Jan
06

What if the Low Line space were still transit?

By

In my brief post on Friday linking to a piece on The Atlantic Cities site about urban trends that should disappear, I wrote about my own objection to rails-to-trails projects. With the success of the High Line, groups throughout the country think that they can find success by turning underutilized rail rights-of-way into parks. In our own backyard here in the city, one group in Queens and one in Manhattan have identified two areas that could be parks.

My biggest objection to these efforts is the permanence and prioritization of it all. The QueensWay project proposed for the Rockaway Beach Branch has garnered a lot of press, but, as I’ve repeatedly said, we should retain the right of way and restore rail service. In Manhattan, the issue isn’t nearly as cut and dry, but transit options should still be fully explored before a group proposing an underground park gets its way.

The Low Line has been proposed for the Essex St. trolley terminal, an underused area across from the BMT’s Essex St. stop that once housed the trolleys that crossed the Williamsburg Bridge. A group of ambitious folks have proposed an underground park for the space called the Low Line, and as in Queens, this park has captured the attention of reporters.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal profiled the effort and put an interesting spin on the story. The Low Line, wrote Richard Morgan, would significantly boost the value of Lower East Side properties. He said:

Messrs. Barasch and Ramsey are embarked on a new strategy in an effort to generate more momentum for the Lowline idea. They are touting the economic benefits they say the Lowline could bring to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, that is being planned above ground near Delancey and Grand streets. After years of debate and delay, the city in January is slated to receive proposals from developers wanting to build residential and commercial space as part of the SPURA project. The Lowline backers hope that providing more financial information on their project will give it lift as discussion about economic development in the area gets higher visibility because of SPURA…

According to the draft of an economic-impact summary that Messrs. Barasch and Ramsey have been circulating among local officials and business people, creating the Lowline would boost land values of SPURA sites by between $10 million and $20 million and create between $5 million and $10 million in sales, hotel and real-estate taxes over 30 years based on a net-present-value basis.

The Lowline backers say in the summary that they will seek to raise $55 million, figuring the actual cost will be in a range between $44 million and $72 million, including donations and between $7 million and $14 million in tax credits. With a projected annual operating cost of between $2 million and $4 million for the Lowline, the summary notes the goal of the park would be self-sufficiency, aided by revenue from programming festivals, performances, private events, public art and children’s programming. Commercial space is also planned. “This is the panoply of things that make a space popular but that this neighborhood also needs,” said Mr. Barasch. The summary says the Lowline will be “a new living room for the community.”

The article itself delves into the issues surrounding the site: It’s owned by the MTA, and the MTA hasn’t yet opened it up to development. Plus, any use of the space would have to adhere to MTA requirements that it not interfere with subway operations. On a practical matter, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, the Low Line advocates, had the ear of Jay Walder for a bit of time in late 2011, but the MTA is soon to be two heads removed from Walder. They’re trying to generate public support that will force the MTA’s hand, but any near-term progress is a long shot.

Outside of these practicalities, though, I have to question an underlying assumption of the study: Would turning the Low Line from idea to reality bring more value to the area than restoring some transit services through the terminal? Granted, the Essex St. Trolley Terminal isn’t a particularly obvious candidate for reactivation. We don’t have trolley, for one, and the J/M/Z trains serve the Williamsburg Bridge. But I could easily envision the space serving as a depot for a proper bus rapid transit line that bridges the borough divide between Manhattan and Brooklyn. That alone would generate significant value for the area.

Ultimately, as in Queens, before we embrace a rails-to-trails (or, in this case, rails-to-park) initiative, we have to adequately assess whether or not the space can be restored to its original intended use. The High Line worked due to a confluence of circumstances, and it’s not so easy to duplicate it. Plus, it’s hard enough to build out new rights of way for rail projects that we shouldn’t be so callous discarding those that already exist. Only once we believe transit to be a non-starter and a park to be the only should we turn over the space.



