By Benjamin Fang
Officials from the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) recently discussed the Sunnyside Yards feasibility study with members of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.
Nate Bliss, senior vice president at EDC, described the 180-acre tract in western Queens as “a piece of transit infrastructure that is critical to the region.” Amtrak owns large parts of the rail yard, but the MTA also owns parts of the site, with air rights above 22 feet belonging to the city.
It’s used as midday storage, servicing and commissary for Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road.
The railyard is six times the size of Hudson Yards and larger than Battery Park City and Roosevelt Island.
In February, EDC released a feasibility study that examined if it was technically possible to deck over the rail yard to build housing. Bliss said Amtrak had previously invited city officials to look at the opportunities at Sunnyside Yards after they finished their master plan.
“As all this construction work happens and plans are made for the future, both for the Amtrak and MTA, these are pieces of infrastructure that once put in place are fairly immovable,” Bliss said. “This is an opportunity, if one ever wanted to consider overbuild development, to move those tracks in such a way that they could accommodate future development.”
Bliss said any potential development could be “determined and informed” by what’s happening within the busy yard system. The site has different levels of conditions. Some areas have clear and free foundation space for taller buildings, while other parts are only conducive for open space or parks.
The study found that developers could only deck 80 to 85 percent of the site. The rest is “severely constrained” for vertical development, Bliss said.
“Mediating that grade change will be a design challenge for anyone,” he said.
The feasibility study came up with three scenarios that consider different priorities for economic development, urban design and policy implications. With the scenario that prioritizes residential uses, Sunnyside Yards could potentially build 24,000 units of housing over 30 million square feet.
The scenario would also accommodate up to 20 local schools, municipal services and infrastructure.
Bliss discussed some challenges the long-term project could potentially face. The study tested off-site and on-site power and sewer systems, and concluded that utilities would need to be upgraded to “support a development of this scale.”
Another challenge would be the area’s transportation network. Although Sunnyside Yards is well-served by mass transit, including subways and bus lines, those modes are at capacity, Bliss said.
He said a more detailed study is required to conduct a full analysis of the impact on the local transportation infrastructure.
The study also considered the land value, any extenuating circumstances that would decrease its value and tested it against the potential future tax revenues for the city. Bliss said EDC found that the project “has potential for long-term returns.”
However, the city would need to study in more detail the financing behind the project, including how they would raise money to build it, he said.
Despite these challenges, Bliss pitched Sunnyside Yards as an opportunity to unify the various interests and uses within Long Island City. While the waterfront community has changed dramatically, he said, the footprint of Sunnyside Yards has not since it was first built in 1929.
“For Long Island City, it’s an opportunity to bring mixed-use developments and open space to a neighborhood where there are few opportunities to establish it today,” Bliss said. “It could help make the case for transportation improvements that we all know are needed in the area.”
He also described its potential for the borough and the city. Bliss said local stakeholders shouldn’t lose sight of the opportunity to build more housing for the growing city population, which is steadily rising toward 9 million people.
“We see this as a generational opportunity to leverage a unique asset that’s in a unique moment in time and to plan for the future and the growth of this city,” Bliss said. “The stage is set.
The EDC’s next step is seeking comment from the public and explaining the study. It has already hosted 50 briefings to the community.
At the same time, EDC and Amtrak have begun to work on the scope of what future planning would look like at the railyard.
Community members raised an array of concerns, including the enormous deck heights over Long Island City. One part of the deck would be 109 feet over street grade, while another portion would create an eight-story staircase ascending from Steinway Street and Northern Boulevard, according to Astoria resident Mitch Waxman.
Waxman also asked Bliss how the EDC plans to transfer the material and how they would power the potentially new neighborhood.
Bliss said they’re still testing feasibility, so it’s “hard to anticipate” changes in freight distribution or construction material delivery over the next few decades.
“There’s no doubt that construction of this scale would be disruptive in some way,” he said. “If you lived around the yards for the past 20 years, you’ve been disrupted by East Side Access.”
Other audience members pitched a park and even a stadium at the railyard.
Local elected officials have remained skeptical and cautious about the development. Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan said she opposed “this level of large-scale development,” while State Senator Michael Gianaris said future development must ensure adequate infrastructure to handle the population growth.