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Photo courtesy of NYCEDC
Sunnyside Railyards Aerials; Queens New York; Architect: FX Fowle Architects

The Sunnyside Yards Steering Committee, organized by the Economic Development Corp. (EDC), officially lost two members in Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Justice for All Coalition Chair Sylvia White.

The EDC is leading a multibillion-dollar effort to build new land atop Sunnyside Yards, a 180-acre rail yard considered one of the busiest in the country, partly owned by Amtrak, MTA and the city. They created the Steering Committee with citywide and local leaders to advise and guide them through their Master Planning process.

But after several months of the EDC’s community outreach portion of the process, many Queens residents and leaders are protesting the project and calling for the city to instead use the funds they want to allocate for the project toward the community’s more immediate needs.

Justice for All Coalition (JFC), a community organization based in Astoria and Long Island City, is one of the organizations leading the fight against Sunnyside Yards. In November 2019, they sent letters to several elected officials asking that they step down from the EDC’s Steering Committee.

In response, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and Ocasio-Cortez sent a joint letter, obtained by The City, in which they emphasized that their roles in the Steering Committee didn’t “imply endorsement of the project” and that the EDC’s current proposal “reflects a misalignment of priorities.”

Senator Michael Gianaris also sent a letter, stating that while his name and office appeared in the Steering Committee, he never accepted the invitation. Gianaris added that although the planning process includes some public input, “that input does not appear to be reflected in the public facing materials released about the project and rather tinkers around the edges providing a few token benefits.”

On Jan. 24, Ocasio-Cortez sent the EDC her letter of resignation. She wrote that while she understands that the ambitious project requires a “lengthy, complex, and multi-stakeholder driven planning process,” she felt the need to resign due to the project’s proposal.

“Despite the many outreach meetings that you have cited, I have yet to see sufficient inclusion of the feedback from those meetings in the current plan,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in the letter. “This feedback, both from community members and from my office, includes but is not limited to community land trusts, truly affordable housing, and public and green infrastructure of the scale necessary to meet our 21st-century housing and environmental justice challenges.”

White sent her letter of resignation on Feb. 14, stating that she agreed to participate in the Steering committee after being invited to join in 2019 in order to have “another venue for advocating for the needs of the community members” she represents.

“So far, I have not found this to be the case,” White wrote in the letter. “Specifically, the community members that I represent and work in solidarity with have repeatedly, and in multiple ways … communicated to the NYCEDC that NO development over the Yards is what is most desired.”

White mentioned that beyond advocating for issues of equity, the environment and health, they are also calling for the public money that would be directed toward development over the yards. She said the funds “should be invested in shoring up the existing transportation infrastructure that already exists there or investing it in other under-funded public resources that our community relies on.”

The EDC is currently working on its final Master Plan, which they maintain will be ready sometime in the winter. They don’t have any upcoming events scheduled on their website, but recently participated in two.

The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit dedicated to creating parks, hosted “A Public Future for Sunnyside Yards: Open Space and Social Infrastructure” a panel on the possibilities of having parks in and around the project, with a keynote from the EDC’s Sunnyside Yards Director Adam Grossman Meagher. At the event, which took place in January at MoMA PS 1, Grossman Meagher announced that they are planning to include 60 acres of park land in and around the deck.

On Feb. 10, the New York Building Congress hosted “A Public Future for Sunnyside Yard: Green Building and a Transition to a Green Economy,” with the EDC. It was only open to their members, but was live streamed and is available on the EDC’s website.

An EDC spokesperson told QNS that while the work of the Steering Committee wrapped up in December 2019, they still welcome feedback from Ocasio-Cortez, White and the JFC.

“Sunnyside Yards presents an opportunity to build a stronger New York for generations to come that includes more open space, transit, affordable housing, jobs and green infrastructure in western Queens. This planning process has always put community engagement at the center. We’re committed to continuing our work with the community to build a strategic vision that can better serve local residents and all New Yorkers,” the spokesperson said.

According to the EDC, the Master Plan is “not a development plan or a rezoning,” but rather a long-term plan that will develop a framework on how to build over the deck for years to come.

The spokesperson also told QNS that once the Master Plan is out, construction won’t start right away.

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