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Woodhaven residents oppose Queens ‘High Line’

Photo by Bianca Fortis
By Bianca Fortis

Much of the debate surrounding the proposed QueensWay has been framed as an either-or issue: reactivate train service along the abandoned Rockaway Beach rail route or redevelop it into parkland, similar to Manhattan’s High Line.

But a group of citizens who live along the abandoned rail line, including the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association, have a third idea: do nothing.

Neil Giannelli is the unofficial spokesman for a group of more than 200 residents who live on 98th Street in Woodhaven, from Park Lane South to Atlantic Avenue. In his “No Way QueensWay” blog, he is openly critical of all plans to redevelop the rail line.

The rail line, originally a part of the Long Island Rail Road system, has sat in disrepair since service stopped in 1962.

In 2001, Giannelli and his wife, Sonia Lugo, purchased a home adjacent to it because of the large backyard and the privacy it offered, a rare find among New York City’s cramped neighborhoods.

The back of the house faces the rail line, which is overgrown with 60-year-old trees and brush.

They now worry that if the QueensWay happens, they will have to deal with issues of privacy, security and diminishing property values.

“I bought this house because I thought it was perfect,” he said. “For someone to come in and tell me they’re going to improve on it, that is the height of arrogance.”

Giannelli said he has been portrayed as an obstructionist NIMBY and as David in the biblical tale of David and Goliath.

“I’m not comfortable in this role,” he said. “I don’t want to have to do this. But we just want to be left alone.”

The couple acknowledged that they may seem selfish by trying to protect their own interests.

“But I think they’re being more selfish,” Lugo said. “They plan out this big project and don’t even talk to the locals.”

They also worry that a park could bring new development, leading to increased gentrification in Queens.

“Increasingly, the real estate interests are taking over,” Giannelli said. “We’ve sold off pieces of the city.”

Giannelli pointed out that part of the rail line runs above auto body shops and tow truck companies. He anticipates those small businesses will leave if new development comes.

“Are they going to throw out these guys making $25 an hour for college-age baristas making minimum wage?” he said. “They’re going to knock down businesses so other businesses can be built on their ashes.”

The couple took issue with a March New York Times op-ed, “A High Line in Queens: Just Imagine the Food.” In it the newspaper envisions small shops and stands along the walkway that could feature “cheese guava buns, dim sum dumplings, pani puri or yam fufu. Peckish strollers would not be limited to hotdogs and ice cream, but could savor foods created by immigrant Queens chefs from around the globe.”

The couple — pointing to Queens’ well-known cultural diversity — said the nearby mom-and-pop shops offering authentic ethnic cuisine could take a financial hit if they have to compete with new food offerings.

“You want oxtail soup? Go here,” Giannelli said, pointing to his neighbor’s home next door. “You want empanadas? Go across the street. We live cultural diversity. We don’t need to preserve it.”

The QueensWay concept will undergo a $400,000 feasibility study, which is being funded by a grant provided by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

The push to reactivate train service, believed to be a need by Rockaways residents who face interminable travel times to and from the peninsula, has been gaining momentum.

But some say it would just be impossible: a 2001 feasibility study conducted by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority determined that restarting train service would be cost prohibitive.

Giannelli hopes to at least come to a compromise: develop the rail line from Rego Park to Forest Park and build the rail link between Rockaway at the transit hub at Atlantic Avenue.

“And leave the good people of 98th Street alone,” he said.

He said he hopes that emphasizing that this is a property rights issue will help.

“I’m not going to give up on the good sense of New Yorkers,” he said.

Reach reporter Bianca Fortis by email at bfortis@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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