“The QueensWay reminds me of those dreams all New Yorkers have of finding a room in your apartment you never knew was there. It’s as if we’ve found 47 acres of parkland that had been sitting in the middle of Queens, unnoticed all these years,” said Gregory Wessner, executive director of Open House New York, host of a discussion on the QueensWay, a linear park being built on an abandoned rail line in Queens. In a city where space is at a premium, the prospect of a new 47-acre park creates a lot of buzz. After many years of discussion and planning, designs for the QueensWay are finally moving forward.
The 3.5-mile rail line that will become the QueensWay was the northern stretch of the Long Island Rail Road’s Rockaway Beach line, which was closed in 1962 and left abandoned. It runs through six neighborhoods that are some of the most culturally-diverse areas on the planet, as well as the 538-acre Forest Park.
In 2011, a group of people who live near the rail line came together as Friends of the QueensWay to advocate for the park’s creation. They partnered with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and together made a strong case for the QueensWay — at least 322,000 people live within a mile radius of it.
“Just to put this into perspective, if this area were an actual city, it would be larger than St. Louis, Pittsburgh, or Orlando,” said Travis Terry, with the Friends of the QueensWay steering committee.
The QueensWay will provide a safe north-south bike route. Parts of the rail line are dark, strewn with litter, with evidence of drug use. Turning it into a park will improve lighting and security. Twelve public schools and two little league facilities are within a 5-minute walk. Those nearby schools lack open space. One of the schools doesn’t even have a playground, so to give the kids the exercise required by the department of education, teachers must walk them around the block. The QueensWay will give this school and others space to take students for recess or outdoor classroom experiences.
The QueensWay started with a grant from the state of New York, and, with this, the Friends of the QueensWay and TPL conducted a feasibility study, developed a plan, and held community workshops. With endorsements from elected officials, they received another state grant to cover the design of the first half mile, which is called the Metro Hub and will serve as a prototype that can help attract funding for the remaining 3 miles of the park. The team is about halfway through schematic designs for the first phase, which are being created by landscape architects at DLANDstudio and urban designers and planners with WXY Studio. The project is expected to cost some $120 million in total.
Susannah Drake, FASLA, DLANDstudio, showed an image of the current rail line, lush and green. “Parts of the rail line are incredibly beautiful. It almost looks like the Adirondacks. We want to draw upon that poetry and beauty and bring that to the project.” This beauty, along with a rigorous process for gathering community input, will guide the design.
The richly varied conditions, and their juxtaposition with the surrounding urban fabric, fascinate Drake. Since rail lines need to stay relatively flat, the southern portion runs through an embankment. In the middle stretch, where the terminal moraine of a past glacier rises up, the rail passes over a ravine. And at the north end, it becomes a raised structure.
“Fundamentally, what we are dealing with are landscape layers: we have ground, understory, and canopy layers. What we’re trying to do is make very careful adjustments to these layers so they function better and are more beautiful.”
Many of the existing trees will be kept, but the tangled underbrush will be removed. “Here we have a landscape that has grown, un-bothered, for 60 years. You just can’t buy that time, you couldn’t put in 60 year old trees,” said Drake.
The landscape design refers to the past practice of the Dutch farmers of Queens: it delineates spaces with walls built with stones from the moraine. In areas that run through dense residential neighborhoods, the design will encourage trail users to move through quickly, so they remain quiet and secure.
The incredibly popular High Line in Manhattan looms large in discussions about the QueensWay. In truth, the projects are quite different. The Queensway is not expected to be the tourist magnet the High Line is. At least 95 percent of visitors to the High Line are tourists from other parts of New York City or outside the city, whereas early projections predict that 75 percent of visitors to the QueensWay will be from adjacent neighborhoods. The Queensway will allow bikes and dogs while the High Line does not. And the QueensWay will be 2.5-times longer than the High Line.
With the High Line came a wave of high-rise development, causing property values and rents to explode in the surrounding area. The rapid change that came in Chelsea has some Queens residents nervous. Will the QueensWay lead to new development that displaces existing residents? The speakers said no.
The surrounding neighborhoods enjoy a relatively high rate of home ownership and residential zoning laws allow for only one or two family homes. While they hope the flow of people along the linear park will invigorate existing businesses, they don’t expect it to significantly change the demographics of the neighborhoods.
“New York has for a long time been a leader in the transformation of leftover and non-traditional spaces” said Andy Stone, with TPL. This project promises to be another in this lineage, but perhaps without the gentrifying effects.
This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a recent master’s of landscape architecture graduate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.