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Old Posted Feb 9, 2015, 12:55 PM
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Sunnyside on track for major land grab

Sunnyside on track for major land grab

Seems like everybody with big ideas for the future has their eyes on the same prize: an obscure plot in Queens.
For Mayor Bill de Blasio last week, it became ground zero for his self-described "game changer" proposal to build 11,250 affordable apartments. Hold on, said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He called the property the staging area for another kind of game changer: the tunnels that will bring the Long Island Rail Road into the heart of midtown. Meanwhile, former Bloomberg administration Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff sees it as the perfect spot for a huge new money-spinning convention center, among other things.
All those dreams now hang like a gilded cloud over a roughly 200-acre property that one real estate insider likens to "a giant bowl of spaghetti that will never be untangled," and others have decried for years as a massive scar on the western flank of the city's second-most-populous borough.
Welcome to Sunnyside Yards, where only one thing about what happens next on the city's largest, best-situated vacant lot is clear: It's gonna take a lot of time and money.

"I think it's very important for politicians to have visions," said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. "But a lot of visions are nightmares."
For openers, whatever ultimately rises at Sunnyside Yards will stand on a platform that must be built over a labyrinth of active train tracks used by Amtrak, the LIRR and New Jersey Transit. Ownership of the site is nothing if not messy. The puzzle-piece layout of property lines within the yard could make it difficult to deck over the tracks without consensus between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Amtrak, the owners of the choicest pieces of land, according to city records. Meanwhile, the city owns the air rights over two-thirds of the MTA's 66 acres, but it's unclear exactly where.


Frightening prospect

That's nice, but area residents disagree. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, whose district encompasses the entirety of the rail yard, has vowed to block any proposal for a convention center or high-rise housing in the portion of the yard adjacent to landmarked neighborhood Sunnyside Gardens.
"There have been lots of proposals on developing the yard over the years," he said. "And every time it comes up, folks in the neighborhood get frightened about the prospect of massive development."

And then there's the small matter of timing. In his State of the City speech last week, the mayor talked of putting 11,250 below-market apartments at Sunnyside Yards, the same number built in 1947 at Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan. But experts doubt that Mr. de Blasio will even be around to count those units toward his ultimate goal of building or preserving 200,000 affordable apartments during the next decade. Decking over the rail yard, even a small portion of it, is expected to be a multidecade project—one with financially unfortunate timing.

"It's a 30-year project where probably 50% of the costs will be incurred in the first five years," said Seth Pinsky, a former CEO of the city's Economic Development Corp., now an executive vice president at developer RXR Realty. "It's decking, it's sewers, it's electricity. There's nothing there. You're building from scratch."

No wonder the mayor's office acknowledges that any housing built at Sunnyside Yards will likely become available after the conclusion of Mr. de Blasio's affordable-housing plan. Nonetheless, it now looks likely that at some point, with the city's blessing—if not cash—housing will blossom on the site. It's a possibility rich in irony.

Prior to the yard's construction 105 years ago, the site was marshland, crisscrossed by streams feeding into Newtown Creek . But the LIRR saw potential and bought up much of the property. Back then, according to 1975's The Long Island Rail Road: A Comprehensive History by Vincent Seyfried, hundreds of homeowners received eviction notices. They barely had time to move out before "scavengers under the cover of darkness" demolished whole houses for their wood and plumbing.
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