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?