The idea of developing an area over the train tracks that run through Boro Park has been discussed for close to 20 years, but action seemed far in the horizon. Yet now, State Senator Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) told Hamodia on Tuesday that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is poised to announce that it is accepting proposals for residential building projects on top of a portion of the much-talked-about rail bed.
While it is likely to still be several years before any buildings are actually ready for rent or sale, the move could be a step toward alleviating the neighborhood’s acute housing shortage.
“This is historic, and I don’t use that term lightly,” Sen. Felder said while taking this reporter on a tour of the site. “After a while, people lose hope that we can do anything to address the housing crisis, but this reaffirms that if you never give up, eventually you can accomplish. This could give way to thousands of new units. Even if we had to work for years and years, ultimately, we persevered.”
The present proposal, which is set to be formally released by the MTA this coming Thursday, announces the opening of a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the airspace above the track running between 61st and 62nd streets from Fort Hamilton Parkway until 8th Avenue. Sen. Felder said that he was hopeful that the MTA would eventually make similar offers for areas of the track that stretch into higher avenues that run through Boro Park.
Offers to build will have to leave the tracks in place and operational, meaning that any construction will have to include a concrete tunnel over which an apartment building could be put up, following a model that has been done in several locations throughout New York City. The spot occupies nearly 3.8 acres of land, enough for several large units.
As real estate in the area became increasingly scarce and pricy, several local politicians and activists have looked to the rail bed as a potential boon to create a large number of residential units for the neighborhood. Figures including Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) and Community Board member, City Councilman-elect Kalman Yager lobbied for the site to be opened up for development, joined more recently by Council members Felix Ortiz and Carlos Menchaca. Sen. Felder said that he has been involved in efforts to obtain permission to build on the site for over 15 years dating back to his time in the City Council, but that since joining the State Senate in 2013 he had made it his highest priority in his dealings with the state transportation department.
Yet, the plans met resistance, first from local residents in Bay Ridge who were concerned that large scale development would alter the nature of the neighborhood. More recently, Sen. Felder said that bureaucratic impasses had slowed the effort.
However, over the past few years, the MTA has looked to many of its lesser used rail beds as opportunities to raise capital for the agency and pursued projects such as these, leading to lucrative developments in Manhattan as well as throughout the outer boroughs.
“It takes government a long time to do anything, and to get something as significant as this started is harder than claiming Mount Everest,” said Sen. Felder.
The senator is a Democrat, but since the beginning of his term, has caucused with the Republican majority. After winning reelection in 2016, his decision to remain with the caucus allowed the GOP to retain their eroded majority position, giving him additional leverage in the chamber. He also holds the chair of the Senate’s City Committee which involves frequent dealings with MTA officials.
“After the many, many disappointments of the past, we had the feeling that this would never happen. In 20 years, this is the first step towards what we have been working for, it’s a real opening,” said Sen. Felder
The rail bed, known as the Bay Ridge Freight Branch, runs approximately 11.5 miles starting in Glendale Queens and ending at a train yard at 65th street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The tracks were first laid in the late 19th century and are currently controlled by the Long Island Rail Road, but are used exclusively for freight. Trains do not pass daily and, when they do, they typically do not run more than once or twice in a day. Next to the freight line are another set of tracks used by the N line of the Subway, which will stay in place and not be built upon, according to the present proposal.
Private investors will now be able to submit proposals for the site, which will be received until this coming April, and which will be reviewed by the MTA. After that stage is completed, more details regarding zoning and the like will likely be set by the city.
“Baruch Hashem, we are a neighborhood of growing families and I don’t think that we will ever be ahead of the curve. It’s a good problem to have, but we need to do whatever we can to help. Many people are moving out of the community, but many more want to stay and be near their families here, but they just don’t have a place to go. This could be a very big step in the right direction,” he said.