer, who is running for Queens borough president. “There’s a scenario where the master plan gets released but maybe it just sits there, I don’t know.”
Tom Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said the planning process thus far has been open and thoughtful.
“It’s not going to be a monstrosity as described by some,” said Grech, a member of the project’s steering committee, adding that the forthcoming master plan was just a starting point for more discussion. “To have that much space lie fallow and have nothing happen to it would be wrong.”
No New Developments
Amazon, which announced plans for a headquarters in Long Island City last November, scrapped its so-called HQ2 on Valentine’s Day amid community opposition.
Foes charged the project would drive residents out of Queens, while supporters pointed to the high-paying jobs and other economic benefits that Amazon would have brought.
Emboldened by Amazon’s departure, dozens of community groups across the borough and the city have united again to oppose “runaway development.” A group of protesters rallied Monday against development over the Sunnyside Yards.
The groups, led by nonprofit Justice For All, also seek a moratorium on all major new developments and rezonings in borough. That would potentially quash the ongoing circling of developers looking to build new towers on property near Long Island City’s Anable Basin.
“We call on you to allocate the tens of billions of dollars intended to develop the yards instead to restore public housing, repair and expand our crumbling infrastructure, save small businesses and restore habitability for all, not just the wealthy,” a statement from the coalition reads.
Emily Sharpe, who founded Stop Sunnyside Yards a month after the Amazon deal was cancelled, lives steps away from the railyard.
“We want to spend our public money on us,” she said.
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