Categories : Manhattan

64 Responses to “What if the Low Line space were still transit?”

  1. Alex C says:

    A bus-terminal of some sort would by my best bet for the trolley terminal. Transit space is hard to come by in NYC, no point in giving away the space if you have it.

    • Bolwerk says:

      A trolley would be the best bet for a trolley terminal. Even if buses were EVER good ideas, I doubt they could utilize that space. (Well, unless they’re push-pull buses.)

  2. BrooklynBus says:

    You could store express buses there reducing deadhead time.

  3. Raising property values always seemed to me to be a dubious reason to do things in Manhattan. Do we really want property values to go up? Seems to me that the only reason you’d really want to do that is if you were going to then allow more density, but that’s obviously not in the cards in this situation.

    • Bolwerk says:

      I don’t know about dubious, so much as ad hoc useful. The city wants tax revenue from higher valuations. And the real estate developers that ultimately have the most control of municipal politics do, of course. People who pay higher rent don’t enjoy the benefits, but it’s how you pitch to pols.

      Is density really out? It seems like a dense neighborhood with a rich transit history. I suppose dislodging the control NYCHA has over the housing around there might preclude it. Transit advocates want to confront housing about as much as most urbanists (buses!, fap fap fap) want to confront transit, unfortunately. :|

    • Pat L says:

      By Manhattan standards, that area is relatively inexpensive, but it’s still pricey relative to anywhere else in the country, yes.

      Any plan to revitalize the neighborhood ought to include developing on the massive surface lots that can be seen in the photo above. Increasing density ought to be easy there.

  4. Akiva says:

    This space would be perfect as a select bus terminal for routes in Manhattan, that could connect to Brooklyn routes, if they were smart enough to let sbs buses cross borough boundaries.

  5. While I wholeheartedly agree about the QueensWay, the trolley terminal seems like a better candidate for conversion to non-transit related uses. It’s a relic of a past age. I’m sure there are many people out there who would love to see trolleys restored to NYC but even if that was to happen they would need modern facilities, not something that’s been abandoned for half a century. With a transit system so old there are going to be some parts that just don’t need to be there. This, along with the trolley terminal at the Queensboro Bridge, are the appendixes of the NYC subway system.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Yeah, probably this is true, much as it pains me to admit. If a trolley or LRT were ever to cross the Williamsburg Bridge, the last place it should terminate is underneath what is almost literally a highway. It should keep going…somewhere.

      The only kind of dubious benefit to the terminal is catching the F Train, and that’s only if the M is ever rerouted back downtown. Otherwise, a fantasy LRT or BRT could just terminate at Marcy and provide a figurative 99% of the benefit of terminating at Essex.

  6. Also I’m sure that BRT would require a much larger space for turning that this would offer.

  7. Anon256 says:

    The space is tiny as bus terminals go; there’s barely room for a bus to turn around. The ramps and other construction required to make it usable for buses would be expensive and disruptive, for extremely minimal benefit.

    On the other hand, anybody who has experienced the smell and climate of a New York subway station should be able to realise what a ridiculous idea an “underground park” is. People walk on the High Line for the view! The best the Low Line’s promoters could realistically hope for is a somewhat cramped underground shopping area, but even that sort of use would suffer from the noise of passing trains and the engineering/regulatory issues that come with trying to build inside an old pre-existing structure.

    What’s most ridiculous about this whole discussion, both on the “park” side and the bus terminal side, is that there are three full blocks of nothing but surface parking immediately southeast of Essex/Delancey station. Whether you want a park or a bus terminal, that above-ground site is superior in essentially every way, and is probably even large enough to build both.

    The former Essex St trolley terminal is useless, a solution in search of a problem. Why not leave it alone?

    • Henry says:

      Not disagreeing with you, but the parking lots in question are the SPURA sites that Low Line would supposedly boost property values for. Building a park there would be great, but as of now SPURA is supposed to be developed into a mixed-use… something.

