Archive for Queens
As 2013 unfolded and the promise of a new mayor came into view, the Forum for Urban Design hosted a series of meetings on urban development. As part of the forum, a variety of planners and designers submitted ideas for the Next New York. I highlighted one of those ideas — Alex Garvin’s waterfront light rail — in a September post on light rail for Red Hook. It is, of course, an old idea that won’t fade away and could make sense as a speedier connection to the jobs, shops, restaurants and subways in Downtown Brooklyn if the costs are right.
Today, that idea — and the rest of Garvin’s impractical line all the way to Astoria — is back in the news as The New York Times has discovered it. It’s always dangerous when The Times latches onto an element of urban planning as they tend to push real estate interests over transit needs, and their coverage of this idea as a mixed-traffic streetcar connecting waterfront areas that don’t need to be connected to each other follows a similar pattern. This is a Big Idea for the sake of Big Ideas and not to solve a discrete problem.
The presentation comes to us in a Michael Kimmelman column. I’ll excerpt:
There’s a wonderful term for the dirt trails that people leave behind in parks: desire lines. Cities also have desire lines, marked by economic development and evolving patterns of travel. In New York, Manhattan was once the destination for nearly all such paths, expressed by subway tracks that linked Midtown with what Manhattanites liked to call the outer boroughs.
But there is a new desire line, which avoids Manhattan altogether. It hugs the waterfronts of Brooklyn and Queens, stretching from Sunset Park past the piers of Red Hook, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, through Greenpoint and across Newtown Creek, which separates the two boroughs, running all the way up to the Triborough Bridge in Astoria. The desire line is now poorly served by public transit, even as millennials are colonizing Astoria, working in Red Hook, then going out in Williamsburg and Bushwick — or working at the Navy Yard, visiting friends in Long Island City and sleeping in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
They have helped drive housing developments approved or built along the Brooklyn waterfront, like the one by Two Trees at the former Domino Sugar Refinery. But this corridor isn’t only for millennials. It’s also home to thousands of less affluent New Yorkers struggling to get to jobs and join the work force. So here’s an idea: bring back the streetcar.
The idea of a “desire line” is a literary device; it doesn’t mirror reality. Furthermore, the rest of Kimmelman’s column is replete with contradictions about this streetcar’s plan. Kimmelman opts for streetcars over buses because of “romance,” but and while there’s something to be said about the psychological impact of a streetcar, we’re talking about a half a billion dollars and massive upfront infrastructure needs for a mixed-traffic line that won’t do what Kimmelman wants it to do.
Here’s the question that needs to be asked first: Will the “thousands of less affluent New Yorkers struggling to get to jobs and join the work force” benefit from this streetcar route? What problem is a line near the waterfront from Red Hook to Astoria trying to solve? One Twitter follower put together a Google Map of the proposed routing, and you’ll see that the best it does is provide direct access to the Navy Yard, a decent sized job center in Brooklyn. As passé as it may be, jobs are in Manhattan or generally along subway lines, and this route doesn’t help improve access to subway lines. (It’s also a mess operationally with tight turns along narrow streets that would limit rolling stock length. It also parallels some bus routes, raising even more questions of need and cost.)
While Cap’n Transit believes that any area that could support light rail would be prime for a subway, if costs are lower and ridership falls in between buses and a subway, light could work. As I mentioned, we can’t dismiss the psychological edge they hold over buses, and with the right routing — dedicated lanes that run, say, from Red Hook to the Navy Yards via subway stations in Downtown Brooklyn rather than via the waterfront — they could solve the gaps in transit deserts. But we shouldn’t, as Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen does, love this idea simply because it’s new, romantic or big. Will the ridership justify the costs? Will the service connect to job centers and destinations or provide a faster way to get to New York’s developed subway network? Can we identify a need and support that need based on a thorough study? “Desire” isn’t enough considering how much this will cost.
For bus riders in Brooklyn and Queens, “soon” now has a set date. BusTime — the MTA’s real-time bus tracking service — will go live for the city’s most populous boroughs on Sunday, March 9. Bus riders in those two boroughs will now know, via text message, smart phone apps or the the web where their buses are and how far away that next bus is. It will be a huge boost for riders long accustomed to spotty service and maddeningly inconsistent waits.
