Public Seeks Dialogue with LIRR for Historic Forest Hills Station
The Tudor and Arts & Crafts style Forest Hills Station in Station Square exists in a largely intact and picturesque state since its origins in 1911. Nevertheless, the architecturally and culturally significant Forest Hills Station, along with its lush trees, flowers, and bushes, is now most endangered.
Adjoining the LIRR station are pedestrian bridges and arched underpasses, as well as the Raleigh apartments on the east, the Marlboro apartments on the west and the iconic Forest Hills Inn. Collectively, the station and its counterparts are acclaimed as a centerpiece of Forest Hills Gardens, a model residential community founded in 1909 and inspired by Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement. Station Square was designed by foremost architect Grosvenor Atterbury and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr, and has been deemed “Eligible” for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
Station Square is described as “one of the finest public spaces in America” by Robert A.M. Stern, former dean of the Yale School of Architecture and founder of architectural firm RAMSA. Historic events also transpired, including annual 4th of July Festivals, where Col. Theodore Roosevelt delivered his “100 Percent American” speech on July 4, 1917 at Forest Hills Station.
In response to the community’s serious concerns over the proposed Forest Hills Station modifications to Station Square, and its surrounding area along Burns Street, a group was formed three years ago. Station Square Preservation League (SSPL) founders include Forest Hills residents Russ Gundlach, Margaret McGovern, Anna Guasto, Nauman Barakat, and Mary Logerfo.
Today, a growing coalition of SSPL members and residents have heightened concerns over whether the LIRR will go full speed ahead over their plans for plazas and elevators, without consulting residents of nearby historic buildings among the public.
There is a reported seven million dollars in federal funds slated for the project. Renderings and blueprints, dated May 2023, were obtained through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. There is a growing consensus that if these plans were implemented by the LIRR without residents’ official input, a gem of Forest Hills would be forever altered, and the project would minimize their quality of life in additional ways.
Community Board 6 has long been advocating for increased accessibility at Forest Hills Station, as per the Americans with Disabilities Act. The station features ramps on the northwest and southeast elevations, installed in 1996, but due to their placement, they do not overpower or contradict the station’s historic architecture. Residents feel that based on the blueprints and renderings, the designated spots for installing elevators and a plaza would accomplish the opposite aesthetically.
Under SSPL’s leadership, hundreds of residents expressed their desire to maintain the station’s historic character via petitions and hundreds of letters to Congresswoman Grace Meng and Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi. Forest Hills Gardens resident Anna Guasto, SSPL founder, coordinated meetings with the congresswoman and assemblyman, as well as Senator Joseph Addabbo, Jr and Senator Leroy Comrie. Group members also relayed a request for replicating a demolished circa 1963 wall that served as a visual and sound buffer, extending along the embankment between Tennis Place and Continental Avenue. SSPL members, who are echoing voices of fellow residents, are calling upon all local elected officials to show robust support for their constituents’ requests, and work collaboratively to address timely and critical concerns regarding historic preservation and quality of life issues. The coalition feels that teamwork bears the potential to achieve a win-win for the community, if the LIRR would be willing to listen.
Renderings Obtained for Forest Hills Station Modifications
The LIRR renderings reveal a non-harmonious plaza that would serve as a waiting area near the corner of Burns Street and Continental Avenue. Residents feel that it will contribute to additional congestion and pose a risk to pedestrians at night.
The renderings also depict steps leading down from platforms onto Burns Street, which would serve as an egress in the middle of a narrow residential block. Residents believe that this would provide another opportunity for intrusive behavior.
Rather than replicating a sound wall, the LIRR visualizes a partial structure that does not span the length of the platforms, as the original wall had. The new Madison/Grand Central stop contributed to an increase of 46 percent of trains along Burns Street and Station Square, as well as additional noise pollution upon a tranquil planned garden community.
Residents feel that there are alternate options to address ADA upgrades, while respecting historic preservation. Russ Gundlach, a 25-year resident of Tennis View Apartments at 6 Burns Street, said, “I am in extreme opposition to the proposed elevators and stairway, since they’re not in keeping with the historic nature of the station and our community.” After learning that the station would include an elevator, he felt the best location for all concerns would be on Continental Avenue. “At the northwest corner of Burns Street, since there is already an appropriately sized enclosed waiting area on the platform, an elevator at that location could be constructed within the corner retaining wall, and creatively blended into the stucco facade of the rest of Station Square.”
Gundlach recalls the moments after the wall’s demolition. “I got up from my desk to look out the window to see why the trains were much louder, and the wall was no longer standing. I have enabled my TV’s closed-captioning, since it’s impossible to hear audio when trains are passing, and turning the volume up to overcome that leaves it obnoxiously loud the rest of the time. Closed-captioning serves as a constant reminder of what I and my neighbors lost when the wall was demolished.”
Gundlach’s earnest request is for elected officials to ensure that the needs of the community are given equal weight. He explained, “My father, Richard Gundlach, taught me through example how important civic and community involvement is in city planning. He and my mother were active in Woodside (Winfield) for 64 years and my father served on Community Board 2, and was part of the land use committee for over 40 years.”
Another SSPL member, Margaret McGovern, is a Forest Hills resident for 23 years. She feels the historic Forest Hills Gardens is a pleasure and joy. “I feel the peace and experience the beauty. It’s truly an oasis amidst the city. This is where I live, and I hope to remain here for a long time. I love the ‘alive pulse’ that one feels as you walk through the Gardens.”
“There was no communication with the community about the plans for the wall or the elevator. It would seem this is a most critical piece to establish good rapport with residents,” she said.
McGovern feels shocked and very disappointed that the renderings outline a partial standard wall. “We need a sound barrier wall, since it’s affecting our health with the higher decibels,” she said. Additionally, she feels that the rendering of the elevator in the middle of her block is unacceptable. “There will be much more foot traffic, and most likely more cars picking up and dropping off passengers. This will detract from our quality of life, as well as diminish our real estate values as a historic neighborhood.”
McGovern values the importance of ADA access, but feels that the elevators need to be alongside the two ramps that are already in place on Continental Avenue and away from Station Square. She said, “Placing them close to the ramps makes more sense. If an elevator was outside your building, there would be safety concerns too, as it may be a potential target for criminal activity. Safety in our beautiful area is one of the reasons I moved here.”
“Our elected officials have been made aware of the concerns of our group, and now we need their voices and strong support more than ever,” she continued.
Eight-year Forest Hills Gardens resident Stephanie Lin is not a SSPL member, but echoes the same concerns. She feels that Forest Hills Station and Station Square is a gem not only for Queens, but citywide. “It should be preserved for its historical and architectural significance. To the commuters, the Square provides a strong sense of arrival to a neighborhood of beauty and tranquility. It serves as a focal point and harkens back to a time when the idea of community seemed treasured.”
When the LIRR established the Grand Central Terminal link, and the frequency of trains passing through Forest Hills increased dramatically, the noise and vibrations became unbearable for her. “There are times when we are invaded by the train noise every few minutes, and it appears that the accompanying vibration has caused some base moldings in our apartment to separate from the wall. I don’t understand why the LIRR is not proactive in replacing the barrier that they demolished,” said Lin.
Community members welcome a public meeting with elected officials and the LIRR to reach an equitable resolution.