Thursday, January 5, 2012

What does the High Line, an abandoned rail line in Queens, and the Rockaways & Ozone Park have in common? A lot, apparently.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed building a 3.8 million-square-foot convention center in Ozone Park, Queens.(Image via Arquitectonica)
Yesterday was an important day for New York, and more specifically (and importantly) for Queens. In his State of the State address from Albany, Governor Cuomo talked about streamlining government, improving education, and creating jobs in a tough economy for New York State- a tall job after an amazing first year. A central part to his plan would the building of new convention center in Ozone Park, right next to the new racino constructed by Genting Corp. From his speech-
Our challenge for 2012 is this: How does government spur job creation in a down economy while limiting spending and maintaining fiscal discipline? The answer: We Will Build the Largest Convention Center in the Nation! Let’s begin by building on our economic strength....we must stay ahead of the competition. Convention centers are important generators of economic activity. New York needs a larger, state-of-the-art venue to be competitive for the largest tradeshows and conventions. The Jacob Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s West Side is obsolete and not large enough to be a top tier competitor in today’s marketplace. The Javits Center is, in fact, 12th in the nation in size — behind the convention centers in Anaheim and Atlanta. This is not a new problem. We have talked about it for 7 years.  But today is different, because today I propose we do something about it. I propose that we build the largest convention center in the nation. 3.8 million square feet—larger than McCormick Place in Chicago, which is currently the largest in the United States. This will bring to New York the largest events, driving demand for hotel rooms and restaurant meals and creating tax revenues and jobs, jobs, jobs. We are pursuing a joint venture with the Genting Organization, a gaming development company, to complete this vision at the Aqueduct Racetrack venue. It is a $4 billion private investment that will generate tens of thousands of jobs and economic activity that will ripple throughout the state. In addition to the new convention space, up to 3,000 hotel rooms will be developed. We will make New York the #1 convention site in the nation.  
But the question is, the infrastructure there to support a brand new convention center at Aqueduct?

Sadly, the answer is no.  

The proposed convention center would be 3.8 million square feet, and be located adjacent to the brand new Resorts World Casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack. It would a public-private partnership and be a benefit to the city, state, and the region overall. Again, not really. First of all, the city has spent billons of dollars to renovate the Javits Center, improve the area around it, starting the development of Hudson Yards at a huge cost, and extending the 7 line towards it in order to make more accesible. And now that's all going down the drain by tearing it down and building a new one in Queens? Second, the area lacks adequate rapid transit access. It's only connection to the rest of the city is the IND Rockaway Line, better known as the A train, and it's a long and slow ride to Manhattan, and passes through some rough areas. Currently, it takes about 40 to 45 Minutes to get from Aqueduct to Times Square, and with current headways, and you can add an extra 10 to 12 minutes on your trip- so in reality, it takes about a hour, and could be even more depending on delays.  Sure, it's located right next to JFK Airport, but there is no direct access to Midtown Manhattan-where all the hotels and potential visitors to the center are located. As such, it's a potential boondoggle. As Ben Kabak stated in his blog Second Avenue Sagas
....Transportation access to the Aquaduct area is subpar as it is. Only the A train to the Rockaways stops there, and those trains don’t run too frequently. It’s also a 45-minute ride from West 4th St. and a 50-minute ride from 42nd St. on the A train. While close to JFK, it’s not a convenient location for anyone else. A fifteen-minute walk from the Javits Center has conventioneers in Herald Square. A fifteen-minute subway ride from the Aquaduct stop drops a straphanger off at Broadway Junction in East New York....
The New York Times, in an article covering the proposal, stated-
Over the past two decades, many cities have built exhibition halls or expanded existing convention centers in the hope of attracting professional associations and similar groups, whose attendees typically spend four or five days in a city. But competition, the recession and videoconferencing have taken a toll.
Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas and an expert on convention center economics, was quoted in the same article as saying-
“The convention business is a disaster everywhere,” Professor Sanders said. “Simply building more space gets you nothing more than a big empty building. And to put it in a place where there aren’t any hotels, restaurants or amenities next door is to doom it to serving only a local or metropolitan market.
The bold part is Aqueduct and the surrounding area in a nutshell. According the Crain's New York, part of the $4 Billion to be spent will be on transit, which includes a renovation of the stations in the area and a connection the JFK Airtrain- a waste, given that Airtrain is meant to be a and airport to subway connection, not to serve a neighborhood. A better way to spend part of those $4 Billion would be to reactive the abandoned LIRR Rockaway Beach Branch, which, for the most part, is intact, but outrun by vegetation. That's where the abandoned rail line comes into place. Taken out of service by the Long Island Railroad in 1962, but never formally sold or closed, it could be reactivated at any time, since the LIRR never formally filed the paperwork to abandon the line with the FRA. Why? Because it was intended to be connected with the IND Queens Blvd Line (E-F-M-R) to provide a quicker service to Midtown from the Rockaways, as per the plans from the IND Second System from the 1930's. Here is where the High Line comes in.

