The Sunnyside Yard Master Plan Is a Mirage of a Better City

The future Sunnyside Yard. Photo: PAU

Inventing a beautiful future is one way to compensate for the dissatisfactions of the present. A recent report imagines a new Queens neighborhood in a generation or two, and it tries to undo, for our children and grandchildren’s sake, all the terrible things our parents and grandparents did to us. In our world, pedestrians huddle miserably at the edge of lethal speed tracks, begging leave to cross. In theirs, a few robot-driven vehicles will politely wait while children walk to school down the middle of the street. In our time, corporate developers slurp up vast tracts of land and air, filling them with towers that ache to escape the city altogether. In theirs, a ground-hugging neighborhood will grow like ivy, a bit at a time, following sunlight and desire.

In the city’s new master plan for Sunnyside Yard, the subway will ply new routes; classes, age groups, and races will mix; and a green and pleasant hilltop village will materialize above acres of sunken tracks. There, nobody camps out on public sidewalks, co-opts bus stops for advertising, or erects mounds of garbage on the street. Designing a perfect neighborhood from scratch, to be dropped into the haphazard city we actually inhabit, like a memory chip into a motherboard, is a sweeping sort of rebuke.

This is the big one, New York’s last expanse of unbuilt territory, conveniently located in the city’s heart. Laying a massive platform over 180 acres of working railyards (or most of it) is such an expensive and financially risky proposition that it makes sense only in a city where large tracts of vacant land are the urban equivalent of virgin forest: mythic and almost gone. Where else could you pack 12,000 affordable apartments, plus an abundance of offices, stores, parks, and services, all for the low, low (and sure to increase) price of $14 billion?

It’s a thrilling prospect, although the excitement will have to be diluted into a solution thin enough to last for 40 years. The report isn’t a plan so much as a wish list, one that barely even addresses, let alone resolves, questions about the political path, where the money would come from, or what the trade-offs might be. Released by the city’s Economic Development Corporation and prepared by the firm Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), with input from a long credit roll of consultants and engineers, the report lays out the destiny of western Queens with a mixture of open-endedness and fine-grain detail.

The document represents a compendium of 2020 urbanistic wisdom: micro-mobility, intermodal transit center, mixed-use zoning — these are today’s preoccupations, not tomorrow’s. We are told the dimensions of as-yet-nonexistent blocks (240 feet square), the location of slopes and trees and schools and Amtrak maintenance buildings. We can visualize the bike lanes and the way the sun slants into the courtyard of a ten-story building. We’re asked to consider buildings made of wood — not logs or two-by-fours, but a new-tech approach to an old material, cross-laminated timber — and how long a trip it will be to the nearest playground from any given point.

Photo: PAU

It’s not coincidental that PAU’s Sunnyside Yard looks a lot like the 15-minute city that Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo promises to deliver if she’s elected to a third term in next week’s elections. In Queens as in the 20th arrondissement, residents should be able to work, buy a screwdriver, resole their shoes, get to school, and visit the grandkids, all in a short commute. The upshot is an ideal city that looks suspiciously familiar, as cozy and joyful as a children’s book metropolis, as full of street life and transit options as the New York of 1911. There’s a haze of nostalgia over all these fantasies; I almost scanned the Sunnyside renderings for a storefront cooper and a saddlery.

To reinforce the sense that the report describes the best of all possible Yards, it includes a few references to past, unrealized ambitions. In 1931, the Regional Plan Association agitated for a massive rail terminal over the yards, topped by Queens’s answer to the Empire State Building. A 1971 LeFrak Plan envisioned a modernist multilayer cake, with highways above the tracks and a matrix of office buildings and middle-class apartment slabs on top of that. The current version does away with Art Deco skyscrapers and mid-century superblocks, but it revives old ambitions.

A sense of history guarantees neither success nor doom. Bad architects can drum up moribund buildings at 10 stories or 100; good ones do wonders with whatever they’re given. Still, this is the rare instance in which designers, engineers, city agencies, and transportation officials have front-loaded much of their arguing, compromising, and brainstorming, hoping to avoid disastrous discoveries down the line. The fantasy drawings rest on a scaffolding of concrete research: precisely how much clearance the trains need, for instance. The planners boast that the report represents “the definitive technical guide to facilitate continued close coordination with the railroads.” Amtrak envisions a colossal refurbishment of the rail yards, which means that railroad engineers and construction engineers could negotiate how to map out a thicket of tracks and columns.

(One serious compromise is the decision to leave Amtrak’s Main Line open to the sky, creating a river of trains on the south side of the site. Given the fact that the trains can never stop running, decking that section over would add assorted decades and myriad billions to the enterprise.)

All these beautiful ambitions are rooted in a simple approach that’s more often honored in the breach: Ask people what they want, figure out how to design it, then see if they’re willing to pay for it. Before the drawing could start, architects and planners fanned out to community meetings all over the area and harvested suggestions, harangues, and Post-it notes by the bushel. But the data of desire is inherently fuzzy. When the question is, What kind of city do you want?, the answers come in an infinite variety of flavors, or defiant counterquestions: What kind of city does who want, and for whom? It’s hard to know whether in the end the designers distilled a consensus or, more likely, picked a path through contradictory demands. The result reads like an elaborately persuasive argument that forestalls disagreement even as it invites debate. It’s like when your roommate lays out a 12-point explanation for why toilet paper must roll under rather than over — and then says, arms raised in mock surrender, But if you want to do it differently, that’s fine.

To the planners, this iteration of Sunnyside Yard is a model of progressive planning, delivering on the aspirations of the Green New Deal and on the promise of affordable housing. The skeptical wing of the progressive movement treats the plan as if it were a pipeline for radioactive steam: toxic, dangerous, and hugely expensive. However noble its ambitions and clever its solutions, the argument goes, the plan is just a nefarious bit of misdirection to funnel tax dollars to real-estate tycoons. Even if you accepted the proposition that the project would yield 12,000 rent-regulated apartments, possibly toward the end of the Barron Trump administration, the benefit to low-income Queensites would be negligible, since the development would push up the real-estate market all around. Meanwhile, the budget will multiply and suck up public billions that should have been spent on more urgent needs, like boilers for public housing.

To die-hard opponents, all the consultation disguises a more sinister approach: Ignore what people say they want, figure out how to design around them, and then steer cataracts of public money in the direction of Big Real Estate. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez walked away from the steering committee last month; so did Sylvia White, the head of the activist group Justice for All, who informed the EDC that “community members that I represent and work in solidarity with have repeatedly, and in multiple ways … communicated to the NYCEDC that NO development over the Yards is what is most desired.” It’s hard to know how to appease the kind of mistrust that yields only objection. PAU could have come up with a totally cost-free Shangri-la and someone would object. If your goal is to do nothing, there’s no better or worse way to achieve it.

The conflict over Sunnyside Yard is more than just a debate over land and what to build there. It’s a battleground where drastically different philosophies of civic life can clash in public. I’m backing the pro-growth progressivism, the attitude that says for the city to become more equitable and inclusive, it will have to think not just about next year’s budget or next month’s rent, but also half a century out. The pressures on New York are too intense for inertia to preserve a huge tract of land set aside for nothing much.

The Sunnyside Yard Master Plan Is a Mirage of a Better City