On November 27, 1910, New York City celebrated the opening of Pennsylvania Station. An estimated crowd of 100,000 came to see the new Beaux-Arts masterpiece. With slightly less fanfare, Sunnyside Yard in Queens came online that day as well. At the time, the 180-acre floodlit complex was the largest railroad yard in America, serving dozens of trains that now could go straight into Manhattan.
The station is no more — torn down in the 1960s, to become an enduring symbol for the historic preservation movement. Its namesake railroad merged with the New York Central and has also gone the way of all flesh. But the rail yards live on, serving about 780 trains from Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and commuter train lines each day. And in 2020 New York, Sunnyside Yard has become a much-coveted rarity: a large tract of undeveloped land in the biggest city in the United States. But that could be about to change.
In 2014, Amtrak, while making its own upgrades to the yards, developed a partnership to use the land, and three years later, a study outlined the possibility of building a concrete deck over the yards to allow development on top of it. A steering committee made up of various stakeholders went through a series of neighborhood consultations and public workshops, and on March 3, Amtrak and New York City released its Sunnyside Yard master plan.* The development promises 12,000 homes, plus schools, libraries, a new commuter railroad station, a new subway line and a new bus line.
“We’re living in a moment where a lot of needs are being identified,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, the founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU) and the lead planner for the project. “We have a housing crisis. We have an infrastructure shortage. These are needs of the moment, but they’re not going away.”
Chakrabarti touts the plan as a forward-thinking idea for a holistic neighborhood, which will be carbon-neutral and optimized for walkability and transit, not cars. PAU’s renderings of this future city-in-a-city show a utopian mix of sleek mid-rises amid abundant green space and bike paths. The Sunnyside Yard project has already drawn pointed comparisons with Hudson Yards, the privately funded enclave of luxury apartments and retail that debuted in Manhattan last year, amid near-universal criticism. But what’s planned for Sunnyside Yard will be a far bigger — the site is about six times the size of Hudson Yards — and, its backers say, fundamentally different: Its 12,000 housing units are designed to be affordable to low- and middle-income families. If it’s built, it would be the largest such housing project built in New York City since the early 1970s.
“All the pieces are there,” says Thomas Grech, a member of the steering committee. “It’s a huge untapped opening.”
Grech, president and chief operating officer of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, sees the Queens project as a potential national model for a transit-oriented mega-development. “It’s a monumental time, similar to when they built the World Trade Center and then re-envisioned it after 9/11. They’re kind of once-in-a-lifetime things, but you have to do it right, and I think we’re on the track to do it right.”
Not everyone in Queens agrees — Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dropped out of the Sunnyside steering committee in February, citing lack of community input on the direction of the project. And the development faces a host of other, more technical challenges. There’s a good reason why this big opportunity remained untapped for so long: It’s very difficult and expensive to deck over working railroad yards, particularly if you’re going to build large structures on top of them. Cost estimates for Sunnyside Yard have ranged from $16 billion to $22 billion. But with open land in New York City scarce and housing prices sky-high, the allure of activating this site is strong. “As Long Island City has become more and more densely developed, it only makes the site even more appealing,” says former New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger.
It’s not, however, the first time developers have tried to build big things here. Through the years, several ambitious projects have been advanced for the Sunnyside site. “There have been arguments about putting all kinds of things there for years,” says Jason Antos, president of the Queens Historical Society. “But they never got off the drawing board.”
Among those schemes was a high-rise office/transit hub pitched in the 1930s and in 2014, a failed plan to relocate the city’s convention center there. But most builders who eyed the railyard over the second half of the 20th century saw it as the perfect place for major sports venues. That reflected geography, in part: Sunnyside Yard is transit-accessible and close to the geographical center of the five boroughs of New York City. But it was also driven by the dreams of a borough that had no major league sports.
