‘Queens is not for sale’: Community activists protest EDC’s plan to develop Sunnyside Yards

stop sunnyside yards
Photo credit: Angélica Acevedo

Justice for All Coalition, Stop Sunnyside Yards, Woodside on the Move, Take Back NYC and several other community activists and leaders rallied on Monday on Skillman Avenue to demand that all public officials and city agencies — particularly the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and the Department of City Planning (DCP) — stop all plans to develop Sunnyside Yards.

“Anyone who pitches to you the idea of building a giant steel deck on top of this historic rail yard and then building on top of that deck an emerald city for the rich while the other 99 percent of the people in our community have their needs unmet, is pitching to you a short-term solution with huge long-term costs,” Nicholas Velkov, executive committee member of Justice for All Coalition, small business owner and Astoria resident, said at the rally.

Velkov and Ivan Contreras, the lead tenant organizer at Woodside on the Move, directed the rally and press conference, which took place right in front of the 180-acre rail yard.

The land, which is about six times the size of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, is owned by Amtrak and the MTA and is considered one of the busiest rail yards in the country.

Amtrak and the MTA are undertaking “critical capital investments” that only happens once in a century, according to the EDC. 

Therefore, Sunnyside Yards has been eyed for a long-term, billion dollar development project by the EDC since 2017, after they found that it’s possible to create new land in the form of a deck over the yard with continued rail operations below.

At Monday’s rally, the speakers presented their petition that’s signed by 43 organizations and small business owners across the boroughs, and not only called for a moratorium on “all major new developments and rezonings,” but also outlined what they want to see the “tens of billions of dollars” that are intended for the Sunnyside Yards development project used for instead, including:

  1. To “repair and restore safe and adequate infrastructure that serves the needs of our communities,”
  2.  To “reform the land use process and create a democratic system that is truly community-driven,” and “abolish the quasi-private EDC and eliminate the involvement of real estate in city planning,” and
  3. To “repair NYCHA housing and secure permanent, fair housing for all unhoused NYC residents,” 

Danelly Rodriguez, a member of the Justice for All Coalition and a life-long resident of Astoria, took to the microphone to address the crowd in English and Spanish.

“Only two things have been going up in Astoria and Long Island City: The cost of rent and luxury buildings,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez further questioned who would really benefit from the EDC’s development project.

“The EDC has been boasting for years about how Astoria and Long Island City has been developed so much, but the question is, who are they developing for — is it for us? Absolutely not, they’re developing for the rich and that’s been clear time and time again,” Rodriguez said.

Others argued that their plans won’t benefit the community, instead it’ll just be “another Hudson Yards,” that will “displace loved ones,” “raise rent,” and cause further damage to the environment.

Emily Sharpe, a nonprofit attorney who’s lived in Sunnyside for 22 years, founded the group Stop Sunnyside Yards a year ago when she began to hear about the EDC’s plans.

“There’s a gross imbalance of power going on here, there’s self-dealing, there’s lack of informed consent,” Sharpe said. “The EDC and the people behind it — who are the titans of industry, finance, real estate, insurance companies — they’re trying to get this for themselves and their friends.”

The EDC has organized three public meetings, steering committees once every quarter and about 100 community stakeholder in-person interviews.

But at their most recent in-person meeting at Aviation High School in Long Island City on Sept. 16, a group of protesters held a community teach-in and called their meetings “fake.”

Tom Angotti, emeritus professor of urban planning at Hunter College, was present at that meeting and at Monday’s rally.

Angotti said that the EDC’s claims that the project will take into consideration long-term effects to the community is not accurate.

“There’s no planning involved here, they have absolutely no idea what will go on top because it’s all driven by investors,” he said. “Yet the EDC will march in participatory workshops and say, ‘this is planning.'”

As the rally went on, some people began to ask why their elected officials weren’t present and where they stand in this.

They mentioned Senator Michael Gianaris, Councilmember and Queens Borough president candidate Jimmy Van Bramer, Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

On Nov. 19, Van Bramer and Ocasio-Cortez signed a joint letter to the EDC stating some of their concerns regarding the current planning process and proposed development over the Sunnyside Yards. Some of those concerns include the current plan’s lack of “environmental impacts of developing near the Newtown Creek Superfund Site, an industrial waste zone that would expose unknown amounts of toxins to local residents.”

Ocasio-Cortez and Van Bramer’s letter also stated that their positions on the project’s steering committee for the development “does not imply endorsement” of it. 

On Monday, Gianaris also sent a letter to the EDC, stating that they have not “embraced a democratic process in implementing public input that prioritizes environmental and social justice” and that the development will be “yet another mega-project” that will benefit developers and lead to “further gentrification” and “displacement.”

When QNS asked the EDC for comment regarding the concerns of the community, a spokesperson stated that they are still in the master planning process and will release the formal plan in Winter 2020.

“Sunnyside Yard presents an opportunity to build a stronger New York and meet the needs for more open space, transit, housing, jobs and green infrastructure in Western Queens,” the spokesperson said. “We recognize that in any long-term planning process there will be questions and concerns. We look forward to continuing to engage the community to discuss the goals and impact with them.”

They will be hosting a Digital Town Hall webinar on Wednesday, Dec. 4, to showcase a draft of the master plan and discuss what it means for the city’s long-term future.