Sunnyside, Queens: The Lure of Greenery in a Pandemic


Like many New Yorkers, Geoff Dyck and Casey Wang wanted to be closer to nature during the pandemic. The couple, who were renting a one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, were expecting their first child in August, and as the due date approached, they began searching for a starter home that was close to Manhattan, but surrounded by greenery.

They were looking around the outer edges of Prospect Park, but couldn’t find a place that felt right. Then, during a bike ride home one night from Jackson Heights, Queens, Mr. Dyck happened upon Skillman Avenue, in Sunnyside — a lush residential and commercial thoroughfare lined with trees.

“It felt like a secret garden,” said Mr. Dyck, 34, an urban designer, who had never heard of the area in western Queens. “It’s unlike any other neighborhood I’ve been in.”

Within days of their baby’s arrival, he and Ms. Wang, 36, an urban planner, moved into a two-bedroom, three-bathroom townhouse near 39th Avenue and 48th Street, which they bought for $1.15 million. Their new home is in the northern part of the neighborhood, in the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District, one of the country’s first planned communities, built in the 1920s. Popular with growing families, it offers homeowners leafy backyards and the exclusive use of a three-and-a-half-acre park.

Amy FitzGerald, the couple’s broker and the owner of Welcome Home Real Estate in Sunnyside, said about half of her clients this year were transplants from other boroughs or neighborhoods in Queens. The pandemic has boosted sales, particularly of properties with terraces or gardens, she said.

Properties in south Sunnyside, below Queens Boulevard, tend to go for less than those in Sunnyside Gardens.

Sofia Moncayo, 44, has lived in the same two-bedroom, one-bathroom rental on 47th Street and 48th Avenue for most of her life. “The joke is that you’re living on the wrong side of the tracks,” she said, noting the socioeconomic differences between the two areas.

Ms. Moncayo, a native of Colombia, now shares the space with her husband, Michael Kim, 39, and two of their three children. The couple, who own Glory Mixed Martial Arts, in neighboring Woodside, have watched as young families move into Sunnyside, changing the dynamic incrementally.

“I don’t know if we see the changes as gentrification,” said Ms. Moncayo, who has been organizing biweekly food distribution for those in need during the pandemic, through Mosaic Church. “For us, it’s been an improvement in the community.”

While there isn’t a lot of new development in Sunnyside, some residents worry that the redevelopment of Sunnyside Yard, a 180-acre rail yard that slices through western Queens and buffers the neighborhood’s northern edge, will bring unseemly architecture, drive up rents and take badly needed resources from other public initiatives. The plan, released this year by the city’s Economic Development Corporation and Amtrak, calls for 12,000 units of affordable housing, 60 acres of open public space, new schools and libraries.

“I don’t know what the correct path for a development there is, but both me and my friends hope there will be community involvement on what it looks like,” said Charley Mills, 42, an operations specialist for L.G.T.B.Q. start-ups, who bought a three-bedroom co-op on Greenpoint Avenue and 39th Place in 2017 with his husband, Craig Chu, 38, a pension actuary. “A lot of folks here look at Long Island City and think it’s become cookie-cutter with all the glass and steel condos.”

Sunnyside has a small footprint in western Queens, bordered on the north by the Sunnyside Yard site and on the south by the Queens-Midtown Expressway, and bisected by Queens Boulevard. That small footprint means a dearth of housing inventory.

“Sunnyside is really a niche residential market, with not a lot of movement,” said Jonathan Miller, an appraiser and consultant for Miller Samuel, Inc. “It’s always been seen as an up-and-coming market alongside Long Island City and Astoria, where the market heavily relies on rentals.”

There’s a big difference between what you’ll find north of Queens Boulevard and what’s available to the south. In Sunnyside Gardens, on the northern side, the single-family and multifamily houses are beautiful but tend to be smaller, some with 18-foot-wide lots. South of Queens Boulevard, homes can be double the size for substantially less money, said David Eisenberg, a broker with the Sukenik Glazer team at Compass.

Those spacious rentals often draw new people to the neighborhood, Mr. Eisenberg said, and some of those renters become buyers who don’t want to leave. It isn’t hard to find a one-bedroom apartment for less than $400,000, he said, in the Art Deco-style co-op buildings throughout the neighborhood.

Over the past decade, rising demand from buyers priced out of Manhattan and Brooklyn has pushed up prices in Sunnyside, Ms. FitzGerald said, but still nowhere near those other boroughs.

“Even though the houses here are now over $1 million, in Brooklyn the price would be almost double that or higher,” she said. “You just get a better value in Sunnyside.”

Of the 95 homes listed for sale in mid November, the average price was $666,600, according to information provided by Mr. Eisenberg. The least expensive, a fifth-floor studio in a 1961 co-op, was listed for $199,000; the most expensive, a three-story, 10-unit prewar building, was listed for $2.4 million.

