By Celia Bernhardt
Community Board 6 held a meeting on Tuesday for its Select Committee on the Rockaway Beach Right of Way to receive a presentation from the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Parks Department on the status of the Queensway project, as well as to ask questions and provide feedback. The discussion was also opened to general board members and attendees from the public.
Around 20 members of the public attended the event, held in the Rego Center’s community room on Oct. 17.
QueensWay, a plan to transform the abandoned Rockaway Beach Branch rail line into a linear park, received an initial $35 million from Mayor Adams in September 2022. The first and widest portion of Queensway, the Metropolitan Hub, is slated to be built in Community District 6.
There was no shortage of questions from the board and public about logistics and design, from bike paths to bathrooms to construction disturbance to worries about the elevated park allowing its visitors to see directly into the windows of locals’ houses.
But the topic that came to the forefront of discussion most frequently was QueensLink—the proposal of reactivating the Rockaway Beach Branch rail as a new, North-South train line, not favored by the MTA or Adams administration but still the subject of devotion and advocacy from Queens transit activists and many locals. QueensLink advocates worry that proceeding with the development of QueensWay would preclude the option of a reactivated rail in the future. The MTA’s 20-year needs assessment seemed to corroborate this for many, as it framed the QueensWay plan as a barrier to QueensLink.
Chair of the Board Heather Beers-Dimitriadis opened the meeting with remarks about the purpose of the conversation, reminding the Board that they would not ultimately get a vote on the project because the land is already under city ownership.
“Our power comes in the amount of scrutiny and the amount of answers that we’re able to get,” Beers-Dimitriadis said. “At the end of the day, we win by understanding the project at its fullest.”
Angelina Espino, a senior project manager with NYCEDC, led the presentation. She and other representatives throughout the night emphasized that Queensway was in a schematic phase of gathering community input and developing preliminary designs.
“Some common themes we’re seeing in these different touchpoints in the community: anything from a bike and pedestrian path, outdoor classroom space, these landscaping and garden areas,” she said.
Next in the timeline, she said, will be a “public community workshop” that draws in more residents from the area. A secondary update to the community board on design, with more opportunities for input, will follow; then, finally, the Public Design Commissioner review will take place. Espino put this final stage at “early 2024.”
Pedro Rodriguez, a member of the Board’s Transportation, Public Transit, Street Safety Committee, asked the first question of the night. “I guess I’ll start with the elephant in the room, which is QueensLink,” Rodriguez said. “Is the city and is the EDC doing anything specifically to ensure that, in the future, if the MTA does get its act together and does decide to at some point run the subway, that this will not impede [that]?”
“First and foremost, you know, our scope of work today is mainly on the Metropolitan Hub. That is what funding is for today, that is what we have approvals to really see through today,” Espino said. “We would essentially need a commitment from the MTA in order to really consider any sort of transit activity in the Metropolitan Hub site…we want to focus on what we can control today.”
Another question came from Peter Beadle, 1st Vice Chair. “Why was the Metro Hub chosen as the first part of this to be done? As opposed to, say, closer to the junction with the main line, where there’s a large tract of land that, I might be wrong, but I don’t think would conflict with the QueensLink if it was developed now—whereas the Metro Hub comes into direct conflict with those plans.”
Espino explained that there were multiple reasons for this, chief among them being that the Trust for Public Land and Friends of the Queensway had already generated a design and proposal as well as secured funding for the MetHub section specifically.
Questions jumped from bike paths to bathrooms to construction disturbance to worries about the elevated park allowing its visitors to see directly into the windows of locals’ houses for over an hour, with the occasional QueensLink-related inquiry. Towards the end of the two hours, Travis Terry, a Forest Hill resident and longtime supporter of QueensWay, expressed his appreciation for the project.
“I just want to say um that this project means so much to so many people. I have personally, as have many members of the Friends of the QueensWay, been to park cleanups where we have hundreds of people, been to schools starting from 2011, we’ve spoken with all sorts of community stakeholders, business members who are excited about this project, to gather input,” he said.
“Look, I don’t have much to say on a train. There have been a variety of different accusations that somehow we’re trying to block that. That is completely untrue. There have been multiple studies over the last 60 years since this was abandoned, of all the aspects, and for whatever reason transit authorities have concluded not to fund those projects.”
An attendee from the public spoke next, reflecting on how the conversation about QueensWay had gone. “Part of what I’m hearing is sort of existential or really fundamental feedback about whether to do it, the nature of it, whether it can be replaced at some point in the future. And what I hear you [presenters] saying is sort of more tactical, or like elements of the park design…I guess for the community I’m just curious whether you will actually engage on the more fundamental questions, or whether you really want to focus this process on how to do it, as opposed to whether to do it?”
Espino acknowledged that the discrepancy between these focuses would be one of the meeting’s takeaways. “I’m not sure if there is a very clear yes or no to ‘can we really eventually include a railway,’ or ‘will this even be looked at eventually,’” she said. “I think right now since we are at the very preliminary stages of design and we have just recently gotten a landscape architect and a design consultant, we want to take this and really get to that final design, but also continue to answer those questions of what will the future look like, whether that be parks or a rail.”
Michael Carlier, the transit and parks liaison for Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, spoke next.
“This land is abandoned and decrepit so at the end of the day this development is going to be a net positive for the community,” he said, “A lot of those concerns that we’ve heard tonight—quality of life, disruption through the construction efforts—our office is hearing that, we’re going to continue working with you guys to make sure those are addressed. But just from the Borough President’s position, he has been consistent when he says we do like trails, but we also love rails. So if there’s a way that we can move forward with this process with EDC, with the parks department, loop the MTA in more into that conversation on these public concerns that we’re hearing tonight.”
Keith Engel, 2nd Vice Chair of the board, closed out the conversation by thanking the board and reiterating the importance of the select committee’s engagement.
“I think you heard a number of things about how we can consider the possible integration of parks and rails—I think that’s one of the main takeaways from this evening,” he said.