Prince Akeem, sole heir to the throne of Zamunda (in the 1988 Eddie Murphy masterpiece Coming to America), was ahead of his time. After exiting the airport following his flight to a very different 1980s New York to find his bride, he stepped in front of a moving taxi cab, held up his hand to stop it, and calmly advised the driver (who had some choice words for the prince), “Take us to Queens at once.” Now, more than 25 years later, it is clear that the prince’s words were prescient. If Dan Doctoroff, former Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and recently-retired President of Bloomberg LP, has his way, millions of tourists will be repeating those words, with their destination being a gigantic state-of-the-art convention center built atop the Sunnyside rail yard, a 192-acre expanse stretching from Long Island City to Sunnyside in Queens.
New York’s existing convention center, the much-maligned Javits Center, is nearly half the size of the proposed Queens convention center and unproductively occupies five enormous square blocks from 34th Street to 39th Street between 11th Avenue and the West Side Highway with no street retail presence. It is a hulking structure that has done little to enhance its neighborhood’s quality of life since construction was completed in 1986. A 2005 comprehensive rezoning of the neighborhood surrounding the Javits Center (now referred to as “Hudson Yards”), however, changed everything. It is now the most active real estate market in the City, with better subway access due to the 7 train extension and millions of square feet of new construction currently being built or in the planning stages. What was once a neighborhood of largely low-scale industrial and warehouse buildings will, in just a few years, become a destination, with modern office and residential skyscrapers standing among a vibrant street life enhanced by diverse retail and open space.
Doctoroff’s plan, in sum, would be to sell off the parcels that make up the Javits site to housing developers (which he assumes can bring in $4 billion at current land values). This will help pay for an estimated $8 billion platform over the Sunnyside rail yard to enable train traffic to flow beneath the site during construction. The remainder of the funds would be sourced from real estate tax revenues generated from the new development. He predicts that 11,000 units, 20% of which would be affordable, would be developed on the Javits site and that 14,000 units, 50% of which would be affordable, would be developed at the Sunnyside rail yard site surrounding the new convention center.
Although his proposal relies on the dubious assumption that 50% of the cost of the expensive platform over the rail yard will be financed by future real estate tax revenues (what if the economy turns and nothing gets built?), on the surface, the proposal is a bold idea to help bolster real estate and economic development deeper into Queens, ease the housing shortage (especially in the affordable sector) and increase tourism by making New York (once again) a desirable stop on the nationwide convention circuit. A convention center built atop the Sunnyside rail yard would also substantially increase tax revenue, create new jobs in the City, and put to productive use a significant chunk of vacant Queens land that is currently doing little more than storing trains and carving a chasm across a large part of the boro. The City needs to continue to think BIG when it comes to creatively leveraging underutilized assets to meet its needs as it evolves.
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