“MTA Bus Time is yet another way we are trying to improve service for our customers,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said in a press release. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway, customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”
With the addition of Brooklyn and Queens bus routes, including express bus service, the entire city will have access to bus tracking information, and the MTA has met its self-imposed deadline for bringing the service online. This last installation adds 9000 bus stops to the system as well. What it doesn’t include yet are countdown clocks — or, more accurately, station countdowns — at each station, and transit advocates hope to change that.
At a rally hosted by the Riders Alliance (of which I am a board member), bus riders and other transit advocates called upon politicians to help fund a NYCDOT initiative that would see digital countdown timers installed at key bus stations throughout the city. The timers — similar to the one atop this post — would be a big help to those who aren’t aware of BusTime or are not otherwise comfortable with the technology that makes the bus location information readily available.
“Countdown clocks have been a huge hit on subway platforms,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “Now it’s time to bring them to bus stops. We have the technology and we have the interest from riders.”
What is missing from Raskin’s equation is, of course, money. A 2012 study by Brad Lander noted that countdown clocks at bus stops would cost around $4000-$6000 to install, but the solar-powered free-standing signs in place as part of the Staten Island pilot would cost up to $20,000 each. That’s a prohibitive cost and an insane one. Ridership doesn’t warrant installing one at every bus stop, but for key bus stations, these simple timers that countdown stops shouldn’t cost that much.
“The best way to get where I’m going is the bus. I try to time it using printed schedules but most of the time the bus doesn’t follow the schedule,” Thomasin Bentley, a Riders Alliance member, said. “I want to use the bus. It’s clean and affordable. Bus countdown clocks would allow me to make the most of an otherwise great system. The text messaging service is a good start but I find it difficult to understand, and I’m a real tech person. I can imagine that it’s hard for other people to figure out as well.”
When the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects announced their AIANY Emerging New York Architects design competition last summer, I knew we were in trouble. AIANY focused around designs for the QueensWay, but instead of encouraging emerging architects to think about any use, including rail, for the right of way, the organization urged designers to think only about an elevated park. And crazy renderings for an elevated park are what we have received.
AIANY released the results earlier this week, and New York seems awfully under-represented in the Emerging New York Architects competition. The big winners came from France, Switzerland and Canada while the student prize winner came out of New Mexico and only one Queens designer received an honorable mention. That’s not to say that outsiders can’t design architecture for New York City, but when we’re thinking about turning over a valuable and irreplaceable right-of-way to a rails-to-trails project, New Yorkers should probably be heard above all others.
While none of the proposal captures my attention quite like the underground swimming pool I discussed last night, they seem to underscore, in their disconnect from the surrounding neighborhood, just how unlikely any conversion of this rail right of way will be. In all likelihood, the Rockaway Beach Branch will remain as it has been for decades — the subject of numerous proposals to reactivate rail, the subject of conversion talks, and the subject of NIMBY opposition to anything happening at all.
Still, let’s marvel at the designs. All were designed at the abandoned Ozone Park station, one of the sites of the QueensWay that doesn’t back up onto residential properties and contains some wide open sight lines. It isn’t the norm for this right of way.
Here, we have the winner. From Carrie Wibert of Paris, France, the QueensWay steps took home the $5000 prize. This is the grand entry to the QueensWay park. These steps are located between 100th and 99th Streets, and 101st and 103rd Avenues in Ozone Park, Queens, and while not far from the A train, it’s in a spot that could use better rail service rather than a park. But we’ve been over that before.
The second place finisher is from Nikolay Martynov of Basel, Switzerland. It is called the Queens Billboard and appears to be a roller coaster for people without handrails. Your guess is as good as mine.
The third place prize went to Song Deng and René Biberstein of Toronto, Canada. Their entry called Make It! Grow It! seemed to capture the essence of what QueensWay organizers want. Underneath the structure is a market and above is a High Line-style park. Again, I’m not sure where all these people, or the yellow cab, would come from, but the general idea here seems to stem from Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.