Given the fact that the ROW (right-of-way) has been abandoned since 1962, and the fact that vegetation has grown and very much taken over the ROW, there are proposals to turn it into a park, or a railtrail, modeled after the High Line. From the NY Daily News-
A plan to transform an abandoned rail line into a park in southern Queens is generating a lot of buzz, but a group of transit advocates has another vision.....They believe the tracks, which have sat idle for five decades, should be reactivated to give southern Queens residents an easier commute to Manhattan. “Certainly a quick trip to JFK Airport from the core of the city is something people have talked about from Year One,” said George Haikalis, a civil engineer who heads the Institute for Rational Mobility, a nonprofit umbrella group for transit advocates. “Nobody in the rest of the world would be so dumb as to let a valuable asset like that sit there.”
But the people for are pushing to turn the ROW into the park, known as the QueensWay, pushed back, saying-
Andrea Crawford, the chairwoman of Community Board 9 who also is a member of Friends of the QueensWay, said a park would enhance the neighborhoods and prevent future over-development. “No one disagrees that the Rockaways are underserved by public transportation,” she said. “But to say this particular right of way could be a viable rail of some sort does not have a basis in reality.” Aside from deteriorated tracks and infrastructure, the line runs close to schools and homes that did not exist when it was first constructed, she said.
That is BS. The neighborhoods that this ROW passes through, as Assemblyman Philip Goldfeder, who represents the Rockaways, noted that-
Those same communities that are pushing this proposal are privileged with commutes of 30 minutes or less to midtown Manhattan....I believe southern Queens and Rockaway would be better served if this forgotten track once again fulfilled its original purpose as a railroad."
The ROW, being that it was never formally abandoned, is MTA and city property, and they could reactive it at any given time, even if they (those at QueensWay) oppose it. Those who argue that the it should be converted into parkland, while admitting that the Rockaways, which would be better serve by reactivating the ROW, suffer from a lack of transit options, are being selfish and hypocritical. Compared to the construction of the Second Avenue Sagas and East Side Access, reactivation of this ROW is cheap and efficient. And there is room between the Woodhaven Blvd and 63rd Road stations for a spur to come off the IND Queens Blvd Line (it was made in anticipation of this) and serve the ROW (It has been discussed in numerous transit-related forums). And, as it was originally built for railroad, it was ballasted and built with steel and concerte underpinnings, it would provide a far quieter and more comfortable experience for those living around the ROW should it ever be reactivated. As per the comparison to the High Line, it's not a good one. First off, the High Line already had several advantages prior to it being built, advantages that QueensWay doesn't have. These are

  • The High Line was already located in a pedestrian heavy neighborhood, which was already a major tourist attraction (Chelsea, the Village, Meatpacking District). Where QueensWay (or the ROW) is located, it is less pedestrian friendly, and more car-friendly. 
  • QueensWay doesn't really have a good location trasnit wise- the nearest subway stop from the proposed start is about half a mile away (Rego Park, Queens).
  • The High Line also had a dedicated corp of volunteers and had cash on hand to organize and clean up the Line. 
Referring to the part that this park would prevent "overdevelopment," well, not really. When the High line opened up- it kicked off a real estate boom there-and raised property values around the area-the same thing would happen with QueensWay, but with a lesser effect. Why? Basically, it's not located in Manhattan.

Reactivating the Row with a subway, with fast and direct acces to Midtown, would better serve the area and raise property values more then a park would. It's been in the works for about 50 years now. Let's not waste the opportunity to do so now. Because once this chance is gone and the ROW converted to parkland, the city would lose a great chance to improve it's transit network, and finally bring better service to the Rockaways, something we've promised it to since the 1930's.