    • Someone says:

      Not disagreeing with you; actually the MTA should use the space in the trolley terminal to build storage tracks, or even another platform for northbound M trains.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Why bother? There are two abandoned tracks between roughly Essex and Chambers that can be used for storage. And neither the M nor J/Z are especially busy. There are even two trackways serving the southbound direction at Essex already.

        • JB says:

          Those tracks you mention (for some reason) were ripped out apparently. Not sure why they wouldnt just leave them there for the reason you cited. Also, i never understood why they severed the MB connecton for the J/Z lines. Sure, the Broadway BMT takes those two tracks now, but whats the harm with leaving the Nassau street tracks connected just incase or for special service.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Not sure, but my guess is the Nassau tracks were handed over to the BMT Broadway services and what were the Broadway tracks went to the IND Sixth Avenue services (compare before/after Chrystie). Maybe there was a good reason to sever the service, but I don’t know what.

            Looks to me like: (1) the north abandoned trackage of the Nassau loop over the Manhattan Bridge is used for layup and (2) the abandoned trackage between the Williamsburg Bridge and Canal just isn’t useful for that purpose. This might be because it would have to go deep into Brooklyn to reverse.

            • Someone says:

              “Maybe there was a good reason to sever the service, but I don’t know what.”

              The tracks were severed so as to create fewer transfers for BMT Southern Division riders going into Manhattan, and to create more travel options. Previously, they could only go through the Broadway or Nassau lines, but after the Chrystie Street Connection, the B train could be through-routed onto the West End lines, and the D could go through onto the Brighton Line.

              Besides, there’s already a connection from the Southern Division to the Nassau Street line via the Montague St tunnel.

              • Bolwerk says:

                I get not using them, but making it impossible to use them even for a non-revenue move seems extreme.

                • Someone says:

                  But that’s the only logical choice the MTA had. As it is today, the two northbound tracks at Chambers Street lead right onto the storage tracks. Only the southbound tracks lead onto the mainline at Bowery. Even before the Chrystie St Connection (http://www.nycsubway.org/perl/.....e67can.png), the southbound tracks at Chambers Street led onto the local tracks at Bowery. If the tracks at Bowery were the same as the ones at Chambers Street, and the loop approaches had split from the tracks at an actual junction (similar to the track setup at the 47-50 St-Rockefeller Center station, except the tracks in the centre of each local and express tracks form the diverging line, instead of the other way around), then the MTA could have kept at least one of the Canal St tail tracks open for non-revenue moves. However, the junction with the south MB tracks would have to be an at-grade junction, as there wouldn’t be revenue service to justify a flying junction.

          • Andrew says:

            The tracks were regraded when they were connected to the Broadway line. If they hadn’t been regraded and had a grade crossing been installed, all N and Q trains would have to creep through the area at slow speed. The new switches would also be maintenance-prone, like all switches.

        • Someone says:

          “There are even two trackways serving the southbound direction at Essex already.”
          Don’t you mean northbound? Southbound is toward Broad St.

        • Andrew says:

          There are no abandoned tracks. Track J1 (the former northbound track) is still in service as a bypass track – it is no less abandoned than the middle track on the West End line is. Track J3 no longer exists, because maintaining tracks and switches costs money, and there’s no need to waste money on useless infrastructure.

          There isn’t much of a need for train storage in the area, since the peak direction of travel in the morning is from Jamaica to Manhattan. There is already storage space for two trains on the former Manhattan Bridge leads, and if necessary there’s room for three more on the two terminal tracks at Chambers and at the relay position to their south.

      • JB says:

        I was thinking the same thing. I bet with little work they could fit 3-5 trainsets in there (provided they removed those cinderblock offices located towards the back end).

        Adding another side platform would be helpful too. That island platform can get pretty packed during rush hour. Also, maybe include additional (or open up the one set that is currently closed off) staircases so that there isnt such a crush between the BMT and IND platform transfers.