The student prize comes from Jessica Shoemaker of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is underwhelming.
The honorable mention went to Hyuntek Yoon of Queens. In a Daily News article, Yoon explained that his design allows for a seamless integration from street level to the park. It’s an alluring concept and a pleasant design.
* * *
Over the years, I’ve been highly skeptical of the QueensWay. It’s a long shot to believe that the Rockaway Beach Branch line will be reactivated, but as Joe Raskin’s book revealed, it’s not a new idea. The subway operators have long wishes to incorporate the Rockaway Beach Branch into the subway, and the only thing stopping integration in the 1950s was money (and Robert Moses). Today, there’s a clear need and a clear plan, but political, and more importantly, economic, support isn’t there. Residents will object; the MTA doesn’t have plans for funding. Same as it ever was.
If anything comes of the QueensWay, it ultimately won’t look like these renderings. Most proponents want a utilitarian park with a focus on a bike path that can help bypass the dangerous and crowded Woodhaven Boulevard. These plans, instead, bring the High Line sensibilities to an area that isn’t dense or popular enough to support another High Line. AIANY will host some panels on these designs, and I’m curious to hear what the architects and project proponents have to say. But if I were a betting man, I’d bet against movement, rail or otherwise. The city just isn’t ready for it, and that’s a commentary on the state of transit affairs.
Earlier this week, State Assemblyman Paul Goldfeder’s office sent out what I thought was an oddly-phrased press release along with a letter the Queens representative sent to MTA head Tom Prendergast. In the letter, Goldfeder called upon the MTA to include Queens in its plans for BusTime.
“Waiting for a bus in Queens should not be a guessing game,” he said. “I applaud the MTA for using technology to better their services for customers and I strongly urge them to include all New Yorkers in their latest advances and implement the real-time bus locator app for Queens residents as soon as possible.”
What struck me as odd was the fact that the MTA had always said BusTime would be a city-wide effort and that the rest of the city would receive real-time bus tracking info by the middle of this year. Everything I had heard from MTA sources indicated that the rollout was on time, and I asked Goldfeder’s office if they had heard otherwise. His press rep clarified that Goldfeder “sent a letter to the Chairman to make sure the app does come to Queens and there’s no second thoughts.” An app without one borough would be no app indeed.
In response to Goldfeder’s inquiry, the MTA has stressed its commitment to Brooklyn and Queens. If you look closely enough at the MTA’s bus fleet — and know what to look for — you’ll see that the equipment for BusTime is already in place, and the MTA has said that it should be live soon. “We have completed boroughwide installations in Queens and Brooklyn and are currently fine-tuning software,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said in response to various inquiries. “We are on schedule to go online in the next several weeks.”
So there you have it: Ask for an update, and ye shall receive. A citywide implementation of BusTime should do wonders for bus ridership and the overall convenience of New York’s otherwise unreliable local buses. If only now we could do something about the clunky fare payment system.
How about some bad news for 7 train riders on Friday evening? As part of the never-ending work to install a communications-based train control system on the Flushing Line, weekend shutdowns will resume at the end of February. Luckily for Mets fans — if Mets fans can ever be described as lucky — the work has been scheduled to coincide with away games. Any time the Mets are on the road, there’s no 7 service; any time they’re home, trains run with no problems.
According to the MTA’s announcement, the work scheduled for these weekends will also involve two other projects: replacement of track panels and reconstruction of the Steinway Tube, including Sandy recovery work. “We understand that these service disruptions are inconvenient to the customers who depend on the 7 train and we appreciate their patience,” MTA NYC Transit President Carmen Bianco said in a statement. “We have made every effort to schedule these projects simultaneously to get as much work done as we can during these periods.”
Generally, the work will be focused around segments from 74th St. – Broadway to Times Square, but sometimes work extends from Willets Point to Flushing. There will be no 7 service between Mets-Willets Point and Flushing-Main St between 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 15 and 5 a.m. Tuesday, February 18, as well as between 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 22 and 5 a.m. Monday, February 24.
