The Low Line

An unused trolley terminal active in the early 19th century may become New York City’s only underground park

By Danielle Elliot

Strolling around Manhattan’s Lower East Side, you’ll start to understand the term “concrete jungle.” Good luck finding a swath of grass large enough to spread a picnic blanket on, never mind a wide enough sidewalk to jog on without tripping over pedestrians and tourists. The Lower East Side is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, an area seemingly ignored when the city laid out park space. The situation is so dire that a few years ago, recalled architect James Ramsey, a group of residents turned a storefront on Mulberry Street into a makeshift park. “It’s a kooky idea,” Ramsey said. “They rolled out AstroTurf, and people ended up flocking there to spend the day and hangout.”

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The Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal operated from 1904 to 1948. (Photo courtesy Kihum Park/RAAD Studio)

Ramsey had been thinking about ways to add actual, living grass to the neighborhood for nearly a decade. But where do you put a park in a crowded historic district? Then, a couple of years ago, a colleague who used to work for the Metropolitan Transit Authority told Ramsey about a 60,000-square-foot unused plot. It’s about the size of Gramercy Park. But it’s not exactly where most people expect to find a park: it’s underground.

Beneath the hustle and bustle of city streets, there is a web of deserted subway tunnels and terminals. The area Ramsey looked at is the former Williamsburg Bridge Railway Terminal, directly adjacent to the Delancey Street J/M/Z subway station. From 1904 to 1948, the terminal served travelers heading over the Williamsburg Bridge. Since 1948, it has sat vacant.

After more than 50 years of neglect, it’s a graffiti-covered, grimy space that more than a few squatters have called home. The terminal, which features cobblestone pathways, steel pillars and 20-foot ceilings, seems a throwback to the Lower East Side of the 1970s and 1980s, when the neighborhood was considered one of the city’s most dangerous—when the historic value of the architecture was lost to punk-rock grit. “The idea that there would be these huge, vast, one-off areas, that there’s actually these whole spectacular palaces down there, it was amazing,” Ramsey said.

The Delancey Street space, he said, is the second largest of the underground “palaces.” The largest, he believes, is the former City Hall subway station, which is preserved but not in use due to security concerns, because it sits right below City Hall. There are at least 13 acres of abandoned underground space in Manhattan, according to Ramsey’s business partner, Dan Barasch. Ramsey and Barasch teamed up in 2010.

Even before he knew about the trolley terminal, Ramsey had started trying to figure out how to create an underground park. Over the course of two years, starting in 2007, he and the team he leads at his architecture firm, RAAD, invented a form of solar technology that will collect sunlight and distribute it below ground. “The first step is a system of optics to concentrate the sunlight, then you channel it to another location, then you spread it out,” Ramsey explained. He makes it sound simple, but that’s easy for a former NASA engineer. To the less technology savvy, it’s anything but.

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Sunlight will be conveyed underground via fiber optic cables, and will support plant life in the park. (Image courtesy Kihum Park/RAAD Studio)

Solar collectors disguised as lampposts on the Delancey Street median will collect the sunlight. Fiber optic tubes called collimators will then channel the sunlight 15 feet underground, where it will be diffused through a solar distributor dish embedded in the ceiling of the space. According to Ramsey, it’s a modern version of the system the ancient Egyptians used to bring sunlight into tombs. The system will distribute enough sunlight to support photosynthesis, allowing plants and trees to grow underground. The website Core77 offered a further breakdown of the technology, including photos.

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Image of what the Low Line park will look like when it is completed in 2020, according to architect James Ramsey. (Image courtesy Kihum Park/RAAD Studio)

Ramsey and Barasch first called the project the Delancey Underground, but it was quickly dubbed the “Low Line” because it reminded people of another converted railway line in Chelsea. The High Line is a park built on an abandoned railway trestle above street level. It was the first of its kind in New York City; Paris has had its Promenade Plantée since 1993. The Low Line plans call for leaving the rail tracks in place just as in the High Line.

In spring 2012, 3,300 supporters pledged $155,186 to a LowLine Kickstarter campaign. The funds enabled Barasch and Ramsey, in partnership with Columbia University and Audi, to build a working model of the park. Throughout September, visitors strolled through A First Glimpse of the Future Underground, in the former Essex Market Building. It featured a 36-foot-radius canopy made up of 600 pieces of anodized aluminum that dispersed sunlight into the otherwise dark space. A single tree stood at the center of the exhibit. (The organizers posted dozens of photos on the Delancey Underground Flickr page.) In the full-scale version, Ramsey envisions dozens of trees, benches, jogging paths, cafe carts, and a meadow. The temperature would rarely rise above or drop below about 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Low Line team—which now consists of Ramsey, Barasch, three additional architects, an engineer, a director of operations and an intern—is collaborating with the MTA, which owns the property. The MTA is not currently accepting proposals for the space, but has said it will issue the necessary request for proposals early next year. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the project is the lack of resistance to date. It’s atypical for a project to pass through without objection in Manhattan.

The project already has the support of the local city council members. Although some community members have expressed concern that the park will add to the gentrification of the area. Historically home to working-class immigrant communities, the Lower East Side has seen rampant gentrification in the past decade, so much so that in 2008 it was listed as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 most endangered places in America.

Another source of resistance could come once the formal proposal is made, when local residents realize that an underground park will require street-level construction. “It will require a complete redesign and re-imagining of Delancey Street itself,” Ramsey wrote in an email. There is also the question of funding the project. Estimates range from $30 million to $50 million.

Ramsey and Barasch do not expect above-ground construction or funding questions to stop their underground plan in its tracks. They plan to fund the free public park through private sources. “The city has a long history of using private organizations to create public space,” Ramsey said. “This is on the same continuum, this is the sort of obvious way of looking at urban space in a much more deeply involved way where you look at technology and design to actually solve urban problems.”

 

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