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.