When Forest Hills resident Travis Terry walks the 3.5-mile stretch of land that is the Long Island Rail Road’s abandoned Rockaway Beach Branch, he doesn’t see the graffiti staining the supporting concrete walls and the waste littering the tracks.
He sees the opportunity to create an expansive greenway running from Rego Park to Ozone Park, complete with bike paths, gardens and space that can be used for events such as food festivals, fitness group classes and community gardening.
“The park component will be more of a traditional greenway that allows for jogging, walking and biking,” Terry said. “In addition to that, we think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities to create active sites along the QueensWay.”
Terry is a steering committee member of The Friends of the QueensWay, an organization consisting of Queens residents advocating for a greenway to replace the former Long Island Rail Road branch.
The Friends claim the park will boost property values in the area and offer a new space for the community on an otherwise unused piece of land. Despite some citizens’ concerns over privacy and safety, and those who either wish to leave the railway alone or revitalize it, the Friends are moving forward with their campaign for a public park space. The organization is raising support through petitions and presenting their vision at public forums such as civic associations and Parent Teacher Association meetings.
Friends of the QueensWay formed in 2011, evolving from the Rockaway Beach Branch Committee and Queens residents who pushed for the same cause.
“It was not until about a year ago that we started to hear about other people along the line who were interested in doing exactly what we were interested in doing,” said Community Board 9 Chairperson and former Rockaway Beach Branch Committee member Andrea Crawford.
She said the first organization fizzled out because a prospective feasibility report failed to get off the ground.
Crawford now belongs to Friends of the QueensWay, which is also starting its own feasibility study.
The group is working in conjunction with the Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit that develops park space for public use.
In December 2012, costs for the feasibility study were met when Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave TPL a $467,000 grant through the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. TPL’s New York State Director Marc Matsil said he hopes to complete the study within a year.
The grant will cover the feasibility study, which it will conduct in multiple stages. The first stage starts with a site observation and collecting regulatory and historic records. After the initial stage, soil and ground water analysis follows.
The next step is an engineering phase, which includes bridge structure investigations and field inspections. A civil engineering examination would look at the stability of an embankment on the line and for green solutions including how to address localized flooding.
The final phase is what Matsil calls one of the “hallmarks” of TPL: community outreach. The group plans to ask civic associations, community boards and youth groups to contribute to this stage, which helps form a schematic design.
Should the project be deemed feasible, Matsil said he hopes the fundraising for building the QueensWay would come from several sources including federal dollars, private philanthropy, grants and city or state funds.
Terry has faith in the park’s transformative potential as he has seen how greenways affect neighborhoods. He is the chief operating officer at the government relations firm Capalino+Company, which worked with the organization that manages the elevated greenway built on Manhattan’s West Side known as the High Line.
Since the High Line’s first section opened in 2009, the greenway has made a great impact on the community by generating “two billion [dollars] in private investment surrounding the area, 8,000 construction jobs and 12,000 jobs in the area,” according to Terry.
Although construction and maintenance costs are undetermined, Terry said the Trust for Public Land has estimated costs for the construction of the line to range from $60 to $80 million based on the price tag of the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago. According to the Trust for Public Land’s website, the 2.7 miles of elevated track on the city’s northwest side to be converted into a trail and park beginning this spring is estimated to cost $85 to $91 million.
While some residents support calls for the restoration of the rail line to ease their commute, Friends organizers believe a greenway is more realistic.
“It can happen a lot more easily than reactivation of a train line and a lot more quickly,” said Jordan Sandke, chairman of The Friends of the QueensWay. “And also a lot more cheaply.”
Residents were independently advocating for a trail and joined forces to create the Friends when they realized they had similar ideas. The organization’s steering committee tries to meet at least once a week, even if it is just by phone, to discuss important issues regarding the line. Since the group’s online petition has more than 2,000 signatures and more than 600 likes on Facebook, it is reconsidering how to spread the word.
“We’re in the process of kind of rethinking the membership structure because we’ve been getting a lot of emails and calls about ‘How can I be helpful?’ ‘How can I join?’” said Terry.
