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NYC mayor's housing plan at coveted rail yard faces familiar foe in Cuomo, other obstacles


NEW YORK — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's devoted his high-profile State of the City speech to outlining a sweeping affordable housing plan with a bustling rail yard in Queens as its centerpiece.

But de Blasio picked a complicated piece of property.

Sunnyside Yards, located less than 4 miles east of Midtown Manhattan, is a 200-acre site that runs along many busy neighborhoods and is controlled by three different governments, as well as private developers. It remains an active rail site for several train lines, but its future has long been a subject of discussion, with possible uses including home of a new convention center or lynchpin of a future Olympic bid.

De Blasio, who has pledged to build or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over the next decade, wants the property used mostly for housing.

"At Sunnyside Yards, we envision a plan that incorporates what diverse and dynamic neighborhoods need: access to transportation, parks, schools, retail stores, and job opportunities," de Blasio said in Tuesday's speech.

He noted that in 1947, Stuyvesant Town on Manhattan's East Side opened to provide 11,250 affordable units, and said that the Sunnyside development should house the same number. He proposed that a platform be built above the tracks — just as one is at Hudson Yards on Manhattan's west side and Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn — so train operations could continue. The housing, which would be a mix of high-rise and low-rise buildings, would be erected on top of the platform.

Building such a platform is extremely expensive, but cost is far from the only obstacle de Blasio faces. The local city councilman has already expressed trepidation about the plan, saying it could change the character of the already dense neighborhood, and some community groups have voiced similar reservations.

Moreover, several distinct entities own pieces of the land. Private developers own 23 acres of the site, according to statistics provided by the mayor's office. Amtrak owns 113 and, to this point, has signaled its support for the project. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the regional transit network run by the state, owns another 66 acres, but the city owns the air rights to 44 of those.

The MTA answers to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who announced his opposition to the plan just two hours after de Blasio's revealed it Tuesday. The governor did not waver from his stance Wednesday in an interview with local news channel NY1.

"Sunnyside Yards, specifically, is problematic," said Cuomo.

His administration noted that the site is used to house Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains, and is being used as a staging area for a massive construction project to bring the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal.

"If we could make it work, affordable housing would always be great, but I think short-term, we need it for a train yard," Cuomo said. "Long-term, we need to do more study."

Hours later, de Blasio made his own appearance on NY1 and doubled down on his proposal, saying "there's plenty of room on that site" for several projects.

This is not the first time de Blasio and Cuomo, both Democrats who frequently tout their 20-year friendship, haven't seen eye-to-eye. Last year, Cuomo squashed the tax cut de Blasio proposed to fund a pre-kindergarten expansion and later embraced charter school leaders who were battling the mayor.

He also did not inform de Blasio of his shifting quarantine policies during last fall's Ebola crisis and, last month, gave the mayor next to no notice when he decided to close the city's subway system during a snowstorm. This week, he also opposed another of the mayor's plans from the State of the City: a push to raise the minimum wage to $13.

City Hall officials said a feasibility study for Sunnyside Yards would be completed by year's end.

Associated Press writer Meghan Barr contributed to this story.

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