Over the past year, since the Underbelly Project exposed New York City to the abandoned South 4th Street subway station, interest in the various unused parts of the subway infrastructure has been on the rise. It’s part of a cycle really. Over the years, various groups have called upon the MTA to reopen the City Hall stop, provide tours for shuttered stations and flat-out admit that some stations exist. After all, many at the MTA won’t admit that the South 4th Street shell exists, let alone that a street art project used it as a canvas.
Since Underbelly, though, the MTA’s relationship with its unused infrastructure has grown more strained. Transit sometime last fall sealed up one of the South 4th Street access points with a new false wall in an effort to keep vandals and urban explorers out. By doing so, though, they also allow a part of subway history when the city dared to dream big to fade away behind new walls. Not everything has been ignored though.
Across the tracks from the BMT’s Essex St. subway station rests the unused trolley terminal that, until 1948, brought riders across the Williamsburg Bridge. These days, the old station sits unused and in disarray, a visible relic of another error, but some architects and social innovators want to turn into an underground park. Eying the success of the High Line, they want to turn the trolley terminal into the Low Line. By channeling sunlight into the subterranean cavern via fiber optics network, they could print light and plant life to what is now a dank, dark space.
On Monday, James Ramsey, an architect and engineer from RAAD Studio, along with Dan Barasch of PopTech and R. Boykin Curry IV of a New York investment firm, unveiled the Delancey Underground website as part of a publicity push for their idea. They were featured in New York magazine and spoke at length with The Low Down NY about their idea.
Ramsey, who went on a tour with some MTA officials last year, talked about the concepts behind the Low Line. “We were thinking about this amazing space lurking underneath Delancey Street, totally in the darkness, dripping, just sitting there, not activated,” he said. “We started thinking, how can we activate this space, how can we make something appealing here? A very natural way to do that is to introduce natural sunlight. What happens if you (do that) is that you can actually grow some plants down there. It’s a totally bizarre fun idea but I think it makes a lot of natural sense.”
A brief bit published by Inhabitat discusses some of the technology behind it as well:
Even though the park design will be set below the street, the goal is to create a space that is far from a dark, dank and depressing destination. The ground-breaking design team is banking on a high-tech fiber optic lighting system to enable a green space that is bright, sunny and welcoming. The park will be equipped with extensive lighting units utilizing fiber optics to channel natural daylight to the depths below. Dozens of lamppost-like solar collectors will be placed on the Delancey Street to complete this task. And as a bonus, the system the designers envision will also filter out harmful ultraviolet and infrared light, but keeping the wavelengths used in photosynthesis to foster and nourish plant growth.
The idea itself seems like a neat one on the surface. It rivals one out of Boston in terms of creativity and outside-the-box thinking, but the practical considerations make it a long shot. In conversations with transportation officials with knowledge of the situation, I understand that the team has a in with the current MTA leadership, but that leadership is on the way out in a few weeks. Hence, the recent effort to drum up public support. They’ve presented to city officials and will soon be meeting with Community Board 3 who would have to approve numerous aspects of this plan.
As far as the space is considered, the politics are a little more delicate. The MTA currently controls the unused trolley terminal, and they’re not going to simply hand it over to the Parks Department without adequate compensation or safety assurances. Furthermore, the authority rightly won’t contribute a dollar to this program, and anyone who replaces Jay Walder likely won’t view this project as a priority. Finally, it’s likely that the MTA or similarly situated government entity would have to open up this space to an RFP process and bidding before it could move ahead.
It took the High Line supporters ten years to realize their goals of a park atop that rail line. Patience, it seems, is a virtue for proponents of creative uses for public space. Maybe the Low Line — bad name and all — isn’t a perfect idea; maybe it won’t see the light of day. But it will make people think, and if the city can turn an abandoned trolley terminal into something useful, the early ideas will have been well worth it.