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Can this rail yard in Queens be transformed into an affordable, carbon-neutral neighborhood?

Twelve thousand affordable homes, 60 acres of new public open space, 10 to 12 new schools, two or three libraries, more than 30 childcare and healthcare centers, a new bus rapid transit line. Now they just need a few billion to build it.

A sprawling rail yard in Queens, New York—covering more than 180 acres, with multiple subway lines adjacent to regional rail—is one of the busiest and largest rail yards in the country. But the City of New York and Amtrak are hoping to transform it, creating a new neighborhood filled with affordable housing and park space above the train tracks.

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The scale and location are unique. “I can’t think of another site in the United States, in the heart of a major city, that’s publicly owned, and therefore provides this kind of platform for addressing a lot of public needs,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), which helped develop a newly released masterplan that lays out how the site could be used. Amtrak, which uses the rail yard now, first reached out to the city in 2014 to begin discussing the possibility of making more use of the land, and PAU has been working with both partners on the plan for the last 18 months.

[Image: courtesy Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU)]
The plan, developed with input from thousands of local residents and multiple other experts, from futurists to transportation planners, calls for building a deck over the majority of the rail yard, and then creating a walkable, livable neighborhood in that space. “We use the word ‘masterplan,’ which is kind of a 1950s word, but this really is a framework for a neighborhood,” Chakrabarti says.

It calls for 12,000 new homes, all affordable (half would be affordable to very low-income New Yorkers, and 3,000 units would be affordable at extremely low incomes). Because the surrounding area lacks green space and parks, the design includes 60 acres of new public open space, much of it located at the edges of the rail yard so it’s most accessible to people living in existing neighborhoods. There’s space for 10 to 12 new schools, two or three libraries, more than 30 childcare and healthcare centers, a new bus rapid transit line, and eventually, a new subway station and new regional rail connections. The design also includes 5 million square feet of office and commercial space that can create more than 7,000 new middle-class jobs.

[Image: courtesy Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU)]

The design includes short, walkable blocks, modeled after other New York neighborhoods, that prioritize people on foot and bikes, and centers on a theory also championed by the mayor of Paris, who wants to build what she calls a “15-minute” city: Everyday errands can be accomplished quickly and easily without getting in a car. The entire neighborhood is designed to be carbon-neutral. Buildings use cross-laminated timber, since wood stores carbon and makes buildings lighter, so the deck holding up the neighborhood doesn’t have to carry as much weight. On-site renewable energy and batteries will power passive, highly efficient buildings. The development plan prioritizes adding green jobs to the area.

[Image: courtesy Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU)]

It’s a massive undertaking—and it’s much more expensive to build on a new deck rather than the ground. Modifying the rail yard under the development would cost $1 billion alone; building the deck to support streets and open space would cost another $5.4 billion, with additional costs for the streets and buildings themselves. “Obviously, it’s a very expensive undertaking to platform over rail,” says Chakrabarti. “So there’s a lot of legitimate public questions about, well, why spend that kind of money when New York City has all sorts of other needs? And I think the answer to that question is because this can deliver a series of public goods that no other place can.”

Chakrabarti, who previously worked in the Bloomberg administration as New York City was recovering from 9/11, says the city can afford to contribute to the project, and funding could also come from state and federal sources. Next steps include creating a nonprofit that can help guide implementation forward. It could be a model for other large-scale development. “This project, I think, could be a test case for what progressives are talking about—a new model for building housing and infrastructure in this country,” he says. “Because it’s of a scale that I think it says to progressives, let’s put money where our rhetoric is. And we’re not just going to let private developers control every last aspect of how our cities get built. We have a housing shortage. We have an infrastructure deficit. Let’s really invest.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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