QueensWay: New York City’s Most Controversial Potential Park

Just imagine the dim-sum dumplings!

Just imagine the yam fufu!

Parks: what’s there not to dislike?

A group of parks activists in Queens have been pushing “QueensWay,” a linear park that would be built atop the old Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Rail Road in the central and southern parts of the borough. As New York Times opinion writer Eleanor Randolph put it in her pro-QueensWay piece, it “has no celebrity patrons, no Diane von Furstenberg, no Barry Diller, no big-name donors to give enough seed money to turn the park into a fashion statement.”

But with a High Line-like makeover, she wrote, “QueensWay would offer both a walkway and a bike path. There could be small shops or stands featuring cheese guava buns, dim sum dumplings, pani puri or yam fufu.”

Despite the lack of sweet socialite dough, QueensWay does have a few supporters in high places: Andrew Cuomo’s administration gave the Trust for Public Land—now headed by former parks commissioner Adrian Benepe—half a million dollars to study the plan.

But it also has quite a few detractors.

Chief among them are transit advocates, who argue that the abandoned rail line could eventually be restored to active use—something that would be a lot harder if it meant taking away a park from Queens residents.

Reacting to the Times opinion piece, New York State Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, whose district stretches from Ozone Park to the Rockaways, tweeted, “Sandy has destroyed our transportation, but who cares when you can have good food options.” (The title of the Times piece played up its tweeness: “A High Line in Queens: Just Think of the Food.”)

One former transit manager wants to see the R train run along the old Rockaway Beach Branch line.

One former transit manager wants to see the R train run along the old Rockaway Beach Branch line.

And it’s not just grandstanding politicians who are opposed to the plan. “Many people have argued that the line should be reactivated as a branch of the Long Island Rail Road,” wrote one anonymous retired New York City Transit Authority manager over at Cap’n Transit’s blog. “This would be better than a greenway, but not as good as a connection to the Queens Boulevard subway line.”

And aside from the route’s transit potential, there are reasons to be skeptical that QueensWay could ever approach the success of the High Line.

The best argument came from the pages of The New York Times itself. Back in May 2011, urban theorist Witold Rybczynski gave the linear park trend a reality check: “Advocates would like to see the High Line model take off nationwide in the same way Central Park was copied in the 19th century. But that’s a tougher proposition than they think, and it probably won’t be worth the effort.”

The High Line, he wrote, “courses through the meatpacking district and Chelsea, heavily populated, high-energy residential neighborhoods.” In other words, it’s not just the celebrity wattage that QueensWay lacks—it’s also the demand.

As Jane Jacobs wrote in her urbanist classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Greatly loved neighborhood parks benefit from a certain rarity value.”

The High Line provides a rare bit of greenery and open space in a dense neighborhood. QueensWay, on the other hand, would cut right through a large existing park—Forest Park—and traverse neighborhoods where, true to the “Park” in their names, many residents have green space right in their own backyards. Rego Park and Ozone Park are beautiful places, but they are rather suburban as New York City neighborhoods go, and have nowhere near the density or vibrancy—in other words, the potential park patronage—of the neighborhoods around the High Line.

Still, the QueensWay train chugs on. On March 13 the Trust for Public Land issued a request for proposal, and the plan has begun to take on an air of inevitability.

Projected to cost $75-100 million, QueensWay would be much cheaper than putting trains back on the Rockaway Beach Branch. With the MTA struggling to fund much more important projects in the outer boroughs, it’s hard to see a new rail line getting funding any time soon. And the longer the Long Island Rail Road lets the viaduct grow dense with weeds, the louder the calls to turn it into a proper park will become.