Study Says $19 Billion Development Could Be Built on Top of Sunnyside Yards in Queens

Sunnyside Yards. image via EDCSunnyside Yards. image via EDC

The city is resurrecting a century-old proposal to deck over the active Sunnyside Yards in Queens and develop new housing, retail, and schools on top of it. The New York City Economic Development Corporation released a study this week examining whether the project is feasible and just how much it might cost.

If the pie-in-the-sky project moves forward, the EDC estimates it would cost somewhere between $16 and $19 billion to construct.

In an introduction to the lengthy report, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen writes, “land has become increasingly scarce. Opportunities to expand the transportation infrastructure we need to move our workforce and the housing stock necessary to shelter our residents are few and far between.”

Sunnyside Yards is one of the busiest rail yards in the city and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Amtrak and MTA both run rail lines and lay up trains in the yard, and New Jersey Transit stores trains there between morning and evening rush hours. So the western quarter of the yard is too busy to deck over, because it’s “exceptionally encumbered by heavy rail traffic and physical infrastructure,” according to the report.

The city would aim to deck over 80 to 85 percent of the 180-acre open cut. The development would also be the largest and most complex city project of the last couple decades. It’s six times the size of Hudson Yards, which is the most recent effort to develop on top of an active rail yard.

The study examines three potential scenarios for developing on top of the active yard. The first one focuses on producing as much housing as possible. It estimates that private developers could build 18,000 to 24,000 units, of which 5,400 to 7,200 would be affordable. The scenario also calls for 700,000 to 900,000 square feet of retail, 13 to 19 schools, and up to 3,300 parking spots. It also has the most open public space, at 52 acres.

The other two scenarios propose fewer apartments—still tens of thousands of units—but huge amounts of retail, office space, and parking. The second case includes 3.5 to 4.8 million square feet of office space, up to 700,000 square feet of retail, and as many as 4,500 parking spots. Then the third proposal offers no office space but as much as 1.5 million square feet of “mixed-use” development—presumably hotel and retail—and up to 5,300 parking spots.

The study also takes a close look at the 70-acre “Core Yard,” which stretches from Queens Boulevard to the eastern edge of the yard. The consultants and architects who authored the report think that the Core Yard is the most viable area to deck over and develop. Full buildout of the Core Yard would cost roughly $10 billion and generate $2.84 billion in land proceeds. It could generate 11,000 to 15,000 new housing units, 3,300 to 4,500 of which would be affordable, 15 to 20 acres of open space, as well as schools, retail, and community facilities.

Sunnyside Yards development scenarios, via EDC

Sunnyside Yards development scenarios, via EDC

However, the cost of constructing decking, roads, utilities, and open space is so high that the city would need to invest $800 million just to develop the Core Yard area. The development could generate $934 million in property taxes over the next 40 years, which would exceed the cost of initial investment, according to the report. If more of the yard were developed, the city could end up $3 billion in the hole.

Several city agencies collaborated on the study with Amtrak, the MTA, and a host of private architecture firms, including FXFOWLE, James Corner Field Operations, and Curtis + Ginsberg Architects.

The MTA owns 31 acres of the northern and western portions of the yard, which won’t be developed because the under-construction East Side Access project will eventually run Long Island Railroad trains there. The city owns air rights above the MTA parcels. Amtrak controls 142 acres, and General Motors owns seven acres in the southeastern corner of the yard.

Mayor de Blasio first announced a plan to deck over the yards during his State of the City address in early 2015. Then Governor Cuomo’s office slammed the idea, arguing the yard was an important piece of transportation infrastructure and “it is not available for any other use in the near term.”

“While there certainly are a lot of operational and financial challenges to developing Sunnyside Yards, there also are a lot of good reasons for exploring the possibilities,” said Wendy Pollack of the Regional Plan Association. “No other site in the city offers the same combination of proximity to transit and the central business district and very substantial acreage that could be developed. This is a large, long-term project, one that we can assume will stretch well beyond one or two political cycles.”