The work, says the MTA, is beyond the capacity of a FASTRACK treatment, and as a carrot to those left stranded, weekend N and Q service will be increased. Here’s what 7 train riders and Long Island City residents have to look forward to:
No service between Times Square-42 St and Queensboro Plaza on these dates unless noted with asterisk:
- February 28-March 3
- March 7-10, 14-17, 21-24, 28-31
- April 11-14
- May 2-5, 16-19 (No service between Times Square-42 St and 74 St-Broadway)
- May 30-June 2
- June 6-8, also reduced service between 74 St-Broadway and Queensboro Plaza (Service resumes early a.m. Sunday, June 8 for Puerto Rican Day Parade)
- June 20-23, 27-30, also reduced service between 74 St-Broadway and Queensboro Plaza
- July 18-21, also reduced service between 74 St-Broadway and Queensboro Plaza
That’s the long-term future. Now, after the jump, let’s dive into this weekend’s changes. Read More→
The fight over the future of the Rockaway Beach Branch right-of-way is raising interesting questions about local decision-making in the context of the overall shape of New York City as a third Queens Community Board has rejected the QueensWay park plan in favor of the restoration of rail service. As the Queens Chronicle reported last week, CB5 — whose area encompasses an oft-congested stretch of Woodhaven Boulevard — voted 36-2 for the rail option. So far, CB 10 and CB 14 have voiced a preference for transit while only CB 9, whose leaders and members make up the Friends of the QueensWay organization, has supported the park plan.
Community Board 5 leaders spoke of the need to focus on mass transit as a way to solve the area’s traffic and accessibility issues. “Woodhaven Boulevard is just overwhelmed. We need relief and the only way to relieve traffic is with public transportation,” CB 5 Chair Vincent Arcuri said. “The people in the Rockaways have been clamoring for public transportation better than what they currently have for years. That A train is like going on a safari.”
Andrea Crawford, who heads both Friends of the QueensWay and CB 9, told the Chronicle that CB 5’s vote was “ridiculous.” She said, “This is a right of way that has absolutely no infrastructure and is deteriorating. The bridges would have to be rebuilt to carry modern train equipment. A rail line would help traffic in what, 20 or 30 years when it’s reactivated?”
The issue though isn’t focusing on “helping traffic.” It’s about a forward-looking approach to transit development and urban growth while encouraging sustainability throughout Queens. As I mentioned, too, this war of words showcases how hyperlocal planning is flawed. Just because most of the right of way runs through CB 9 doesn’t mean they should have the final say or even more of one over land use. The space should not be turned into a park until every other avenue of development is exhausted first, and that’s what’s best for the city.
Hot on the heels of the news last week that a group of Queens College students and professors will be assessing the best uses for the Rockaway Beach Branch ROW, the Daily News editorial board comes out roundly in favor of rail.
At first blush, it sounds terrific: transforming a fallow old stretch of train tracks on the Rockaway Beach Branch of the LIRR into a park for families to enjoy. But there may well be a better use for this resource: for trains. Call us old-fashioned, but some parts of New York City — and Queens especially — need reliable public transportation more desperately than they need public space…
Build another High Line, right? Maybe not. It happens that the Rockaways (pop.: 130,000, and many more visitors) are starved for good, fast transit to Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and all the other places the railroad could take them. So are Kennedy Airport (where 35,000 people work and 49 million travel in and out a year), Ozone Park, Hamilton Beach and Aqueduct race track and racino, all of which are near the rail line.
So, before going too far down the track of parkifying the path, it’s worth a serious look at whether it can be rescued and revitalized for its original use. Unlike with the High Line, where the choice was demolition or repurposing, the Rockaway Beach Branch could carry passengers again. Nelson Rockefeller had a plan for just that in 1968. Ditto for Pat Moynihan decades later. Frankly, it would have made more sense for a one-seat JFK link than running an elevated line down the Van Wyck.
