Sunnyside Yard Plan Moving Ahead
The Whopper of All 21st Century Real Estate Developments in NYC
I attended the Sunnyside Yard Master Planning meeting last week at Aviation High School in Sunnyside / LIC. Given the significance of the real estate development being planned - at the nexus of Astoria, Long Island City and Sunnyside - I was surprised by the low turnout of members in the community. Perhaps it's because the NYC EDC didn't seem to do a very good job of notifying the community that there would be a meeting.
The photo at right shows a portion of Sunnyside Yard, looking southwest from Skillman Avenue around 36th Street, on the day of the meeting.
There was a protest group there, possibly comprising somewhere between a quarter and half of those who attended during the second [of two] sessions that I attended. The sessions were held in a regular sized classroom, which contained an overflowing crowd, and most of the protesters, who were fairly disruptive, were also kept outside.
Exploring the possibility of the Sunnyside Yard real estate development project began a number of years ago [I've seen documents that indicate work began in 2014]. The concept was first presented to the public in Mayor de Blasio's first State of the City Address in 2015. Governor Cuomo seemed to try to upstage the Mayor earlier that same day, by pre-emptively mentioning it, only hours before the Mayor gave his Address.
Much has been done since then, both in planning and in preparing the site for development. So if you want a say in how the 180 acres of space that is adjacent to Long Island City, Astoria and Sunnyside is going to be developed, you'd best begin ramping up to speed now - and fast - because the first pass at a relatively concrete Master Plan is expected this winter. The proverbial train is about to leave the station - or in this case the Sunnyside Yard.
- CLICK - to read the rest of our report, including numerous slides, about the Sunnyside Yard development adjacent to the Long Island City LIC, Astoria and Sunnyside neighborhoods in Queens.
Sunnyside Yard Plan Moving Ahead
The Whopper of All 21st Century Real Estate Developments in NYC
COMPLETED ROUGH DRAFT - WILL ADD SLIDES / PHOTOS LATER TODAY.
The first meeting I attended regarding the Sunnyside Yard was in April of 2017 when the group in charge of the feasibility study did a presentation to a small community group of about a half dozen community leaders in Sunnyside. In the meeting the feasibility study group discussed the parameters surrounding the feasibility of developing the Sunnyside Yard, which included: 1) engineering feasibility, 2) economics, 3) financial feasibility and 4) urban design.
Just briefly, the engineering study looked at what could be built there at a reasonable cost. The economics study looked what kinds of development the market would support. The financial study looked at whether the revenue / profit streams from any future development would justify the upfront investment. And the urban design piece looked at what sorts of development(s) would fit best in the context of the existing / future community.
The bottom line of the study was that it all could be done.
The next meeting I attended regarding the Sunnyside Yard development was in October of 2018 at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. This meeting was over subscribed, so they opened it up in the atrium at the college to accommodate the interest. The purpose of the meeting was to solicit community input regarding what folks in the community would like to see done with the space.
To this end the Master Plan group had set up a number of interactive boards which solicited input of the community needs / wish list in the following categories: transit, public space, cultural facilities while accommodating the rail yard infrastructure below and that fitting in within the context of the surrounding communities and financial feasibility. As an example, one of the interactive boards regarding public space, stimulated the public by suggesting things such as active recreation, play and adventure, promenades, courtyards and plazas. People also submitted some of their own, free form ideas.
They picked up a lot of input and then returned in March of 2019 to the Henry Gradstein High School in Astoria. This meeting was also pretty well attended.
At this point they started narrowing down what the Sunnyside Yard development was going to look like and how it was to function. In this session, using what they had processed in the October 2018 session at LaGuardia, they solicited ideas via workshops for transit, public space and urban design. Also, it was noted at the time that they were nearing the end of the Master Planning process – which according to the schedule presented at this meeting – the community engagement portion of the planning process would include the September meeting I just attended, and ‘seemed’ to end with one last meeting in October of 2019.
Throughout the process I picked up bits of key underlying information such as who are the owners of the Sunnyside Yard air rights and what transit lines run through the yard, which I share at the end of this report.
The most recent meeting was held on September 16, 2019 at Aviation High School along Queens Blvd in LIC / Sunnyside. This meeting was the most data-intensive as all of the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan work was coming to bear.
The crowd at this one, given they are closing in on a more or less general plan, seemed significantly smaller than the prior two public sessions I had attended within the past year. In addition to that, many of those present, seemed there to protest the plan, not engage in a discussion about it.
In the foyer the Master Planning group had set up a number of exhibits, each targeting a specific topic or issue related to the plan. They included topography, open space, transit, integration with respect to existing neighborhoods and the creation of a regional railway station / hub in Sunnyside Yard.
