Sunnyside Yards Redevelopment

Sunnyside Yards, lying along the LIRR Main Line immediately adjacent to the site of my proposed Sunnyside Junction, span about half a square mile (1.3 km^2) of mostly vacant land, with some big box retail with ample parking at its eastern margin. The short distance to Manhattan has already made Western Queens increasingly desirable (538’s Nate Silver called Sunnyside the third best neighborhood to live in in New York); the new rail junction would make this vacant land into prime real estate, making it feasible to sell air rights above the yards in a similar manner to how much of East Midtown was developed with air rights over the Grand Central tracks.

I would like to discuss how this should be done. This can be thought of as not just a particular Sunnyside question, but also my general ideas for how to do good transit-oriented development, and even more general ideas for how to develop new sites for dense urbanity.

First, the development would be mixed-use. This is because there’s both commercial and residential demand near Manhattan. More speculatively, this could cause the Long Island City secondary CBD to expand eastward, from Hunters Point and Queens Plaza toward the proposed station. In any case, the station should be expected to have high-intensity retail and office buildings immediately adjacent.

On the other hand, the development should be integrated into the existing neighborhoods on both sides of the yards, in terms of both street layout and development intensity. This is not the place to test out new ideas of urbanism; the streets should look as similar as possible to those of Sunnyside and Long Island City. Here is one way to map out streets: note the block size is similar to that of the surrounding areas. The same should be true of street width.

The best way to combine the two goals – retaining existing neighborhood context and allowing high-intensity commercial development near the station – is for the city to have progressively higher-intensity zoning proceeding from the margins to the station itself. Away from the immediate station area, medium-rise buildings such as those of Upper Manhattan (excluding projects) should suffice, and the city should not try to ram high-rise buildings against neighborhood opposition. This would also be friendly to small developers, turning this into the anti-Atlantic Yards. Needless to say, there should be no parking minimums, since the area would be dense and well-served by mass transit.

The overall density of such development could be compared to the mid-rise neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan, such as Morningside Heights and Washington Heights. Morningside Heights has 40,000 people per km^2, and so does Washington Heights when one makes sure to exclude its ample parkland. Morningside Heights has a lot of open space and many jobs, but it’s also higher-rise than Washington Heights (excluding the projects, again). Either could be taken as a basis of comparison, by which standards the 1.3 km^2 over the yards should support about 50,000 people.

Sunnyside would effectively get a second core, around the station, in addition to the existing core along Queens Boulevard. Although the development could spill over, raise rents, and produce gentrification, by itself it would not change the existing neighborhood much, which is fine as Sunnyside is pleasant as it is. Even the Queens Boulevard semi-highway works remarkably well there: the 7 el does not produce too much noise, and instead breaks the boulevard in half, making it look narrower and producing a good street wall for each of the boulevard’s halves.

Bear in mind that out of everything I have proposed in this blog’s history, I would peg this as the least likely to happen: the development I’m advocating spurns big monolithic development. Instead, the city would just map out streets, enact mild zoning restrictions to prevent the community from rejecting the plan for fear of Manhattanization, and perhaps attract a few anchor tenants and companies to build immediately next to the station. In contrast, the present process of redevelopment in New York is laden with collusion, with big developers getting land for megaprojects for less than it’s worth. The city would give a developer not only the yard land but also neighborhood blocks around it, which would be turned into a modernist urban renewal hell instead of a higher-intensity version of the same neighborhood.

My sliver of hope is that the extra transit service coming from the new junction station, and the fact that at the margins of the land the new development would look hardly different from the existing blocks, would reduce neighborhood opposition. Often the dominance of big developers in cities comes from neighborhood opposition to change, creating an arduous process of obtaining variances and schmoozing with city officials that small business cannot afford. I would peg the chances of neighborhood approval at low to moderate, the chances of such a plan happening in case of neighborhood approval at low, and the chances of such a plan happening in the absence of neighborhood approval at zero. What say you, Sunnyside-area bloggers?


  1. EBS

    I’m a Sunnyside resident and in fact, I just walked from Astoria to Sunnyside tonight across the Honeywell St.. I think about this a lot.

    First thing: Current subway access would be very poor. Commuter rail isn’t the same as subway service in NYC, even if it’s 3 minutes from Grand Central – an intercity fare system would be an absolute necessity, and that’s another issue on its own. But even this one station might not suffice for such a large area. The outer edges of the development would be more or less accessible to current subway stations, but the core wouldn’t be (unless your new station would happen to be located in the center, I suppose? But I’ve been working under the impression that you’d propose it where they’re currently building the new LIRR station.) So I’d say, before the neighborhood went up, it would be a good place to cheaply build a subway line. That said, would there be any other functional use for that line?