  8. Henry says:

    I don’t remember where exactly I saw this, but I remember reading that of all the East River crossings, the J/M/Z is the only one that has spare capacity for more trains, so it’s not like a new transit line to Delancey is particularly pressing.

    In any case, a real BRT line to the terminal would need exclusive lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge, which wouldn’t happen because the Post and other media outlets would throw a hissy fit, and because the Williamsburg bridge uses orange traffic cones to change the direction of road lanes throughout the day, and integrating bus lanes into that mess would be a nightmare.

    • Bolwerk says:

      That’s a crock, probably. Very few crossings are seeing peaks of much beyond 20 TPH. Even if it takes signal modernization to utilize it, there is certainly capacity on most East River crossings.

      • Nathanael says:

        Even the IRT East Side Line? That seems doubtful. Well, I guess you said “most”.

        • Someone says:

          But the East Side Line crossing wouldn’t be beyond 30 TPH at most.

        • Bolwerk says:

          The Lex? There may be limitations due to terminal capacity or interlockings that I’m not aware of, but it’s not doing anywhere near 30 TPH either.

          See 2010 hub bound report PDF.

          • Bolwerk says:

            To clarify, it’s not doing anywhere near 30TPH per track. It might be doing a little better than 40 TPH in the peak direction by utilizing both peak direction tracks.

          • Henry says:

            The RPA lists the Nostrand Junction with the 2,3,4, & 5 as the major obstacle to increasing frequency – it’s a flat junction, so all the conflicting movements get pretty crazy during peak hours.

            I’ve also read somewhere that DeKalb is also sort of a bottleneck (six tracks for every BMT service to Coney Island and Bay Ridge), but whether or not it’s actually at capacity is a completely different question.

            • Bolwerk says:

              Well, that explains the 2/3/4/5, but I would think the 6 in theory should be able to see more service.

              I would guess the 1 just doesn’t need it.

            • Someone says:

              And also the interlocking between the 2/3 just south of 145th Street in Manhattan. That’s another major obstacle to increasing frequency. Eliminate that and rebuild Nostrand (Rogers) Junction and the IRT could be able to add trains to the 2/3/4/5.

              About DeKalb Avenue, it could be worse. Before 1956, the junction was at-grade, and there were 6 tracks for all the services to Bay Ridge, Coney Island (all 4 lines), the Nassau Line, and the Broadway line (both local and express.) I heard somewhere that the R tracks, at least, are way below capacity,

            • Alex C says:

              They planned to rebuild that Nostrand Junction in the 60s (along with a bunch of other stuff that never happened…). Could’ve should’ve would’ve. Sigh.

    • Someone says:

      The Rutgers St and Montague St crossings also have plenty of extra capacity.

    • Someone says:

      “The Williamsburg bridge uses orange traffic cones to change the direction of road lanes throughout the day.”

      Not anymore. The permanent barriers have been removed and each roadway is now one-way only. The only problems would be the turn lanes at the Manhattan end of the bridge on the north roadway

  9. J B Taipei says:

    “Bridging the Brooklyn to Manhattan divide” may sound good, but the fact is this isn’t where the demand is. Any proposal is going to have to show that it’s cheaper and more effective than simply increasing train frequency. I think Alon Levy had it right before- the Lower East Side needs transit-oriented development more than additional transit; to the extent it needs more transit it should connect to midtown or even downtown Brooklyn rather than Williamsburg, and it should through-run rather than terminate at Delancey and Essex.

  10. Bolwerk says:

    The Low Line is a silly idea. I’d honestly just see the space turned into a nightclub or something, if it came to that. Preferably a skeevy one with whores, recreational drugs, alcohol being sold to minors, and cruising Christian pastors. It’s already a dank shithole, and there isn’t a lot of reason to deprive it of what could be a very lucrative use.

    It’s better for transit too. Ultimately, if it turns out that a future generation wants to reclaim it for transit, a nightclub is easier to buy out than a park with NIMBY appeal. I agree that neighborhood is park-starved, but the parks belong upstairs.

