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What Happened to the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan?


Rendering of the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan


In March 2020, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and Amtrak released the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan, an ambitious $14 billion infrastructure project that would deck the 180-acre rail yard in Queens and effectively create a new community with thousands of affordable homes and dozens of acres of green and public space situated atop a new regional rail hub.

But the plan was released at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, just before the city and state went into lockdown, economic activity slowed to a crawl, and every city infrastructure project was put on pause. The Sunnyside Yard Master Plan, a product of an announcement that de Blasio first made in 2015 during his State of the City address, was shelved.

More than two years later, there have been few signs of life for the plan, though some related transit projects are progressing. Elected officials and experts, including those involved with creating the master plan, say that the time is ripe to pursue such a monumental proposal, especially considering the long-term need for housing in the city, the immediate impact of job-creation on the city’s economic recovery from the pandemic, and as federal funding for infrastructure has begun to flow.

“It's a project of a scale that really only the public sector could realize,” said Skylar Bisom-Rapp, senior associate at Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), the firm that led the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan process at the behest of the de Blasio administration. “There’s a very kind of unique scale to this project in terms of the amount of housing, the amount of public services it could provide just given the amount of contiguous land that's available there without having to directly displace anybody.”

The Sunnyside Yard Master Plan envisions building a deck over the existing rail yard – a project in the vein of what the city has done or plans to do, to varying degrees, in recent decades at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Hudson Yards in Manhattan – so it can continue to operate while constructing 12,000 units of affordable housing (half for very low-income families) over the new space that would be available, along with 60 acres of new public space, schools, libraries, and more.

The transit hub, which currently serves Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road, could be connected with the city’s subway system and the new space could also accommodate additional transit infrastructure such as a Bus Rapid Transit corridor.

The MTA recently included a new “Sunnyside Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Station” in its 20-year needs assessment of transit infrastructure, beginning the process of studying the proposal before deciding whether it can be funded down the line. But the entities involved in the overall Sunnyside Master Plan don’t seem to be making any progress.

“There’s a logic to doing the project as MTA and Amtrak consider their next round of investments and improvements in the yard,” said Bisom-Rapp.

“It definitely requires a lot of political will…It’s a large-scale project with a lot of opportunity that comes at a cost and ultimately elected officials and the people they’re accountable to need to be the ones deciding if now is the time to do it,” he added.

“Amtrak is committed to continuing working with NYC and [the city’s economic development corporation] EDC on a plan to knit the many sides of Sunnyside Yard together with a potential overbuild,” said Jason Abrams, an Amtrak spokesperson, in a statement. “We’re open to concepts and working with our partners to develop those concepts but recognize there are many issues to work through. We appreciate the potential to leverage an important railroad asset and create value and opportunity for transit-oriented development in an important part of New York City.”

The New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), a mayor-controlled public benefit corporation, did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

Alicia Glen, founder and managing principal of MSquared, was de Blasio’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development when the Sunnyside Yard plan was announced to much fanfare. The pandemic, she said in a phone interview, may have stalled the project but also made it all the more necessary.

“All of the reasons why we wanted to develop Sunnyside Yard have gotten even more compelling,” Glen told Gotham Gazette. “It would seem to me that now would be a really, really smart time for not just City Hall, but all the other partners to really put the pedal to the metal because there's [federal] infrastructure money available, there’s demonstrated market demand. And it’s just really the perfect time to start making these kinds of investments so that New York City can continue to grow.”

“There could not be a better time than now when you have all of the political stars aligned,” she added.

New York City is set to benefit from tens of billions in infrastructure funding under the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law passed in November 2021 by Congress and President Joe Biden. New York State expects as much as $27 billion in direct funding, much of which will flow to the city. The bill also included about $66 billion for Amtrak, funding crucial infrastructure needs.

With several major transit projects underway or in the planning process, Glen said that the groundwork for Sunnyside Yard is essential. “All of this is interconnected,” she said. 

But a major undertaking like the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan requires elected officials to champion it. Mayor Eric Adams has not taken up the plan as of yet. Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said in a podcast interview with Gotham Gazette in July 2021, just after he won a tough primary election for his office, that the plan was “of the highest priority,” but his office has since declined to comment on the proposal despite multiple inquiries for this article.

