In a recent New York Times piece, Daniel L. Doctoroff (who served as the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding for the City of New York, and then as the CEO of Bloomberg L.P. until September of this year) emphatically reissued his call to deck over the Sunnyside Yard here in Queens with the intention of erecting some sort of convention center atop it.
As regular devotees of Q’stoner know, I’ve been mentioning Sunnyside Yard over and over for a while now. The Harold Interlocking is found here, which is the busiest rail junction in the entire United States, for instance. You might notice that the Doctoroff plan is actually mentioned in that posting as well, which was published in July of 2013.
There are lots of people who think this is a good idea being proposed. Deck over the yard and build a world class convention center and hotel complex, at Queens Plaza. Add in an “affordable” housing component, or non binding promise to think about building some at least, and only an idiot would oppose it.
I am that idiot.
More after the jump…
The entire NY Times piece, for this idiot at least, hangs on a singular part of the statement offered by Mr. Doctoroff –
“From my office one block south of Bloomingdale’s in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, I can get to Long Island City by subway in just one stop, and eight minutes flat.”
This is all about the needs of the few, in Manhattan, and not the needs of the many – in Queens. The Sunnyside Yard is gigantic, adding up to something like 160 acres. When it opened, this was the largest rail coach yard in the world. Its eastern half stretches all the way to Woodside and the western side nearly touches Newtown Creek down in Hunters Point. Its currently home to the largest capital improvement in the United States – the East Side Access project. Planning documents which I’ve read suggest that the final stages of the East Side Access project suggest the creation of a combined 7 Train/LIRR/Bus terminal at the corner of Skillman Avenue and Queens Plaza South, but that’s still a decade away at least. Other than that, there is nowhere in this gargantuan rail complex that you can actually get on or off a train.
There’s an LIRR station at Hunters Point, and one at Woodside, but nothing in between. The 8 subway lines mentioned in the NY Times piece are on the other side of Queens Plaza, way over on the other side of busy Jackson Avenue/Northern Boulevard and the off ramps of the Queensboro Bridge.
The Manhattancentric nature of Doctoroff’s plan is certainly GREAT for the west 30s and 40s over in the city, allowing an expansion of the Hudson Yards project (that project is around 28 acres in size, and the deck platform over its 30 active tracks was estimated at some $721 million, back in 2013). It’s pretty awful, however, for the real estate folks in Queens that have been investing heavily in new construction on the streets and avenues surrounding the Sunnyside Yards.
Of course, there’s also a few things which proponents of decking the yards over usually neglect to mention. One is that it’s a NY State Superfund site, as of March 2012. Here’s a map from the linked pdf which describes the various PCB concentrations in the soil and water table:
Click on the map for a larger view.
Also, my pals at habitatmap.org have created a great encapsulation of the environmental issues found at the Sunnyside Yard, check it out below.
Remedial investigations have been conducted in multiple phases under NYSDEC oversight pursuant to a consent order. Seventeen specific areas of concern (AOC) were identified. PCBs, cPAHs (including areas of non-aqueous phase liquid, or NAPL), and lead are the main site-related contaminants of concern. Exceedances of standards, criteria, and guidance include PCBs, metals (primarily lead), and SVOCs/cPAHs for soil; and metals and SVOCs for groundwater.
To say that the announcement of the plan has gone over like a lead balloon here in Western Queens would be an understatement. Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer recently told the NY Daily News:
“I’m offended every time someone says there’s a scar running through the neighborhoods that I represent,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, whose district includes the area around the 160-acre rail yards.
City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer knocked a long-shot plan to develop the Sunnyside Yards. “I have never had a constituent tell me that what we need is a convention center built smack dab in that neighborhood,”
Suffice to say that the opinion on the street hereabouts is decidedly less eloquent and well mannered than Mr. Van Bramer’s.
Plans to deck the yards over are nothing new. Mr. Doctoroff himself was a proponent of the plan back when he was in government, and it was a part of NYC’s bid to win the 2012 Olympics. Sports stadiums on the site have been suggested many times, as stated in this 2004 Letter to the Editor at the NY Times. The Times is somehow linked to this story, over the decades. There’s this 1989 editorial, this 1971 report, and even this 1951 one. It seems that Governor Nelson Rockefeller was keen on decking the yards back in the 1960’s. My understanding is that Robert Moses simply avoided the question by building the Long Island Expressway to the south.
By this point, you may have guessed that I’m not exactly neutral on this subject.
I live just a few blocks from the spot pictured above, on the Astoria side of Northern Boulevard, which is sort of the locus point of Astoria, Dutch Kills, LIC, Sunnyside, and Woodside. You walk ten blocks in any direction and you’re in one of these neighborhoods. There is no possible way that you are going to use the term “low density” to describe any of these areas. Our trains are crowded, there aren’t enough desks for all the kids in school, and any grid you can name – electrical, sewer, or just plain old water – is at least a century old and in need of repair or replacement.
So, here in my back yard, a question emerges…
How, in any way, would this project be good for Queens?
Does the proposal to deck the yards include new hospital beds, an annex for the already over stretched 108th and 114th precincts, additional FDNY personnel and equipment, or some mechanism to incorporate this newly impermeable acreage into our existing wastewater treatment system? Who will bear the costs of these municipal services? It certainly won’t be the entity that builds a stadium or hotel complex here, and selling the Javits Center won’t supply enough capital to pay for the long term cost.
Given the complexity of the transportation network hereabouts… look at that shot above… from the left that’s the LIE feeding into the Midtown Tunnel, then a local street (49th/Hunters Point Avenue) runs on that blue truss over an LIRR station, then there’s MTA Subway tracks, then another LIRR facility.
I’ve looked into the easement and property situation at the yards for a post on the Thomson Avenue viaduct once, and it’s the most complicated thing I’ve ever encountered. The Feds own the ground, the State owns the concrete foundation and steel pillar, and the City owns the roadway. There’s exceptions and covenants covering every square inch of ground and Federal Rail Laws dating back to the Presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant still apply. Red tape is a big part of the reason why the 36th/Honeywell crossing over the yard was closed for better than two decades.
Amtrak is the current custodian of this former Pennsylvania Rail Road facility. The national rail service maintains a small army of their own Cops to patrol the place and its fence lines. One of the problems with decking the place actually involves the NYPD and the patrol area of the 108th precinct.
This handy tool over at nyc.gov allows one to visualize the patrol area of any precinct in the five boroughs. The 108th currently covers an area that stretches from the East River to Woodside, and from Newtown Creek to Queens Plaza and Northern Boulevard.
Quite obviously, their 1903 era digs are going to need to expand if Mr. Doctoroff’s prediction of 11,000 new apartment units comes true.
A petition site popped up on Facebook last night, which was started up by some concerned citizens in Sunnyside. Click here if you want to render your opinion on this matter.
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.