  11. John-2 says:

    I agree that the Low Line’s location makes it a not-very-good candidate for restoration, either as a bus or trolley terminal. Unlike the old el terminal at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge, which dropped people off in the downtown business district, Essex and Delancey just is not a high-volume destination for people in the 21st Century — you’d simply be dropping them off to get on the F/J/M/Z trains, while the capacity on the Willie B to handle the extra traffic smoothly isn’t there unless the city institutes lower Manhattan congestion pricing and/or tolls on the bridge.

    The park idea also comes across as fanciful. Once the newness of the idea wore off, you’d have an area with roof space lower than your average school gym competing with the screeching of brakes every time a train arrives at Essex. Interesting if you want a track-level look at Brooklyn-bound J/M/Z trains going by, but unlikely to be used much as a park except on bad weather days (on the other hand, if some private entrepreneur wants to sink their money into some watch-the-trains-go-by restaurant without disrupting J/M/Z service or passenger access to the station, more power to them).

  12. Nyland8 says:

    It seems as if, from the very beginning, the Low Line idea was never really well thought out.

    The proponents imagine a bucolic underground greenhouse where the community gathers to lounge in the comfort of a park-like setting that is warmer in winter, cooler in summer, and illuminated by piping natural light from above through fiberoptic technology. That vision of using a green technology to bring sunlight into darkness may be laudable, but the application would fail in this setting, and the costs will be high and, ultimately, unsustainable.

    It would seem that very little consideration were given to its size, location and inherent limitations. As others have pointed out, the noise of nearby trains precludes it becoming a quiet refuge from the city above – unless millions are spent to isolate the screech and rumble. And as a greenhouse, the humidity will bring with it the accelerated rusting of the steel superstructure – or the high maintenance costs of preventing that.

    It has no high ceilings, and no broad clear spans, because all it ever needed was room to turn trolleys around in. As a public space, it will never be more than a forest of rusting columns. And contrary to its proponents vision, it might become a damp and chilly place in winter, and a sweltering sauna in summer – unless a fortune is spent in heating, air conditioning and ventilation – which then defeats the purpose of promoting green technology.

    How does the MTA profit from this imaginary park space? Who would offer a source of ongoing, sustainable revenue for this oddity that would be comparable to the income of some kind of retail usage?

    The MTA should explore its possible exploitation as a commercial space. That is the only kind of revenue stream that will justify what must be spent to make it inhabitable and safe.

    The folks who are trying to advance their sunlight capture/fiberoptic technology could find better places to promote it – locations where true rail-trails or greenways might benefit from its use. The Rochester Underground project comes to mind – as well as the western spur of the Reading Viaduct in Philly. Those are both places that would stand to benefit from bringing low-maintenance natural light into dark spaces where nobody expects to require climate control, or to deal with all the limitations and obstacles presented by the Low Line.

  13. Someone says:

    That’s actually a very bad idea- who wants another crime-ridden public space in a low-income area?

    • TP says:

      By the time this comes to fruition the LES won’t be low income. Even today unless you won a NYCHA lottery it’s pretty unaffordable to move into any of the market rate housing on the LES.

      • Someone says:

        That’s not exactly true- many of the houses on the LES are easily affordable. Unless, of course, it experiences rapid gentrification like the Meatpacking District, Soho, Hell’s Kitchen, etc, which it probably won’t do.

        Anyway, the LES is still too crime-ridden to accomodate a safe underground public park.

        • Bolwerk says:

          Behl, crime schmime. People need to stop overreacting to it and start worrying about all the other things that could kill them.

          As a geographical area, the LES probably is as safe as the surrounding neighborhoods/precincts. I’m guessing the major “problems” are (1) the projects and (2) the rate per 100,000 people living there is high, which might be explained by high usage and low residential density. My guess would be Clinton Street or Norfolk Street are perfectly safe, even if maybe you don’t walk around at night in your suit made of $100 bills over on Baruch Drive.

