As a teenager in the 1990s, Karen Imas sneaked onto some abandoned tracks in Queens with her friends. They followed the broken railroad through a sunlit forest until they could go no further.
“It felt like a hidden gem,” recalled Ms. Imas, now 45 and living near the tracks with her own children. “It was something fun and adventurous that not everyone had access to.”
The three-and-a-half-mile commuter rail line once carried passengers through central and southern Queens as part of a route down to the Rockaways before closing in 1962 amid declining ridership and service. Since then, it has become an industrial ruin, surrounded by overgrown weeds and fallen branches, hidden in the heart of New York City’s second-most populous borough.
Ms. Imas and many others see the abandoned rail line as precious wasted space that should be turned into a nature trail, or to use the voguish term favored by urbanists, a linear park, similar to the High Line in Manhattan. The envisioned project, called the QueensWay, would connect a half-dozen neighborhoods, which sit on either side of the old rail line.
Though New York has a sprawling network of parks, it was created largely piecemeal as neighborhoods were developed, leaving many residents around the city, including in parts of Queens, with less access to green spaces because they do not live within walking distance of a local park or because they have to cross busy roads to get to one.
At the same time, however, many Queens residents also don’t live near a train or subway station, and would prefer to reactivate the rail line in this transit-starved area. Inspired by this demand, a group of transit advocates has developed its own plan, known as the QueensLink. Needless to say, both sides feel passionately that they are in the right.
The debate around repurposing the old tracks and the thicket that has grown around them highlights the increasing complexity of managing public space in a crowded city. Even as the pandemic has made fresh-air options for the public more important than ever, New Yorkers are divided over initiatives like curbside dining and the city’s Open Streets program, which vie with cars for room on frequently gridlocked roads.
The envisioned project for the old rail line, called the QueensWay, would be a linear green space that connects a half-dozen neighborhoods, including Rego Park, Woodhaven and Richmond Hill.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times
At the moment, it looks like the QueensWay has the best chance. The idea for a linear park grew out of more than a decade of community meetings and volunteer cleanup days on the rail line. Now it is finally taking shape. In September, Mayor Eric Adams committed $35 million to convert nearly three-quarters of a mile of the city-owned rail corridor into a five-acre park, which will be called the Met Hub. City officials have not yet given an opening date for the park.
“Building on the proven model of linear parks, our $35 million investment vision for the QueensWay will enhance quality of life, improve air quality and kick-start local small businesses,” Mayor Adams said in a statement this month, pointing to the popularity of the High Line and the car-free Open Streets.
But QueensLink proponents say that many residents of the neighborhoods in question — Forest Hills, Rego Park, Glendale, Woodhaven, Ozone Park and Richmond Hill — need transit options far more than they need green space, and that their plan would include parkland around the tracks.
Mike Scala, 39, a lawyer in Howard Beach, made restoring rail service a centerpiece of his two campaigns for City Council in 2017 and 2021. He said those living in southern Queens, part of the area along the proposed QueensWay, feel cut off from the rest of the city and struggle to get to their jobs, schools and hospitals. Businesses do not invest in the area, he added, because it is too hard to get to.
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“I really think it’s about equity,” Mr. Scala said. “People in south Queens just don’t have the opportunities that people in the rest of the city do and it all comes back to transportation.”
Linear parks are all the rage
Since 2009, when a derelict elevated freight line on Manhattan’s West Side was remade into one of the city’s most popular showcase parks, there has been a growing movement to repurpose dilapidated infrastructure, including the 606 in Chicago, the Atlanta BeltLine and a defunct rail line in New Jersey.
Robert Hammond, a founder of the High Line, was asked so often for advice that, in 2016, he started a network to share resources and lessons among groups that are today working on 37 projects across North America. A separate New York City-only initiative, the Public Space Alliance, has 15 projects, including the QueensWay.
Many of these projects aim to strengthen urban communities with a host of social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits, including creating more land for affordable housing in Atlanta, supporting Black residents and businesses in Los Angeles, and establishing new civic and cultural hubs in minority and low-income neighborhoods in Washington.
“We’re working to reconnect communities that typically have been torn apart by past infrastructure decisions,” said Asima Jansveld, the interim chief program and engagement officer for the Friends of the High Line.
The Queens rail line, which was operated by the Long Island Rail Road, traverses a 47-acre landscape with tree-covered hills, a ravine and several overpasses. It has long been used as an illegal party ground and as a dump for tires and construction debris. An A.T.M. was even abandoned there.
Inspired by the High Line, a group of neighbors saw the potential in their own backyard. “We all got involved because we just wanted to make our lives better,” recalled Travis Terry, 47, the president of Capalino, an urban strategy consulting firm, and a father of three in Forest Hills.
The group organized as the Friends of the QueensWay and enlisted the help of the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group. Together, they have raised more than $3 million in grants and donations since 2011 to advance the idea.