During the third quarter of 2020, four single-family houses sold for an average of $1,032,500, Mr. Eisenberg said; during the same period in 2019, 10 sold for average of $1,064,100. One co-op unit sold, for $395,000, during the third quarter of this year, compared with 15 co-ops sold for an average of $448,796 during the same period last year. Three condo units sold for an average of $452,164 in the third quarter of the year, compared with two sales for an average of $472,650 in Q3 2019.

During the third quarter of this year, the median monthly rent was $2,000.

Sunnyside is a diverse neighborhood with an active arts scene and deep progressive roots. It is known for hosting the first St. Pat’s for All Parade in 2000, bringing together the neighborhood’s Irish and L.G.B.T.Q. communities.

“It really feels like an incredibly cosmopolitan, but suburban community,” said Lauren R. Bennett, 33, an associate broker with the Corcoran Group, who bought her first home in Sunnyside in 2018, paying $525,000 for a two-bedroom condominium with a 300-square-foot terrace on 49th Street and 43rd Avenue. “It has that small-town vibe where everyone is so friendly, and you run into friends on the street.”

Malli Kamimura, 46, and her husband, Jacob Small, 46, moved from a two-bedroom condo in Williamsburg into a two-family house they bought for $1.135 million in Sunnyside in 2015. After they put their daughter in prekindergarten, their circle of friends began to grow, Ms. Kamimura said, noting that the Facebook group where local mothers connect has more than 3,000 active members.

“There’s lots of mobilization here,” she said, pointing out that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the local representative. “Everyone we know is partially involved in politics.”

Diners will find a range of dining options, including the Mexican restaurant de Mole; Firefly Petite Cafe Bistro, which serves craft pizza and wine; the Skillman, an American-style gastro pub; Dawa’s, an American and Himalayan restaurant; Cemitas El Tigre, a Mexican sandwich shop; and the Alcove, a popular tapas bar.

Sanger Hall, a bar and cultural events space, holds monthly artisanal craft fairs and drag shows.

P.S. 150 Queens, one of Sunnyside’s largest public schools, enrolls 977 students in prekindergarten through sixth grade (48 percent Hispanic, 26 percent Asian, 21 percent white and 1 percent Black). According to the Department of Education’s 2018-19 School Quality Snapshot, 65 percent of students met standards in English on state tests, compared with 48 percent citywide, and 69 percent met standards in math, compared with 50 percent citywide.

P.S. 199 Maurice A. Fitzgerald School, a prekindergarten and elementary school, enrolls 718 students (58 percent Hispanic, 32 percent Asian, 6 percent white and 2 percent Black). On 2018-19 tests, 51 percent met standards in English and 49 percent met standards in math.

P.S. 343 the Children’s Lab School enrolls 405 prekindergarten and elementary school students (58 percent Hispanic, 28 percent Asian and 14 percent white). On 2018-19 tests, 54 percent met standards in English and 50 percent met standards in math.

I.S. 125 Thom J. McCann Woodside enrolls 1,509 students in sixth through eighth grade (53 percent Hispanic, 39 percent Asian, 5 percent white and 2 percent Black). On 2018-19 state tests, 52 percent met standards in English, compared with 47 percent citywide, while 56 percent met standards in math, compared with 41 percent citywide.

Queens Technical High School, which offers early career-prep and technical courses, enrolls 1,522 students in ninth through 12th grade (80 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian, 5 percent Black and 5 percent white). On 2018-19 SAT tests, the average score was 943, compared with 987 citywide.

The No. 7 train, which makes three stops along Queens Boulevard, splits the neighborhood into northern and southern sections, the farthest reaches of which are about a 10-minute walk from the train.

Multiple bus lines run through Sunnyside, including the Q60, the Q104 and the B24, which links the neighborhood to Greenpoint and Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. The Q32 bus follows Queens Boulevard from Jackson Heights to Penn Station, while the Q39 bus connects Ridgewood to Long Island City, stopping along 48th Avenue in Sunnyside.

The impetus for developing Sunnyside was the completion of the Queensboro Bridge (now the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge), connecting Manhattan to Queens and Long Island, in 1909. The IRT Flushing Line, now the No. 7 train, began running from Grand Central Terminal through Sunnyside in 1917, and Queens Boulevard, the expansive roadway that cuts through the borough, was built in segments from the 1910s through the 1920s.

“That’s really what allowed for large-scale settlement and the transformation from farmland into suburbs,” said Hayes Peter Mauro, an associate professor at Queensborough Community College and a member of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce.

Some of Sunnyside’s best-known structures were built along and close to Queens Boulevard in the 20th century, including the 2,000-seat Bliss Theater, which showed films from the 1930s through the 1960s on Greenpoint Avenue. The Sunnyside Garden Arena, a boxing and wrestling club at 45th Street and Queens Boulevard, attracted thousands of spectators from 1945 to 1977, and presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy held a rally there in 1960.

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