In the past few weeks, the Sunnyside Yards has received an inordinate amount of attention from politicians and press, after being referenced as a possible development site for future megaprojects. Described as “a giant bowl of spaghetti,” this vast Queens train yard was included as one of the central proposals in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s State of the City address, where he called for a platform to be built over the yards holding 11,250 new affordable apartments. Not to be outdone, Governor Cuomo soon responded by giving support to a different proposal for a new convention center above the tracks. Based on their enthusiasm for these projects, it remains doubtful that either politician has personally explored the entire complicated reality of this 180-acre rail yard.
A circumnavigation of the Sunnyside Yards on foot reveals how huge and complex any plan to build above it would be. Almost two miles long, the perimeter of the yard is surrounded by elaborate fences and intersected by numerous bridges, but its day-to-day operations are largely hidden from public view. What few vantage points there are show a multi-layered system where LIRR, NJ Transit, Amtrak and MTA trains wind and weave above and below ground, enmeshed in a web of power lines and ancillary tracks. Meanwhile, an equally diverse array of neighborhoods borders the edges of the yard, ranging from the post-industrial side streets of Long Island City to the still-industrial warehouses of Sunnyside and the charming residences of the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District.
Walking through this convoluted landscape, it becomes clear that any local pressure to develop on top of the Sunnyside Yards is largely coming from its northwest boundary, where the creeping tide of luxury towers has swept aside industry in Long Island City and reached the very edges of the tracks. In the narrow strip of land between Jackson Avenue and the yards, cranes and construction dominate the skyline, as century-old warehouses are demolished to make way for new residential behemoths. West Chemical and 5 Pointz have now been completely destroyed, Eagle Electric is being gutted and renovated, and several new glass boxes now loom over the yards. The potential creation of up to 28 million square feet of “new” land in the backyard of these projects would doubtlessly benefit some developers enormously.