Carter Strickland, the New York State director for the trust, said the QueensWay would serve as a communal yard for about 244,000 residents and a dozen schools in the area, and that it would also link to a large park and several ball fields in a borough with few greenways.
In 2013, Friends of the QueensWay and the trust held a design contest for the site that drew 27 proposals from architecture and planning firms around the world. Soon, urban planning and landscape architecture classes at New York University, Cornell University and schools in Japan and the Netherlands were studying the QueensWay.
The potential has excited the children of Queens as well. In 2014, an ideas forum for students was held in Forest Hills. They ticked off their wish list: A zoo, a zip-line and a racetrack. Ms. Imas, who used to sneak onto the tracks as a teenager, has gotten her family involved in the initiative.
“They’re a little sick of me dragging them to cleanups,” Ms. Imas said. “But I think I’m instilling a sense of civic participation and how this could change the borough and the community.”
A long and circuitous commute
Although the park has gained momentum, there is a strong case for using the tracks for trains. Queens residents have some of the city’s longest commutes to Manhattan, especially those living in Howard Beach, Jamaica and the Rockaways, which have historically been neglected by a century-old subway system that was originally built to serve Manhattan.
Donovan Richards, the Queens borough president, lived in Far Rockaway from 2005 to 2012 when he worked as an aide in the City Council. It would often take him two hours to commute to City Hall in Lower Manhattan because his only subway option — the A train — would first swing through Brooklyn.
“I got to Florida quicker than I got to Manhattan,” Mr. Richards said.
The rail line, if repurposed for train or subway service, could carry commuters and other riders directly between south Queens and Manhattan as well as among Queens neighborhoods. It could also expand transit options for getting to and from Kennedy International Airport and Resorts World, a casino and entertainment complex, both deep in Queens.
A 2019 study by the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimated that restoring the rail line could serve as many as 47,000 local riders a day and would cost between $6.8 billion and $8.1 billion. Another study commissioned by QueensLink supporters found that it would cost between $3.4 billion and $3.7 billion.
The big question, however, is whether the rail line will ever be restored.
The authority continues to evaluate the line’s possible reactivation, along with more than 20 other expansion projects, which would be included in its 20-year capital plan, scheduled to begin in 2025.
Janno Lieber, the M.T.A.’s chairman and chief executive, recently told Queens leaders that the authority has asked the city not to preclude transit from the corridor and to include the agency in the design of the park.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has not weighed in on the QueensLink, though she has pushed for another project, the Interborough Express, a transit line that would connect Brooklyn and Queens.
City officials, who are just starting to design the park, as well as QueensWay supporters, emphasized that they are not ruling out rail service, and that it could be incorporated later.
But Rick Horan, 69, the executive director of the QueensRail Corporation, the nonprofit supporting the QueensLink, said that it makes no sense for the city to spend millions to design a park while the authority is still evaluating the rail line.
“It’s like putting in landscaping before building a house, you need to design them together,” he said, rather than “try to shoehorn a subway track in afterward.”
The competing plans for the rail line have put Queens leaders in something of a quandary. “In a perfect world, we would have both, and that’s still the ultimate goal,” said Mr. Richards, who even as borough president has been unable to get the two sides to work together. His description of a meeting over the rival plans earlier this year: “I was like a referee in the middle of a wrestling match.”
The Riders Alliance, a grass-roots organization of transit riders, has remained neutral. “These are plans in conflict, but they’re both really good plans,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman.
But the Regional Plan Association, an influential group whose board members include Mr. Terry, who is also president of the Friends of the QueensWay, has thrown its support behind the park.
Tom Wright, the association’s president, said that the rail line is unlikely to be reactivated anytime soon, since the transit authority has a long list of higher-priority projects, including the Interborough Express and extending the Second Avenue subway to East Harlem.
“Sometimes holding out for the perfect thing means that you don’t advance the projects that could really benefit communities in the short and midterm,” he said.
A project for future generations, connecting neighborhoods now
The QueensWay cannot come soon enough for Mr. Terry and its supporters. “There are so many times we didn’t think it was going to happen,” he said. “I still don’t think it’s going to be real until we see people using it.”
Though still just on paper, the project has already brought people together and forged connections across neighborhoods, even during the pandemic. A 2021 cleanup of a section of the tracks drew more than 100 people — so many that to ensure social distancing, work times had to be staggered and a second cleanup added.
Ruben Ramales, a QueensWay volunteer and resident of Woodhaven, now counts residents from Forest Hills, Rego Park and Ozone Park among his close friends. He has been giving presentations on the QueensWay at local schools for a decade.
When he first started working with the schools, Mr. Ramales, 34, who is currently the executive director of the Queens chapter of the American Institute of Architects, jokingly told students that the park was going to be for them because he would be too old when it was finished.
Now those students are in college.
“I was 23 when I started, I’m now 34,” he said. “There was some truth in that.”