As I finished perusing the exhibits - which I found to be informative, comprehensive and well done – a protest group, Queens United, began making a myriad of statements about the displacement associated with gentrification. I’m including video of it along with the slides below.
Sitting in this meeting was a bit annoying as the protesters were making noise outside of the classroom, the classroom was too small so some people were left standing, and the presenter didn’t bring a light wand with which to give his presentation, and thus stepped in front of the screen, oftentimes blocking views of the legends and whatnot, but in spite of that I managed to get photos of the critical slides. See photo at right showing how the presenter blocked the view of the slides.
So the Sunnyside Yard Master Planners began presenting the current state of the plan in the classroom. They began by playing back what they heard which they summarized under three main topics: 1) Open Space, 2) Transportation and 3) Affordability. It seems that one of the categories they’d discussed a year ago - that of social infrastructure like schools, hospitals and cultural infrastructure - was replaced by affordability.
They then took us through the topography, showing how the decked over Sunnyside Yard would interface with neighboring communities. Transit and street throughways were also shown, many of which already exist. And on top of all of this they talked about the creation of the Sunnyside railway station as a regional hub, enabling folks to travel north to Westchester, east to Long Island and west through NYC to New Jersey. Of course the downside of this is that it has the potential to add an incredible amount of human traffic through what is now a not so densely populated neighborhood. And of course rents and property values rise in neighborhoods with good access to transit.
They showed one of those slides that the Bloomberg Administration made famous, depicting a beautiful neighborhood, but not mentioning the price tag. Some of Bloomberg’s Hunters Point ‘affordable’ housing units, famously rented for only about $50,000 per year – at a time when the median income in NYC and the U.S. was about $55,000 per year. But I digress.
The Sunnyside Yard Master Plan group had settled on an open space recommendation, which broke the open space up into a number of smaller pieces, in lieu of one of the options, where most of it was centered inside the cluster of high rise buildings. This was not discussed nor confirmed, but I suspect this approach might provide more sunlight time in these open spaces.
While the culture / social infrastructure had fallen off the priority list, they showed it as essentially an overlay – meaning using the same space as the open space. The included the proposed Sunnyside railway station as one such space, classified one of the parks in the northern section of the map as a cultural hub, and the park in the eastern section along Sunnyside as a community hub. There’s an ‘institution quad’ located in or behind the railway station, as well as along the inside corridor of the plan.
Office and retail space would be located along the western section of the Sunnyside Yard by / in the railway station. Some office space would be located along the northern rim adjacent to LIC. And existing retail space, currently used by Major Cars and Home Depot would remain [they’re adjacent to the proposed Sunnyside Yard real estate development].
As for residential housing, three sections of high density residential buildings were in the proposal, while a much larger section of the project would include mid density buildings.
Lastly there’s a section of what they called commindustrial along the northern rim between the high density residential buildings and the northern park / social space.
All in all it was an impressive plan. The Sunnyside Yard Master Planners did a lot of work to gather input from the community and tried to address community concerns within the plan. But adding ten(s) of thousands of people into an area is rarely welcome, which is what this plan appears to do.
Landholders are likely to support it as, over the long haul, it increases rents and property values [in the short term it may decrease both as markets are based on supply / demand]. Tenants and small businesses are less likely to be supportive as it will put pressure on rents over the long haul.
People need to keep an eye on the capacity and timing of the added infrastructure in transit, schools and healthcare, as they lagged the development passed by the Bloomberg Administration. And at this time, the LIC neighborhood is already operating near or over capacity in both transit and schools [libraries?].
The next meeting, as mentioned previously, was scheduled for October 2019, but in the meeting they said “before the end of the year”. At the next meeting I believe we can expect to see some numbers on residential units and what not, so this will be where the rubber meets the road.
Regarding a few key bits of underlying information. One is that the Sunnyside Yard development site is owned / controlled by three groups. By far the largest is that tract owned by Amtrak which is federally controlled but there’s some private ownership / rights there that came out of the government takeover decades ago. The second largest tract is controlled by the MTA which is NYC and NYS controlled / owned. And there’s a third tract of land that is the smallest that is privately owned.
Another key bit of information is that the Sunnyside Yard would be erected over one of the busiest railway hubs in America. There are currently five projects that are in process in the yard, most of which will be completed in the coming year or two. They include MTA Capital Construction projects – one of which is the East Side Access project which is years behind schedule. There are also two Amtrak projects – one of which is the East River Tunnel rehabilitation project and the second prepping for the Sunnyside Yard Master Plan. And the fifth is overseen by the NYC Transit Authority regarding the Queens Super Express.
The notification to the community about the September meeting seemed to fall short, as did the space allocated to accommodating community interest. I hope they will do better next time. And for a multi-billion dollar project, it seems not too much to ask the Master Planning Committee to invest in a light wand so they’re not blocking the view of the slides as they are presenting them.
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