    Sunnyside and Eastern Astoria are severely lacking in greenspace – if a very, very large park were included in a proposal, I think it would be easier to sell to the neighborhood. Not the greatest use of space, sure, but I think that would win over Western Queens. A beautiful, large park could get you some pretty tall buildings. This would be key. I don’t think anyone loves the space as it is, but everyone fears the unknown. Keeping the Sunnyside Gardens aesthetic to a certain degree would be another selling point for Sunnyside residents. I don’t know how you’d best do it – and this is a judgment call – but keeping the neighborhood aesthetically balanced would be important to many people.

    Also, out of curiousity, do you know how they’d be able to best replace the train yard space?

    • Alon Levy

      The yard would still exist – it would just be roofed over, like the existing yard at Grand Central and like they’re proposing for Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards (not the best comparisons, I know).

      The location they’re proposing for the station is kind of meh. It’d help stimulate a bit of development in Long Island City, but that’s far in the future; what I’m proposing is a station further east, at 39th or 43rd. It would start out as just a junction station between the LIRR and future Metro-North service to Penn Station through Hell Gate. The upshot is that it would allow very easy transfers between Penn-bound and East Side Access-bound trains, as well as reasonable “diagonal” trips from Metro-North to Jamaica. The fare charged should be the lowest reasonable fare; if they keep the current operating model of commuter rail then it has to remain high, but if they modernize, they can charge MetroCard rates within the inner-urban area even on commuter rail, as is common in Europe and Japan.

      There could be a way to add regular subway service to the area, somewhat cheaply – namely, rerouting the F along the LIRR. The original plan was the Queens Super-Express, running nonstop from Forest Hills to 21st. But a better way to do it would be to make it instead a more local train, making the current F stops plus Sunnyside; the F would depart just west of its junction with the E and rejoin near Northern and Broadway. The upshot is that once SAS Phase 3 were completed, it would be possible to run a local train from SAS through 63rd Street without hitting the E; even more speculatively, it would make it relatively painless to build a subway under Northern (no track-sharing with the E, just the F) and a) relieve lines with capacity problems and b) give service to dense neighborhoods of Queens that have none. The glut of subway construction won’t last forever, and it’s a good idea to plan ahead.

      • al

        A few comments: I’m largely in favor of redeveloping the area. There are a few issues with your proposal:
        A) with the street map you drew up. The area to the east of 43 St is especially problematic. The tracks run on embankments. A deck over it is another 20+ ft above track level. Unless you restrict streets in that area above the tracks to pedestrians – or have them run in tunnels under the tracks – that section would need extensive regrading, and structure demolition or the street network will dead end 30+ ft above current grade. Case in point, the intersections of Woodside Ave and 37th and 38th Ave, and the stretch north of Barnett Ave. The whole area has light and medium industry and warehouses/storage. Trucks need access east of 43rd St. The area to the north has big box stores, a large new church and auto dealerships. Most have been built recently and will require some eminent domain or easements to demo and regrade to add streets. On the western end, the rolling stock servicing facility and freight yard near Hunters Pt Ave station (7, LIRR) is at grade with the streets (not talking about the streets and highways run over bridges that rise over the tracks). Decking over this section would create a 3 story tall platform with a similarly tall wall on the street. Similar issues with streets crossing from Skillman Ave towards Jackson Ave. The 7 climbs up to elevated tracks along this section, and there is an above grade curve linking the LIRR lower Montauk Branck with the Sunnyside Yards.

        B) with transit capacity. The R, M, N, and Q have spare capacity, but the E and 7 local already face AM rush hr crush loads. The M (8 cars) might fill to crush load with the increase in G riders from Bklyn and new western Queens residents. Whatever you build above the yards, especially towards the western end, will put more demand on existing subways. The eastern station location is good for filling the apparent gap in subway service, but could still use subway service. Extending the G from Court Sq through the yards and then to LGA using rail and highway easements is a possible layout. A BRT or some form of medium capacity rapid transit technology over the Queensboro Bridge connecting the Sunnyside Yards and across Midtown is necessary to add if there is to be residential development over the yards.