          If park space is really called for, the ideal (albeit reverse-Robert Moses-ish) thing would probably be to redevelop the projects into a more traditional urban neighborhood and set aside some of the extra space for parks. It might even do something about the crime rate, but admitting that would be akin to admitting that policing isn’t always the answer, which would be heresy to Bloomberg/Kelly and some people here.

    • Henry says:

      The LES is slowly gentrifying, as is Chinatown. It’s mostly concentrated around Allen and Essex, but there have been new condominium developments, and I presume that once the real estate sector in the city perks up (and the landlords have booted most of their rent-control tenants), it will continue to do so.

      Granted, the area has a lot of downsides – really awkward transit connections to the rest of Lower Manhattan, a giant traffic sewer on Delancey, and the blight that “tower-in-the-park” style public housing and the three bridges brings on the neighborhood. However, it’s also tantalizingly close to Midtown and is still particularly cheap for Manhattan, so it’ll develop at some point in the near future.

      • Someone says:

        Even with those condo developments, the neighborhood still looks run down. Most of the buildings that were built in the early 1900’s are still there, as are the projects. It does have some possibilities of becoming an art gallery-centered neighborhood like Chelsea, Soho, or the Meatpacking District. However, the LES still contains way too many project-dwellers to attract the middle-class or even upper-class.

  14. BoerumBum says:

    Yeah, the lowline sounds like a silly idea.

    At best, it would likely end up similar to Park Here (http://parkhere.info/january.html) the indoor ‘park’ that’s not too far from there.

    At worst… well, there’s a reason that a lot of the underground concourses (and the Dey Street passage) aren’t open.

  15. Larry Littlefield says:

    The need to consider the potentially large but unforseen future costs of losing transportation infrastucture — compared with the short term benefits to a few — is more pressing when presering a right of way than a terminal.

    If the Lower East Side loses a possible terminal, then the Lower East Side loses a terminal. If Forest Hills gets rid of a railroad right of way, then Queens loses possible future service and the New York Metro area loses a possible service direct to the airport.

    The Queensway is just the latest attempt to get rid of that right of way.

  16. Akiva says:

    Refering back to myb earlier comment, I wasnt refering to bx12. I was refering to extending brooklyn routes across williamsburg bridge, such as b44 and b46. Many people transfer from those bus routes to J,M, and Z trains at Marcy Ave, and making these routes continue into Manhattan would make it easier for people to do directly into Manhattan. Transit only works properly and well, when its properly connected.

    • Someone says:

      You know, rather than making an entirely new thread for this, you can just hit the “reply” button at your earlier comment and leave your thoughts there.

    • Henry says:

      That’s sort of the point.

      Routing buses into Manhattan would be a reliability nightmare, because there would be nowhere for the buses to go, and because they would never give dedicated lanes to buses on the WB unless congestion on that bridge dropped. Hurricane Sandy was an exception to that rule, but there is simply nowhere for the buses to go (and as other commentators have said, the terminal is far too small).

      It’s not like the J/M/Z are the most crowded subway lines going under the East River, anyways.

      • Akiva says:

        ok, good point, as i hear and agree to what you are saying. Just what would be best isnt always practical, as we see in this case. Thanks for pointing that out.

  17. Sabina says:

    Could the space function as a terminal for some of the Chinatown buses?

    • Someone says:

      It’s too far from Chinatown to serve that purpose. Besides, there aren’t any vehicle ramps to that underground space.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Would the “Low Line” Be Worth More as a Park or a Transit Depot? (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

  2. […] a full-throated endorsement of the Low Line project, a plan to create an underground park in the former Essex Street trolley terminal below Delancey Street, near the base of the Williamsburg […]

  3. […] of the Low Line from The Journal. Earlier this year, in the Real Estate, Journal writers spoke of enhanced property values the park could bring, again ignoring any potential transit uses. The Journal has decided the Low […]

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