“It’s all about leadership and political will because there's no other reason why it couldn't get done,” Glen said. “It’s not too complicated. We have the technology, we have the skills, we have the wherewithal to figure out how to build above and next to a complex rail system. It's just about money. There happens to be more money right now than there's ever been.”

“Sunnyside Yard is an unbelievable opportunity to build a truly, truly sustainable, inclusive mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhood at scale in the middle of the most amazing borough,” she said.

What sets Sunnyside Yard apart from other recent major city projects – like Hudson Yards or the proposed Empire Station Complex plan to redevelop Penn Station and its surrounding neighborhoods in Manhattan – is that it is primarily focused on affordable housing, said Liam Blank, policy and communications manager at Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“In the post-covid world, it's now more questionable whether more office space is actually needed. There's more of a permanent shift towards remote work and flexible work,” he pointed out in a phone interview, referencing the Penn Station area plan, which is heavily focused on office space versus the Sunnyside Yard vision centered on housing and transit.

The project will require the mayor’s outspoken support, he said. “The mayor definitely would have to be probably the number one spokesperson on the project. If it's not a priority for the mayor, it's gonna be a lot harder to push it, to make any progress on it.”

The governor could potentially create a General Project Plan for Sunnyside, as is the case with the planned Penn Station area redevelopment and was done for Atlantic Yard and Hudson Yards. A GPP would supersede local land use rules and ease approvals. But it does not seem to be on the state’s radar. A spokesperson for Hochul did not return a request for comment. (Former Governor Andrew Cuomo, for his part, repeatedly criticized de Blasio’s proposal for Sunnyside Yard when he first announced it, and instead expressed some support for an alternate proposal to build a massive convention center at the site — but he was known to make decisions based on undermining de Blasio.)

For Mayor Adams, the Sunnyside plan could be a legacy-defining project particularly as he deals with a continuing affordable housing crisis. Adams has pledged to spur housing production, released a "City of Yes" plan that will seek zoning changes to increase development, as well as a larger housing plan that includes the zoning proposals, which are in development.

“We are going to turn New York into a ‘City of Yes’ — yes in my backyard, yes on my block, yes in my neighborhood,” he said when announcing the generalities of the proposed zoning changes. But he has not yet committed to any annual housing production targets and hasn’t identified or offered any big housing creation projects as part of the plan.

An Adams spokesperson did not provide comment for this article after saying he would.

The Sunnyside plan was designed to receive broad support. The planning process was led by a steering committee, co-chaired by Sharon Greenberger, President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York, and Elizabeth Lusskin, then-President of the Long Island City Partnership. It included 35 community leaders, advocates, and policy experts who, according to EDC’s announcement of the plan, sought feedback through more than 100 public interviews, four community workshops, three large public meetings, a digital town hall, walking tours, and discussions with more than 145 organizations.

“After over a year of extensive community engagements and scores of conversations with a wide range of stakeholders, we developed a thoughtful framework to guide development at Sunnyside Yard for the generations to come,” said then-Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Vicki Been, in a statement accompanying the release of the plan.

“Civic engagement is alive and well in Western Queens,” Greenberger said at the time. “The planning process enabled direct community participation and the prioritization of community needs. It’s particularly gratifying to see the input and recommendations of the community reflected in the final Master Plan.”

There were, of course, detractors to the plan. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and then-City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, both Democrats representing the area, sent a joint letter to EDC in November 2019 expressing their concerns about the potential plan, though it was still in the drafting process. “The proposed high-rise and mid-rise residential buildings would further exacerbate a housing crisis that displaces communities of color and parcels off public land to private real estate developers,” they said in their letter. Ocasio-Cortez stepped down from the steering committee in January 2020, insisting that her constituents’ feedback, particularly about potential gentrification, was not being heeded. After this year’s redistricting process, Sunnyside Yard will no longer be in Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional district come January; it is now in the district likely to be represented by Rep. Nydia Velazquez.

City Council Member Julie Won, Van Bramer’s successor, now represents Sunnyside Yard. Her office did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Van Bramer also did not return a request for comment.

There are still those who are holding out hope about the project and the monumental impact it can have on the city.

“I think now is the time to think strategically for the future and this is a great opportunity,” said Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress, who was one of the members of the steering committee for the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan. “When you look at where the world is right now…we need to be building affordable housing, we need to be truly thinking about the future of job creation and creating opportunities not just in Midtown or lower Manhattan.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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