MTA seeks community partner to repurpose 2 railroad bridges

By Bill Parry

For now the only activity atop a train trestle known as the LIRR Montauk Cutoff in Long Island City is a few feral cats hunting for field mice. That could change if the MTA finds a partner who would revamp and repurpose the twin elevated railroad tracks that have gone unused since the 1990s.

The tracks emerge from the woods east of Skillman Avenue that are surrounded by a gritty industrial zone near 49th Avenue. The railroad tracks descend into the Sunnyside Yards, the 180-acre rail yard which one day may be home to more than 11,000 affordable apartments if Mayor Bill de Blasio gets his way.

The MTA is searching for an entity with the resources and a plan to find some use for the structure.

“It is true that the MTA is seeking official expressions of interest from businesses, nonprofits, community groups, and individuals who might be interested in taking over the management of a series of LIRR bridges in Long Island City that are no longer needed for train service,” an MTA spokesman said. “We’re looking for detailed implementation and operating plans for their concepts, which can include, but are not limited to, public open space, urban farming, or museum or sculpture garden space.”

The MTA would lease the 1/3-mile-long structure but not sell it, in case it is needed for transportation purposes in the future. There are also parameters that may prove to be prohibitive for certain groups.

Potential operators would have to provide access to the trestles that are 16 feet above Skillman Avenue. There are no utilities currently serving the Montauk Cutoff, so any adaptive reuse plan might require electricity, water, sewer or gas at the partner expense. They would also be responsible for the upkeep of the site, bridge maintenance and the cost of insurance, with general liability limits of up to $5 million.

Mitch Waxman, a western Queens historian and activist tour guide in the industrial zones around Newtown Creek, said he is “stoked” about the possibilities atop the Montauk Cutoff.

Waxman envisions an “LIC Greenway” that transforms a post-industrial wasteland into a green infrastructure and urban agriculture hybrid that offers educational opportunities, green collar jobs and community engagement.

Waxman says he’s “on the same page” with Gil Lopez, the founder of the Smiling Hogshead Ranch—an urban farm that operates on MTA-owned land at the base of the trestle between Pearson Place and 49th Avenue—is formulating a plan to expand his operation onto the Montauk Cutoff that would include other western Queens greening groups with new cutting-edge ecological technologies from cleaning polluted water from sewage overflows to the latest in pollinating insects. Lopez believes the notion that Queens could get its own Highline-style park, which has been mentioned in some published reports, completely misses the mark.

“Please don’t get me wrong, I and other members of Smiling Hogshead Ranch all love city parks and absolutely adore the Highline,” Lopez said. “It is almost endearing to have the comparison made, but it creates a public expectation for a richly designed and opulently constructed, passive park while we have been working to create something very different. If you mention Highline to the specialists I’m engaged with they’ll move on to other projects. We have the opportunity to develop something much bigger here that would better serve the population. Now we have to come up with a serious business model to figure out how to pay for it all.”

The MTA will hold a site visit for other interested parties on Friday, Oct. 16 at 10 a.m. Potential partners are asked to email John Coyne at jcoyne@mtahq.org to RSVP.

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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