Forever losing the option for transitBy
As creative urban parks go, New York City’s High Line is a great success story. The city, with fiscal help from private donations, turned an abandoned and decrepit freight rail line that no longer went anywhere or connected to the rest of area’s transportation network into a popular park that weaves through a neighborhood teeming with residents, businesses and tourists. Now, everyone wants a piece of the action.
Across the country, urban activists are eying the nation’s dying rail infrastructure not for transit but for parks. In Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit, community groups are searching for the “next” High Line — some infrastructure that can be turned into a park that will revitalize a neighborhood. It’s not quite that easy as New York’s High Line runs through a densely-populated neighborhood that already was a big tourist destination before the park opened, but that minor point isn’t stopping anyone.
Even within the city, New Yorkers are also looking for the next spot for the new High Line. Every few months, the Delancey Underground effort earns some press, and now an old initiative from Queens is gaining ink as well. On Friday, the Daily News explored how Queens residents are once again trying to turn the LIRR’s defunct Rockaway Beach Branch into a park. This isn’t a new plan; it last garnered coverage back in 2005. But with the High Line’s success, residents are emboldened to try again.
Lisa Colangelo has more:
Encouraged by the success of the High Line in Manhattan, a group of Queens park advocates are rebooting a proposal to rehabilitate an abandoned rail line into a greenway. The old Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, which went out of service almost 50 years ago, stretches from Rego Park to Ozone Park, cutting a swath through Forest Park.
“This is such an exciting idea,” said Andrea Crawford, the chairwoman of Community Board 9 who is helping organize supporters of the project. “It’s green, yet it has economic development opportunities. It would tie us in with other rail-to-trail projects happening all over the country.”
Crawford was part of a group of civic leaders who met with city agency representatives this week to discuss preliminary plans for a greenway along the route. Remnants of the line are visible throughout the area. The tracks ran along trestles above Metropolitan Ave. and Union Turnpike. The path is mostly clogged with trees and overgrown vegetation, but it still includes some train tracks and signal equipment and towers. The tracks, which lead into Forest Park just south of Union Turnpike and Woodhaven Blvd., are owned by the city.
As Colangelo explained, Community Board 9 supported the idea a few years ago, but Community Board 6 declined to authorize a feasibility study for a park. Residents in Forest Hills had raised concerns focused on “security and the impact on private property.” Today’s activists aren’t going to let obstacles from a few years ago hinder them.
Now, outside of the practicality of it — what money will turn this abandoned rail line into a park and is it in a part of the city to which people will travel to experience such a transformation? — there’s another issue: It’s part of a long-term effort that removes transit infrastructure from its intended use. By turning the West Side Line into the High Line, the city ensured that it would never be used for rail transportation again. If the Essex St. trolley terminal suffers the same fate, it too will never be a part of the city’s transit infrastructure.
The Rockaway Beach Branch has been fetishized by transit advocates for decades. The MTA once considered using the line as part of a one-seat ride to JFK or for Airtrain right-of-way before NIMBYs in Queens killed that idea, and an extensive thread on a popular transit message board traces the various ideas for reactivating the rail line. In his 40-year plan for the MTA, then-agency head Lee Sander mentioned restoring transit services to the line as well. Turning it into a park would immediately dash any of those hopes.
Therein lies the tension with old infrastructure: How long should a former train route lie fallow before we can accept other uses for it? Should the city be willing to discard half-formed plans to activate train lines that could provide useful service because someone else is louder or better connected? Turning the Rockaway Beach Branch into a rail trail will forever preclude using it for transit just as turning the Essex St. Terminal into a park or shopping area would do the same. That’s a decision that should not be made lightly.