For more than 50 years, the abandoned Rockaway Beach Long Island Rail Road line has sat vacant — a relic to a generation when Central and South Queens looked more like a suburb than part of a major city.
Quiet since 1962, its tracks are still there, hidden by overgrowth. The steel towers that once carried power lines still stand along most of the line. On the section of the viaduct in Ozone Park, the black towers still dominate the neighborhood skyline.
Now the ruin that runs through the heart of a number of residential neighborhoods is at the center of a brewing storm over its future.
Three options have been suggested for the line, which begins at the LIRR’s main line in Rego Park and ends where it meets the A train in Ozone Park. Some have proposed bringing trains — either a subway or LIRR branch — back to the line, others are discussing the possibility of turning it into a park, like Manhattan’s High Line. A third option, favored by residents who live near the line, is to leave it alone.
Support for the different ideas is largely divided on geographic lines. Those from the southern neighborhoods, especially in Community Board 10, support rail service; leaders of Community Board 9, which includes Woodhaven and Richmond Hill, support a park. Those from the extreme northern end and residents of Woodhaven, where the line runs adjacent to backyards, want it cleaned and left alone.
The debate over the rail line reignited late last month when it was announced Gov. Cuomo’s administration was giving over $400,000 in grant money to The Trust for Public Land, an advocacy group that helps build parks and playgrounds in cities, to study the possibility of a High Line-like park called the Queensway.
The park option — favored by CB 9 chairwoman Andrea Crawford and former chairman and Richmond Hill Historical Society President Ivan Mrakovcic — would turn the line into an overhead park and trail connecting Forest Park to the surrounding communities.
“We firmly believe that the creation of this greenway will greatly enhance the quality of life in the communities of south central Queens,” CB 9 wrote on its website. “It would be an asset to the community and would take the place of the abandoned right-of-way of the former LIRR Rockaway Beach Branch.”
The Trust for Public Land’s New York State Director Marc Matsil said the group will be planning public meetings with the community boards to discuss the project as part of its contract with the state in which it received the grant money.
Travis Terry, a Forest Hills resident who is part of the advocacy group Friends of the Queensway, said they have been gauging the level of support and ideas from the community since before the grant was issued.
“We’ve really just been on a listening tour,” he said. “It’s been very informative.”
Terry said he expected to continue working with The Trust for Public Land and said he senses “some real excitement” in the community about the idea.
Terry added studies have shown rail reactivation to be “not feasable.”
Some opponents of the park plan have noted that The Trust for Public Land’s senior vice president and director of city park development is former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who was a supporter of the Manhattan High Line’s creation and oversaw its construction as commissioner.
Matsil said Benepe’s position is a nationwide one and he has been working on park projects in other cities around the country, and he has not been involved in discussions about the Queensway plan.
Meanwhile, supporters of the rail line have not given up in light of the grant from Cuomo’s office.
Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Far Rockaway), a stalwart supporter of bringing trains back to the line, received some support for his position at the Jan. 3 meeting of CB 10, which includes communities south of 103rd Avenue.
“We are still moving forward with the plan to bring trains back to the Rockaway Beach rail line,” Goldfeder told CB 10. “The restoration of transportation on that line is good for the entire borough. That’s what I’m fighting for.”
Goldfeder said he believed the news that the state is funding a study on the park idea will only make supporters of the returning rail service louder.
“I understand there are concerns about bringing rail service back,” he said.
John Fazio, a CB 10 member and resident of Hamilton Beach, suggested the line reopen and a station be added in Hamilton Beach, where one existed until 1955.
Fazio said that plans to bring rail service to the line have been dead on arrival for decades, mainly due to opposition from residents of Forest Crescent, an apartment building on Union Turnpike next to Forest Park. The rail line’s right-of-way runs through the building’s parking lot, close to where the former Parkside station existed until 1962.
Goldfeder said he was not opposed to the park idea, but wanted to keep the options open for desperately needed transportation for Southern Queens.
Some are not interested in either option.
Ed Wendell, President of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association reiterated his group’s opposition to both ideas, preferring instead for it to be left as is with the city cleaning up overgrowth and litter.
The WRBA held a town hall meeting in September, during which both the rail and park ideas were presented to a number of neighborhood residents. After the meeting, the WRBA endorsed leaving the rail line alone after overwhelming opposition from the residents.
Wendell noted Woodhaven saw a number of homes demolished when Woodhaven Boulevard was widened over six decades ago, a church was even torn down to make way for a wider street. He said supporters of both the park and railroad ideas need to reach out to residents in Woodhaven, whom he warned were “getting organized” in opposition.
Wendell would be open to an idea that would run trains from Rockaway and turn them at Atlantic Avenue to connect to the Flatbush Avenue branch of the LIRR. That would allow the line to serve the Rockaways and Ozone Park, where support for rail reactivation is the strongest, and keep trains out of the backyards of Woodhaven residents.