Thursday, January 3, 2013

The QueensWay: Queens' Own Rendition of The High Line?

A Step Closer To The QueensWay
by Michael Perlman of the Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger

Hop aboard the QueensWay!

Not to catch a train, since the trains were taken out of service on the LIRR Rockaway Beach Branch Line in 1962, but for the visualized first linear park and cultural greenway of its kind in Queens, stationed atop of an abandoned industrial relic with Forest Hills trestles bearing a stone inscription of “1908.”

Some 60 years since its abandonment, Queens is one step closer towards achieving a High Line of its own, but will not necessarily echo Manhattan’s elevated stretch overlooking the Hudson River.

On December 19, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $467,000 Environmental Protection Fund grant by the State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to the Trust for Public Land (TPL). This would fund a feasibility study to determine the likelihood of converting a 3.5-mile stretch along the former LIRR line into an elevated public park.

As part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030, all New Yorkers should live within a 10 minute walk of a park. The QueensWay would achieve that, serving around 250,000 residents living within a one-mile radius.

The QueensWay would bridge the Queens communities of Rego Park, Forest Hills, Woodhaven, Glendale, Richmond Hill, and Ozone Park to Forest Park, and also bridge Queens residents through recreation, the arts, and historic and environmental preservation.

A much-needed green space may feature a pedestrian and bike path that would offer a bird's eye view of neighborhoods, and enable access to nearby bike lanes en route to Rockaway Beach and Jamaica Bay‘s recreational spaces, as well as five subway lines, numerous commercial districts, and schools.

“Over the next year, we will conduct environmental and engineering analyses, as well as a community visioning that will determine costs to turn a blighted rail line into an uninterrupted bike and walking path,” said Marc Matsil, New York State director of TPL. “The project would help catalyze economic development and celebrate the immense cultural diversity of Queens."

Since 1972, the non-profit has preserved more than three million acres from the inner city to the wilderness, and helped generate over $34 billion in public funds for conservation.

“Over the past 15 years, we assisted in the acquisition, development, and construction for successful projects such as the 17-mile West Orange Trail, the 18-mile Santa Fe Rail Trail, and New Paltz’ 12-mile Wallkill Valley Rail Trail,” said Matsil.

TPL joined forces with Friends of The QueensWay, a group founded in late 2011 by neighborhood advocates, which launched an online petition generating 2,130 signatures in favor of the project.

“It will help connect neighborhoods to green space that do not have access, help the local economy by bringing more folks to established shopping areas such as Austin Street, and help develop new opportunities along the QueensWay,” said Andrea Crawford, chair of CB9 and a member of the QueensWay Steering Committee.

“The project would create an estimated 700 construction jobs and 800 to 1,000 permanent jobs,” added Matsil.

The QueensWay would also foster friendships among residents of Queens’ ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

“There are greater than 100 ethnic groups within a mile, and we want to celebrate our diversity through cultural programs,” said Matsil, adding that its artistic and cultural scene will be a blank canvas of sculptures and ethic foods.

The lack of maintenance for 60 years has led to graffiti and hazardous conditions, including rusty tracks and large weeds engulfing litter such as aerosol cans, plastic bags, and abandoned cars, but that would be cleaned up.

Some residents with homes along its path voiced worries about crime, but it is desolate areas that are often an invitation to crime. Communities along the QueensWay’s path would be safer, as Friends of The QueensWay ensured that the stretch would be well-lit, monitored, and operate during specific hours. And TPL's goal is green infrastructure, which would pose the benefit of reducing stormwater.

Despite the extensive benefits outlined in the QueensWay proposal, Ozone Park Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder has supported reactivating the rail line to increase transit options ins southern Queens. Crawford believes reactivating the rails are not feasible, but says Goldfeder's goals can be met by reopening shuttered LIRR stops and developing bus routes.

The creative reuse of Manhattan’s 1930s-era High Line is a similar success story. Since its abandonment in 1980, some only saw a rusty structure meriting demolition, but in 1999, Friends of the High Line formed and raised funding and partnered with the city. June of 2009 marked the first section’s opening.

The High Line spared a historic railway which once delivered goods to the Meatpacking District, reused tracks to cultivate native plants and wildflowers, and introduced food kiosks, sitting areas, and water features.

“Here lies the space and creativity to do amazing things that don't necessarily raise the rents or pull the same amount of tourists, but could enlighten and enrich the communities that are a part of it,” said designer Gil Lopez, an urban ecological advocate of the QueensWay. “The bike path component sets apart the QueensWay, as well as emphasizes the need for alternative forms of transportation locally.”

Lopez envisions more diverse uses that retain the natural woodland character to highly programmed areas with seating, covered areas, and possibly outdoor dining and entertainment.

“The gardens should be diverse, from community gardens with individual plots to borough/city-managed areas maintained by the Parks Department,” Lopez said. “Areas can also be managed by non-profits.”

Forest Hills resident Travis Terry and his firm Capalino+Company worked with the Friends of the High Line, and he is now a proud member of the Friends of The QueensWay Steering Committee.

“As studies have shown, rail-to-trail conversions have a positive economic impact on the neighborhoods where they exist,” Terry said. “According to the New York Times, the High Line is responsible for over $2 billion in private investment, the creation of thousands of jobs, and a flourishing local business sector.”

“We have been in communication with the Queens Chamber of Commerce, will engage community residents who wish to bring ideas to the table, and will work with the City of New York and private philanthropies,” added Matsil.

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