        C) More office space/jobs in the yards would offset some of the demand crush as subway riders would off board before the Manhattan (AM) and leave space for more commuters (increase passengers but not passenger miles) and increase off peak direction travelers. Office towers would be doable south and west of Honeywell St (and likely even just west of 39th st) due to the Industrial nature of the adjacent area. The area over the yards between Thompson Ave and Honeywell St look to be roughly the same area as over the Vanderbilt Yards/GCT.

        D) The Yard is one of the last areas close to Midtown that is still undeveloped (Hudson Yards under way), with Governors Island and south tip of Roosevelt Island the others. The area should include R&D space for colleges in the area to attract and keep the brain power that fuels new technology and job creation. It must include public schools for the grossly overcrowded districts in the area/borough. I’ve seen how arduous getting land for new schools is and the incredible time it takes. Middle School students now frequently ride to school via transit bus or subway. Many students can hop (AM) on the train (7, M, R) further east and get off the train as the train get near Queens Plaza. The schools could be built into the lower floors of office and residential buildings. As the number of new residents rise with the neighborhood shift from industrial to residential, the need for schools rise even further.

  2. EBS

    If the yard is simply to be roofed over, is there some structural upper limit to how high you could build on top of it? I don’t know much about this type of engineering. The proposal with the F sounds great – but I think if this neighborhood *were* built without an accompanying subway project – even if it did include a new Sunnyside junction – I think it’d risk turning into something like nu-Willet Point with regard to transit and automobile-use. (My view in short: new subway line would be a must if we wanted this to be real TOD and less like…well, Queens…and a large park would be a must in terms of ‘selling it’ to Western Queens.)

    I think in the long-long term the chances of something being built are actually pretty high – this is an entire neighborhood of real estate that’s literally minutes away from Midtown. Inevitably, one day, the power of $$$ is going to make something happen.

    • Alon Levy

      There’s no structural limit, but the construction cost rises because the foundations are more difficult to build. It’s generally not done except in places where land is expensive, which includes Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, and increasingly Western Queens. Elsewhere, it’s easier to just build away from railyards.

      How large is a large park? Would a bunch of small parks each occupying a block or half a block, totaling about one sixth or one fifth the land area in question work? In Washington Heights and Inwood the total is more than a quarter, but those parks have large elevation differences from their surroundings.

      I’m pretty sure that eventually there will be redevelopment in Sunnyside. What I think is unlikely is that it’ll be piecemeal like I’m proposing, with the city just mapping streets and creating a zoning code. Based on past experience, what’s much more probable is a monolithic development by one developer, or at most a handful, building huge modernist towers just as over Atlantic Yards.

      • EBS

        I don’t think block-wide parks would cut it as a PR move. East of Astoria Park and west of Flushing Meadows (which is no Prospect Park) there really isn’t any significant public green/open space. It’d have to be fairly big – potentially 1/4th of the total yard area – to be an offer that even Queens NIMBYies would have a hard time refusing. It would be offering people in the neighborhood something that they want and don’t have – not just new buildings for strangers / a transit junction for people who live elsewhere.

    • al

      The platform is mostly for street level. The buildings will get piles and columns for themselves. The bedrock is close to the surface under the yards. It ranges from 30-90ft underground. It is closest west of Thomson Ave and slopes down to the east.

  3. Joseph E

    While I like the idea of building a neighborhood that fits in with the surrounding areas, I wonder if it would be possible for small developers to build over the railroad yard. Don’t you need to carefully plan the columns and foundations, to both avoid impacting the railroad yard operations and to adequately support the buildings overhead? Because of this, it makes sense for the location of buildings to be planned for the beginning; you can’t really lay out streets and sell parcels, as was done back in the 1800’s.

    • Alon Levy

      Presumably this could be done with the correct street layout and with publicly available maps of where one can build foundations. I mean, the developers who bought air rights over Grand Central were all big (Waldorf-Astoria, big Midtown firms, etc.) due to the high value of the land, but they worked independently, rather than in a single project.

  4. Nathanael

    Step one: flood-proof the area.

    Most of Manhattan is fairly safe in case of rising sea level (though below-Canal-Street is a problem), most of the Bronx is fairly safe (apart from Coop City), Brooklyn Heights is fairly safe, but Queens is at sea level.

    Further construction in this area needs to have the railroad route floodproofed first, which could be done in combination with placement of foundation columns. The buildings could then be built on an as-needed basis.

  5. Pingback: Transit and Place | Pedestrian Observations
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