The News goes on to praise Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder for leading the charge to produce a non-biased study on possible uses for the disused rail line, and it’s important to stress that this step is key. Rail may ultimately not be the best use of the ROW. Maybe rail isn’t feasible. Maybe it’s too expensive, and ridership would be too low to support the infrastructure New York has in place for rapid transit.
But we can’t cede the land to parks advocates because the ROW hasn’t been used for rail lately. We live in a different city today than we did 15, 20 or 30 years ago. Once we give up on rail, that option is gone forever, and the stewards of today’s New York City owe it to future generations to be 100 percent certain that the Rockaway Beach Branch could never support rail again. That’s what Goldfeder’s study will do.
As the Friends of the QueensWay continue their taxpayer-supported push to develop a greenway on the fallow Rockaway Beach Branch right-of-way, Phil Goldfeder, Assembly representative from New York’s 23rd district, announced a competing study to be undertaken by Queens College urban studies students that will ascertain the best uses for the right-of-way. Goldfeder, a supporter of rail, has called this effort a “comprehensive and objective” one that will “assess the community impact of the proposed options for the abandoned tracks,” as compared with the park-only assessment underway by the Trust for Public Land.
In announcing the study, Goldfeder noted the disparity in focus. On Twitter, he said that the QueensWay team is wasting “tax money on expensive consultants” while the Queens College will “utilize local experts” and “undertake real objective study.” This new examination of the right of way is expected to take nine months, and it will include a full needs assessment as well as a cost analysis of the various options. Additionally, Congressmen Gregory Meeks (NY-5) and Hakeem Jeffries (NY-8) continue to work with Goldfeder as well to ascertain if Sandy recovery money can be used for reactivated rail service.
In a subsequent press release, the Assembly rep added, “The Queens College Department of Urban Studies’ Office of Community Studies is renowned for its community-based research. It is the perfect partner to help determine what is in the best interest of Queens and city residents. Now that the MTA has signaled an interest in reactivating the Rockaway Beach Rail Line as an efficient and cost-effective way to significantly increase public transit for Queens residents, it’s important we do appropriate studies to determine the next steps. While other groups are using tax dollars to hire expensive consultants and do one-sided studies, we’re utilizing local expert resources and educating our students while supporting an objective study that will enormously benefit all our hardworking Queens families.”
The details are still coming out, but for those of us very hesitant to embrace a QueensWay solution that would essentially cut off the rail option forever, this is a best-case scenario. A third party will assess the various proposed uses and develop cost estimates for each case. We’ll find out what rail reactivation would take, what usage a park would get, and what doing nothing would mean for Queens. Clawing back part of this process from the Trust for Public Land is a very good step indeed.
Over the past few months, while I’ve maintained a skeptical view of the proposed QueensWay park that would likely usher in the end of any hopes to restore rail to the LIRR’s old Rockaway Beach Branch line, I’ve had some productive conversations with proponents of the park. I can’t speak for all of the rails-to-trails advocates in Queens, but those I’ve spoken with generally want the same thing I do. They want to see improved transit options, safer streets with fewer cars and efforts to prioritize pedestrian safety.
The difference between my view and theirs is a narrow one. They live with and around the defunct right of way and have largely written off any potential future rail use as impractical. Though it’s been a few decades since the last real assessment of the Rockaway Beach Branch line, certain members of Friends of the QueensWay believe it’s too far gone for rail use. It’s too expensive, too impractical, too impossible for rail. As the MTA gave the reactivation of the rail line just a nod in its latest 20-Year Needs Assessment, I’d rather see the cold hard study detailing costs and feasibility before writing it off good. After all, there’s a reason why rails-to-trails has so much public support while trails-to-rails doesn’t.
That said, there is still an element of NIMBYism in play here as many of the arguments for the park focus literally on backyards. One common refrain is that people who have built houses along the defunct right of way do not now want trains zooming by their homes at all hours of the day. I’m sympathetic in that I wouldn’t particularly enjoy that environment, but I didn’t build a home on abutting a rail line.
