LaGuardia Airport Taking Over Riker’s Island? Yeah, ok.

The New York Times recently highlighted a proposal by computer scientist/filmmaker/fledgling urban planner Jim Venturi to update LaGuardia Airport by, among other things, expanding LaGuardia to Rikers Island. As you read the following excerpt of Mr. Venturi’s ideas, feel free to start thinking of the (hilariously massive) cost of each of these insane plans:

“So he let his imagination go: Why not build a massive, 22-track rail station and airport terminal in Port Morris, and put the gates on Rikers – connected by a shuttle train, as at the airports in Atlanta and Denver? The present La Guardia space could then accommodate four runways instead of the current two, with extensions into the East River to lengthen them.

The longer runways would enable international flights and reduce weather delays, Mr. Venturi said. And the Bronx terminal would make the airport accessible by mass transit – subways, commuter trains and a ferry….

Why not make another transit hub in Sunnyside, joining the subways that already stop there – the E, M, N, R, Q and 7 trains – with new connections to Metro-North, Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit? The rail lines could continue to Penn Station in one direction, and up to the new La Guardia superstation in the other. (He’d extend the new Second Avenue Subway up there as well.)…

At the same time, he proposed moving the unsightly Sunnyside train yards up to Port Morris, near the airport, and building a massive convention center over them to replace the Javits Center.

On the old Sunnyside site, he would build a 300-acre park. The park and transit station, he said, would draw developers – office towers, apartment buildings and restaurants – creating a real Downtown Queens to compete with Manhattan or Brooklyn. 

On the site of the current Javits center, in Manhattan, he would build another park, possibly with an aquarium.”

Whew. 

These plans are an exhaustive ponder. They sound, on face, like an straightforward way to create a beyond-expensive, multi-borough boondoggle that will take a generation or two to construct. The article admits as much:

“Needless to say, Mr. Venturi has done cost estimates and feasibility studies for precisely none of this.”

Two points for honesty, Jim, but the rebuttals are many and clear.

First, no other borough would want a smaller Rikers anywhere in their midst. This is the definition of a non-starter. Rikers is additionally undergoing a profound change in purpose after a scathing Justice Department report on the “culture of violence” that teenage inmates must live with during their stay. Decentralizing Rikers and scattering inmates to separate locations would make the necessary oversight that much harder.

Second, the additional runways at LaGuardia would most likely entail additional flights. That’s just how transportation works – witness how building new roads, rather than lessening traffic, instead creates more. New flights, of course, would bring in new money and it’s the rare elected – or in the case of the Port Authority who runs LGA, non-elected – official who would turn down business development. LGA also has a perimeter rule, or a maximum distance that planes are allowed to travel.  While at first the perimeter rule was established was to route more flights to the at-the-time brand new JFK, now the rule is seen by local Queens residents as a way to set a maximum level of daily noise – shorter routes x smaller planes = less noise. However, noise is still noise, and residents are constantly protesting the decibel levels and flight patterns. Good luck getting any politician to support more flights or a bigger LaGuardia Airport. Putting the airport gates in the Bronx would also destroy access to LGA for Queens and Long Island residents.

Third, the MTA is extremely overburdened with debt and the creation of a new transit center in Sunnyside would exacerbate the MTA’s terrible financial situation, specifically the MTA’s $15 billion capital shortage. The Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 cost – with only 4 stations – is already over $1 billion and PATH’s World Trade Center transportation hub is around $4 billion, so the cost to create a transit hub with 6 subway lines and 4 heavier-rail lines would be, honestly, at least a $7 billion enterprise. Throw in a Governor in New Jersey who already turned down a new Amtrak tunnel and the Sunnyside hub idea is politically and financially, at least without federal help, totally untenable.

New parks always sound good in theory, but Mayor di Blasio already said there will be no new parks (and by extension, aquariums) during this tenure. Funding will instead be directed towards rebuilding and refurbishing current parks. The Javits Center just spent $465 million on a renovation, so demolishing it is highly unlikely and the chances of a demolished Javits Center being a park and not office or high-end residential towers are close to nil.

Last, creating a Downtown Queens is probably unnecessary. Queens is the most diverse place in the country, if not the world, and there are tens of “Little Capitals” that already function as downtowns. Creating a new central business district would entail demolishing, or at the very least, moving communities that are a galvanizing force for new immigrants trying to make toeholds in this country. Queens isn’t Manhattan, or even Brooklyn, for that matter, so to argue for a nebulous glass and steel business paradise comes off as Moses at his worst. It’s weird and bad.

Articles like these make me wonder about my subscription to the Times. Research paper hypotheses are fine when they are hypotheses, not presented as conclusive solutions to problems that might not exist. Since Mr. Venturi, a nineteenth story Upper West Side apartment (and terrace) dweller, admits that he hasn’t consulted with anyone or anything beyond maps of New York and his brain, the proposal has the sheen of the worst kind of ivory tower excess – urban renewal. Why Mr. Venturi’s plan was given a platform in the nation’s paper of record is baffling and doesn’t help out the Times from critics that say it’s a paper for the wealthy, despite it’s liberal bent.

Me? I’d take an air train, like at JFK, from the Astoria Boulevard subway station to LGA or a extension of the N line to LGA. A cheaper option would be a true express bus from 125th Street in Manhattan making no local stops in Queens. Who really knows, though? The subway extension fight is currently entering its fifteenth year and elected leaders in Harlem aren’t too fond of better bus service. I’m just hoping that Wednesday’s flight home for Thanksgiving isn’t absolutely crazy. But, it’s New York.

One thought on “LaGuardia Airport Taking Over Riker’s Island? Yeah, ok.

  1. I attended the aviation noise pollution rally last year in Queens. This issue is likely not going away, regardless of all the recent Joe Biden photo ops and press releases from industry

    I enjoyed reading this post and wish the creators of RethinkNYC’s plan would not casually brush aside the noise issue. NextGen has been a nightmare for several formerly livable area’s in Queens.

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