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The city and Amtrak’s long-awaited master plan for the Sunnyside Yard development in Queens promises 12,000 units of entirely affordable housing and ample green space built atop a deck spanning a new transportation hub.
But locals wary of the envisioned megaproject atop a massive rail facility say it would be a mistake for the public and railroad to foot the projected $14.4 billion bill for the deck and basic infrastructure.
“Please say no to this massive giveaway to big development that holds no guarantees for the rest of us,” Emily Sharpe, a lawyer who founded the grassroots group “Stop Sunnyside Yards,” urged her neighbors at a crowded Community Board 2 meeting Thursday night.
Sharpe noted that while the city Economic Development Corporation’s plan was filled with “progressive, forward-thinking words like ‘community land trusts,’ ‘pipelines to economic opportunities’ and ‘new models of affordable housing,’” it also included words such as “recommends” and “should.”
“It is these latter, qualifying words that the EDC, developers and politicians will use to escape accountability and responsibility when promises made to us go unmet,” Sharpe said to applause.
Sharpe was among dozens of community members and advocates who voiced concerns that Sunnyside Yard would turn into another Hudson Yards, the Manhattan project that Newsweek suggested was “the Poster Child for Middle Class Destruction.”
EDC officials called the new plan, released by the city and Amtrak last week, a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” intended to be built out in phases over multiple decades.
They were less specific about questions of cost and funding.
“This isn’t a shovel-ready proposal,” said Eleni DeSiervo, the EDC’s vice president of government and community relations. “It’s a framework, a way of putting the community’s values on paper.”
A Big Size Cut
Touted by the EDC as the culmination of more than 18 months of community engagement and technical analysis, the plan differs sharply from a 2017 feasibility study that considered adding up to 24,000 apartments in high-rise towers as tall as 69 stories in a $19 billion mixed-use development.
Giving priority to transportation and infrastructure, phase one of the latest plan calls for a new Sunnyside Station at the western end of the site, to be served by Amtrak, the LIRR, and even NJ Transit and Metro-North.
The hub would offer “a one-seat ride from Western Queens to every part of the Greater New York City region and the Northeast,” said Adam Grossman Meagher, an EDC senior vice president.
The plan also calls for a new “rapid transit” bus line connecting Queens and Midtown Manhattan, and envisions the possibility of a new subway line at some point.
“The city and Amtrak have pledged a substantial funding contribution” to the Sunnyside Station project, Grossman Meagher said, and have also committed to “creating a nonprofit entity to steward the plan over time.”
The timeframe for phase one, he added, would require a year to form the nonprofit and then “another five to 10 years” to complete the station.
Once the rail hub is underway, the plan envisions a $5.4 billion deck constructed over the train yard to create nearly 115 acres of new public land — including 60 acres of open space, new schools, libraries, and child and health care facilities to serve surrounding neighborhoods.
Affordable Housing Planned
Key to the proposal is the creation of “100% affordable housing” with 12,000 residential units, 6,000 of which would go to low-income New Yorkers. Half the planned units would go to families earning less than 50% of the area median income (currently $48,050 per year for a family of three), and half of those to families earning below 30% AMI.
The remaining 6,000 homes would offer financing modeled on the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program introduced in the 1950s for moderate- and middle-income households. Taller buildings in the development would be located on the northern end of the site, while the rest of the housing would be mid-rise, the plan proposes.
“The community didn’t want a place that looked like midtown Manhattan,” Grossman Meagher said. “They wanted to keep it Queens.”
Community Board 2 member Lisa Deller wondered what the elevated project would look like to neighbors. “So you’re going to see a big wall and the Emerald City on top?” she asked.
The EDC officials assured attendees that the concrete and steel deck would be a gradual rise that would blend into the adjacent communities.
One attendee drew applause by asking, “How are you going to pay for it?”
“Near term, Sunnyside Station will have to be funded through public investment channels,” Grossman Meagher said, noting that the city had not committed to spending on anything other than the rail station.
He did not offer particulars for financing the rest of the project “longer term,” other than to note that development proposals would require public approvals and environmental review.
“We’re not doing development on day one so we don’t have to worry about issuing bonds,” Grossman Meagher said. “We’re not solving all that, but we’re saying we think that should happen.”
‘A Trojan Horse’
The answers failed to satisfy many in attendance.
“What they’re doing is they’re laying the groundwork for future development,” said Michael Forest of the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project. “By the time they’re done, we’re all going to be priced out because the land value increases.”
Woodside resident Selvin Gootar called the proposal “a Trojan horse. We should be very skeptical and view it with a jaundiced eye.”
Not everyone opposed the plan, though.
“At the end of the day, through all the rancor and name-calling, the locals spoke and the EDC listened,” Tom Grech, president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,150 businesses, told THE CITY. “It’s really hard to argue against 12,000 units of affordable housing and all that green space. Sunnyside Yard is just what the doctor ordered.”
CB2 Chair Denise Keehan-Smith noted she had long supported the revamped rail hub.
“We’re looking forward to working with the city and the rail entities to make this a reality for Queens residents,” she said.
As for promises of affordable housing, green space and the other wish-list items, Keehan-Smith told THE CITY, “They presented a plan, but not a how-to plan.”
Woodside resident Regina Shanley also left the meeting with questions.
“In the end, the city will do whatever the hell they want,” she told THE CITY. “They don’t care what the public thinks.”
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