Local businesses such as Worksman Cycles in Ozone Park, a factory that creates industrial bicycles, are in favor of all things green.
“It’s just sitting there growing weeds right now,” said Wayne Sosin, president of Worksman Cycles. “[It’s] something to be used for recreational purposes.”
Though he said he believes his business will not necessarily be affected by a greenway, he does support efforts to better the quality of life for Queens residents.
“Anything that brings people into a community would be a positive thing. I can’t see any negatives to it. Maybe it will help our employees have a nicer path to get to work.”
The Friends of the QueensWay state part of their mission is engaging the community. There are 14 schools that run along the path. As the father of two children, Terry is excited for this particular aspect of the project.
“Once something is created, it would be great to talk to schools about how to use the QueensWay,” he said. “What we would really like to do is make sure the schools have the opportunities to weigh in through the planning process. I think their input would be very valuable here.
One of the schools near the railway is Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Forest Hills, where Co-Principal Damon McCord said students have done studies of the railway and have spoken to Friends of the QueensWay members. He said he is unsure if the school will continue looking at the issue as part of the curriculum.
“Right now it’s just kind of a derelict, abandoned space that’s not very secure,” McCord said. “It would be nice to have something that can be used by the community in a positive way. It’s empty, wasted green space.”
He said he believes it would be beneficial for students to become involved in civic actions to revitalize the area, but he does not necessarily want efforts to focus on the school rather than a greenway
“As a school for sustainability, we would not want to see trees cut down, pavement and playground equipment. That would not be our idea of good use for the space,” he said.
Though the group has many plans in mind, it has faced opposition from Queens residents whose backyards abut the abandoned rail line.
Terry cited the Katy Trail, a 3.5 mile-long stretch of tracks in Dallas, Texas, that opened in phases beginning in 2000, to address a similar concern of privacy for residents living along the trail.
“One of the things we heard from the community is this issue of privacy and they don’t want people who are on the trail looking into their windows,” he said. “[The Katy Trail] created these plantings so you literally could not see [into homes].”
As a selling point, The Friends have also said that converting the tracks into a greenway would raise property values.
Simon Lekic has sold real estate in Queens for 16 years and is not confident a park would increase the area’s property value.
Lekic said property currently costs less along the would-be park because buyers are nervous about late-night visitors to the abandoned line.
“People are afraid because it’s like a jungle,” Lekic said. “If it would be another courtyard of the house, that’s a different story, then you know you’re neighbor’s observing your property.”
According to sales reports from the New York City Department of Finance, property values along the line from 2003 to 2012 decreased, but still cost more than those on nearby blocks. Similar one-family homes on Alderton Street in Rego Park fell from $500,000 to $280,742 during the nine-year period.
These homes were sold for more than homes nearby on 66th Avenue in the same time frame, which went from $390,000 in 2003 to $242,984 in 2012.
In Woodhaven, a one-family home bordering the line on 98th Street sold for $325,000 in 2003. In 2012, a similar home on the same street sold for $412,870. One-family homes similar to one another on 96th Street dropped in cost from $335,000 to $280,000.
The Friends use the High Line as their model example of how a greenway can transform a community. In 2005, prior to its opening, a condominium on the corner of 10th Avenue – where the High Line is located – and W. 23rd St., was selling for $777,000. Once the High Line opened, condominiums in the same building had selling prices that went as high as $825,000.
While costs along the line remain in flux, steering committee member Peter W. Beadle said the Friends hope for cameras, fences and regular patrols that will deter nighttime visitors and give peace of mind to residents along the would-be park.
“It’s no longer a comfortable place for people to behave badly in. Whereas now, you get complaints now, of kids up there throwing rocks, partying,” Beadle said. “You can climb up there and see the evidence of the trash and the spray cans.”
In time, the group hopes to see its plans come to life and take over the abandoned rail line.
“When people realize what this can do for them and their kids, we immediately [hear], ‘Wow, this is amazing, we love this,’ ” Beadle said.