In the 1950s, as Major League Baseball embarked on a period of expansion and franchise-shuffling, Queens jockeyed for a team of its own, and the status it could confer. At that time, the Dodgers owned Brooklyn, the Giants played at the aging Polo Grounds at the northern tip of Manhattan, and the Yankees were just across the Harlem River in the Bronx. “People looked to Queens like the Wild West,” Major League Baseball historian John Thorn says. “It was the new frontier. There was land to be had. It’s the same way New Yorkers looked at Brooklyn in the 1830s.”
When Giants owner Horace Stoneham considered moving his team –- likely to Minneapolis, where their top minor league club was, Thorn says –- the Queens Chamber of Commerce offered in 1956 to make the club the central tenant of a stadium that would be the centerpiece of an entertainment center built atop Sunnyside Yard. “The Giants are still having trouble finding a new home with adequate parking and close to rapid transit,” Queens Chamber vice president A. Edward MacDougall wrote in his proposal. “Just considering those requirements, nothing in the entire City of New York compares with our Queens site. It’s the geographical center of New York City.”
Instead, the Giants decamped for California, and Queens baseball would have to wait until 1964, when the Mets, an expansion team formed two years earlier, moved into a new stadium at Flushing Meadows. A decade later, Sunnyside Yard, by then run by the Penn Central railroad, was again touted as the site for a sports venue — this time in an interstate squabble between New York and New Jersey, as well as an intrastate squabble within the Empire State itself. Plans were underway for what would become known as the Meadowlands Sports Complex in 1973 when New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller announced the state would sell $275 million in bonds for a new complex at Sunnyside Yard, including a 1,000-room resort and convention hotel, parking for 20,000 cars, and an 80,000-seat NFL stadium.
The project drew the ire of New Jersey –- there were only so many large sports tenants to go around, even in New York — as well as borough and New York City officials, who said they weren’t consulted. Ultimately, the plans were undone by concerns over traffic, a common refrain for any large-scale project in New York, and the bankruptcy of the Penn Central, which delayed the project enough for it to get lapped by the Meadowlands.
One of the real estate developers scavenging the Penn Central was a Queens native named Donald Trump. After turning the railroad’s former Commodore Hotel into the Trump Grand Hyatt, he’d bought the New Jersey Generals of the upstart USFL in 1984. Intent on making the Generals New York City’s team, he promised to build a “Trump Stadium” within the five boroughs and cast an eye toward Sunnyside Yard, but the stadium he announced plans for would be near Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows. Ultimately, Trump led the USFL into oblivion, and Sunnyside Yard remained a home only for trains.
Yet another stadium scheme came via New York City’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. That effort formally proposed building a stadium over the West Side Yards, which would be used after the Games for the New York Jets –- and possibly the Mets as well. Sunnyside Yard was also considered, but probably not that seriously, Goldberger says. “That site would have been ideal for [the Mets’] Citi Field, which would have given it a more urban location than the present one,” says Goldberger, author of the 2019 book Ballpark: Baseball in the American City. “I don’t recall that there was ever a public discussion of it, however, so the consideration of it for the Mets must have been brief and fairly superficial.” Ultimately, the Mets built Citi Field next to Shea Stadium.
In today’s New York, where mostly vacant supertalls loom over some of the most expensive real estate in America, there’s really no appetite for a sports venue at Sunnyside Yard, much less the acres of parking lots that such stadiums usually require. Other priorities are far more pressing. “There’s a huge need for affordable housing, and projects like [a stadium] would make housing less affordable,” Antos notes.
The master plan presented by PAU, with its transit-oriented virtues and emphasis on efficient and sustainable urban living, might not have the razzle-dazzle of past plans for skyscrapers, convention centers, and stadium-anchored entertainment complexes. But to Chakrabarti, it’s just as grandiose. Because of the involvement of local, state and federal interests, a governing authority will likely have to be created to oversee the project; the will to get it built, Chakrabarti says, will be a referendum on who we are as Americans.
“We have to recall the country that built projects like Hoover Dam and went to the moon,” he says. “Can we still think big and build things by the public, for the public? This is still a moon shot. But it’s the right moon shot.”
*CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify the role of Amtrak and the City of New York.