Amtrak weighing development of massive Queens rail yard
Amtrak is considering developing Sunnyside Yards in Queens as part of a nationwide evaluation of its real estate portfolio and could turn to investors as early as next spring to find partners willing to explore potential uses for those properties, the company’s chairman, Anthony Coscia, said Thursday.
Executives have been in talks with the de Blasio and Cuomo administrations about the site, Coscia told reporters at a global real estate conference at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. Coscia mentioned the plans during a panel discussion moderated by former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff.
The Sunnyside Yards is one the largest undeveloped parcels in New York City and holds virtually limitless potential to developers willing to build a platform above the tracks. Planners have long dreamed about what could be built on the property, which remains an active rail yard used by several train companies.
It was unclear on Thursday exactly what Amtrak would pursue, whether it would sell or lease the development rights or how involved it would remain in any project undertaken on the site. There are additional development sites the company is discussing in Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
“We’ve completed an analysis of what we think we’re going to need for the operating business,” Coscia said after the panel at the Urban Land Institute’s fall conference. “Obviously, it doesn’t make any sense for us to sell real estate that we’re going to need to run the railroad. So, we’ve pretty much completed that and what we’re doing between now and March is trying to determine—after subtracting those needs—what sort of developable real estate sites we have that are available that we can monetize.”
Sunnyside, he said, is the perfect example of the type of site on which Amtrak believes it can make a considerable amount of money. There have been conversations about the site between Amtrak executives and Mayor Bill de Blasio, deputy mayor Alicia Glen and chief of staff Laura Santucci, Coscia said.
A spokesman for the mayor said building on the yards could fit in to the city’s ambitious affordable housing plan—which calls for construction of 80,000 affordable units over the next decade—but cautioned nothing is imminent.
“The development of the Sunnyside Yards could be an opportunity to advance the mayor's housing and economic development agenda,” the spokesman, Wiley Norvell, said an email. “Indeed, it’s… been talked about for decades. But while [Amtrak] may be seeking to monetize and re-evaluate its assets across the country, there are no imminent plans to redevelop the yards. We would pursue significant engagement with local stakeholders before any such effort was launched.”
Amtrak executives also sought to walk back the chairman’s comments, saying the Sunnyside property was one of many being evaluated, that the time frame for reaching out to investors was not set in stone and that, even then, the company does not intend to look at specific uses. Rather, the company will be searching next year for partners willing to look at the entire portfolio.
“Nothing is for sale,” said Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s vice president for Northeast Corridor and infrastructure investment development. “We’re not looking to actually develop anything next year. We’re looking to find partners who would work with us on developments strategies for all these assets we own in different cities.”
Still, the chairman’s comments were by far the most aggressive made on the topic by an executive at the company and were read as a significant moment for those thinking about the potential the Sunnyside Yards hold.
The yards cover 167 acres, a remarkably large swath of land for New York City, and are actually in a central place—located near mass transit, booming Queens neighborhoods and Manhattan. By contrast, the Hudson Yards property that is being developed now by Related Companies—the largest development project in America—covers just 28 acres.
Despite the lack of details, Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor and leading expert in urban planning and policy, said it was a “genuinely powerful statement” and a “breakthrough” that the rail company is thinking this way and that Coscia is discussing it publicly.
“It’s a massive site in which you could take on many different, important functions,” Moss said. “And it would be great for New York City, it could be great for the nation and it would certainly transform western Queens.”
It would be extremely complex to build on the site and it’s not clear if all of it is developable, according to several experts. There could be challenges with soil contamination and, like at Hudson Yards, would require careful planning so as not to disturb the flow of trains. The yards are used the Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit, which stores idling trains there between the morning and evening commutes. Amtrak trains pass through on the way to Boston.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the LIRR and MetroNorth, has considered building an intermodal connection for the two train services at the yards, said David Giles, the research director for the Center for an Urban Future. The LIRR has also considered a massive storage facility there. Both those projects, of course, could be complicated by development plans—or vice versa.
Regardless, he said, the M.T.A. would have to be involved in deciding the future of the facility because the most valuable and buildable portion of the yards is its western half, which is controlled by the LIRR. This could also be a chance to consider whether a rail yard in such a densely populated part of Queens, so close to Manhattan, should be used for idling trains. Finding another place to do that free up dozens of acres for development without the need for building a multi-billion-dollar platform, he said.
“There’s a lot of potential to rethink the way regional rail works and whether Sunnyside should be this gigantic midday-storage facility for train idling,” Giles said.
The Center of an Urban Future’s director, Jonathan Bowles, said the chairman’s comments were exciting and surprising.
“It’s sitting in a thriving and growing neighborhood that is already seeing significant development,” he said. “And so it’s a pivotal piece of New York’s future.”