That’s hardly the worst of it though. Take, for instance, Assembly Rep. Mike Miller’s attempt at a compromise. On the surface, it seems a bit odd but perhaps a reasonable stab at a dialogue, but when you boil it down to its component parts, it looks more and more like a weird form of NIMBYism. Miller is right when he says that the QueensWay shouldn’t be compared with the High Line, and he’s right to cite concerns about long-term upgrade and maintenance costs. But here is the crux of his argument, and it’s a doozy:
Certain sections of the proposed QueensWay, specifically the area of the rail line that runs parallel to 98th Street in Woodhaven, will be adjacent to the backyards of nearly 200 homeowners. Although I have been informed by the Friends of QueensWay that they plan to build the QueensWay completely gated around the entrances and make it inaccessible at night, local residents should not be the ones burdened with the cost of building a more secure fence around their backyards to ensure the privacy and safety of their homes…
Many of the residents on 98th Street are OK with the rail line being underused and prefer it to stay that way. I also agree that the rail line from Park Lane South down to Atlantic Avenue be left untouched as to not interfere with the quality of life of local residents. Furthermore, as per the suggestion of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in its 20-year plan, the rail line from Atlantic Avenue to Rockaway Boulevard should be left as is and eventually be used as a connection for an express line connection to Manhattan.
After carefully balancing the potential positive impact of the QueensWay vs. the potential negative impact on certain local residents, I recommend the following:
- The QueensWay should be built only on the part of the rail line that stretches from Rego Park to Park Lane South.
- The rail line from Park Lane South to Atlantic Avenue should be left untouched so as to not interfere with the quality of life of local residents.
- The rail line from Atlantic Avenue to Rockaway Boulevard should also be left untouched, so it can eventually be used by the MTA as an express line connection into Manhattan.
Before we get into the electoral politics of this proposal, note the discrepancies between Miller’s idea for an “express line connection to Manhattan” and his plan to convert the right of way from Atlantic Ave. to Rockaway Boulevard — a span of a few blocks — into an express line. He doesn’t explain more, but I assume his route would involve tying the Rockaway Beach Branch into the LIRR’s Atlantic Ave. line. This would result in an express line to … Brooklyn? That essentially mirrors preexisting LIRR service and the A train? Without a massive investment, this route ain’t going to Manhattan.
Meanwhile, take a look at Miller’s district map, and notice the Rockaway Beach Branch right of way. His “compromise” proposal calls for a park through neighborhoods he doesn’t represent and calls for no action along the area from Park Lane South to Atlantic Ave. that cuts right through the heart of his district. Build this QueensWay in someone else’s backyard, he say. It’s not his problem! To Miller’s credit, he’s willing to cede three whole blocks in his district plus a school bus parking lot to a rail line that solves no one’s mobility concerns.
This is ultimately a nothing proposal designed instead to give Miller protection from irate constituents who want no part in a QueensWay running through their backyards. It makes me wonder though why other blocs in the city aren’t taking a more active role in this debate. The QueensWay decisions may have a physical impact on those who live near the ROW, but from a mobility perspective, the rail line has the potential to effect all New Yorkers. Who’s fighting for them?
The target date to wrap the MTA’s installation of communications-based train control along Flushing Line has been delayed six months until mid-2017, the agency said in documents released this weekend. As part of the update to the Capital Program Oversight Committee, the MTA noted that the $550 million project remains on budget, but due, in part, to complications from Sandy, the project’s substantial completion date has been pushed back from the fourth quarter of 2016 to the second quarter of 2017.
According to the documents, two issues could further impact this date. The first concerned the availability of test tracks for the CBTC-enabled R188s. These cars were due to be tested on the Rockaway Test Track, but this stretch of railbed was damaged during Sandy. The delay in repairing the test track has pushed back the date for final delivery of the R188s from February 2016 to August 2016.
Second, the MTA fingers “G.O. Availability” as a concern. As CBTC work means many weekends without 7 train service into and out of Queens, the agency has been working with community leaders along the Flushing Line to better plan outages. As the Board materials say, though, “if track outages for this project are delayed/denied, the project’s milestones will be delayed.” In other words, if the MTA can’t schedule G.O.’s, it can’t perform the work on time. I’ll continue to follow this story, but for now, the expected completion date is slipping.