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'Ranch on Rails' Floated as Plan to Reuse Old Tracks in LIC

By Jeanmarie Evelly | February 17, 2016 11:04am
 The Montauk Cutoff is a raised rail line about a third of a mile long that stretches from Skillman Avenue near Sunnyside Yards to the Dutch Kills tributary.
The Montauk Cutoff is a raised rail line about a third of a mile long that stretches from Skillman Avenue near Sunnyside Yards to the Dutch Kills tributary.
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Cutoff Coalition

LONG ISLAND CITY — An urban oasis filled with gardens, a vineyard, houses for birds and bats and a self-sustaining power grid to support WiFi and charging stations is among the visions being floated for a 4-acre stretch of old railroad tracks in Queens.

The so-called "Ranch on Rails," proposed by a group of locals and advocates, is among the proposals for the future of the Montauk Cutoff, a raised rail line about a third of a mile long that stretches from Skillman Avenue near Sunnyside Yards to the Dutch Kills tributary, passing over 49th, 50th, 51st and Borden Avenues.

Though the MTA no longer uses the line, it wants to keep it in case it's needed again in the future — and so is considering leasing the land to a business or community group to use in the meantime, according to a "Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI)" that the agency released this fall.

All submissions are due by next week, and the MTA will use them to determine who's interested in potentially reusing the Montauk Cutoff and what the public would like to see the space used for, according to MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan.

"[To] identify that there is a desire in the community to activate the space, and have it be used in some way, as opposed it just remaining forlorn and derelict," he said.

The "Ranch on Rails" was conceived by the Cutoff Coalition, an informal group of residents and organizations that met several times this fall and winter to come up with their vision for the Montauk Cutoff.

The group includes members of the Newtown Creek Alliance, land access advocates 596 Acres and the Smiling Hogshead Ranch, an urban farm near the Montauk Cutoff that's located within the area the RFEI covers.

Their concept would expand upon many of the activities the Smiling Hogshead Ranch does already, but on a larger scale — creating what 596 Acres director and Coalition member Paula Segal described as "a regenerating, self-sustaining ecosystem."

"We're taking the train infrastructure and repurposing it and reinventing it," Segal said. "This is really an opportunity to do that and to be sensitive to the fabric of the rest of the neighborhood."

Under the group's vision, the Montauk Cutoff would be home to two greenhouses where farmers could grow vegetables, as well as an outdoor learning garden that could host school groups.

There would be a grape vineyard, areas for mushroom cultivation as well as a wildflower garden with houses for birds and bats, according to the plans.

It would have a composting system that could break down food scraps from local restaurants, mechanisms to catch and filter rainwater, as well as wind turbines and solar panels that would be used to power WiFi hotspots and charging stations.

The Cutoff Coalition also proposes building a 5,000-square-foot structure out of a shipping container at the site, which would serve as a "Cooperative Hub" that would rent space to local artists, nonprofits and worker cooperatives.

There would also be a welcome center built inside an old railroad car where visitors can get information about the history of the neighborhood and its train lines.

The deadline for submitting an application to the MTA's RFEI for the Montauk Cutoff is Feb. 26. Donovan said the MTA will then review the submissions, and will possibly use them to craft a more formal Request for Proposals for the site.

The Cutoff Coalition's plan has earned letters of support from Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, the Long Island City Cultural Alliance, The Sierra Club and others. 

Joseph Anastasio, a Long Island City resident and Coalition member who's walked the length of the Montauk Cutoff, says he hopes the MTA will take up their idea to transform the rails. 

"Walking through the line, it feels like it's just sitting there dormant, waiting for something good to happen," he said.