The Low Line as fait accompliBy
The Low Line — the ambitious and futuristic plan to send sunlight into an underground trolley terminal while turning the space into a park — is the project that just won’t die. For the better part of three years, we’ve heard about the efforts to convince the city to support this project at the expense of transit space. The Wall Street Journal in particular seems to be in the pocket of the Low Line’s proponents, and the paper has run yet another glowing article about the park plan with nary a nod to potential transit uses for the old Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal.
The latest piece of pro-park prose comes to us from Gabrielle Hamilton. She calls the Low Line plan a “startlingly vivid apparition of an evanescent and vanished city.” Even though it’s been six decades since the trolley terminal was still in use, turning it into a hyper-gentrified, hyper-yuppified park that is designed to be intentionally imitative of Chelsea’s High Line is somehow evocative of the grittier New York from the 1970s and 1980s. Along with this nostalgia for a much worse time in the city’s history, Hamilton writes of the Low Line as though it’s definitely happening and nothing can stop it. In her words, she writes of the impact the Low Line plans made upon a first viewing:
It was living in a walk-up, with a decades-defunct buzzer. Friends hollering up from the street and you throwing the key down in a balled-up sock. In the sweltering summers you hung out on the fire escape, took cold showers in the tub in the kitchen and reached your wet hand through the curtain to turn off the burner under your hissing stove-top pot of Café Bustelo…
It may not have been like 30 years ago, when the cool kids who would shape the future met each other Monday nights at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A or, later, sobering up with blintzes and coffee at the Kiev as dawn broke. But [Dan] Barasch, 36—the computer-game-playing ultra smartie, who’d worked at Google and also for New York City government and who can speak in easy, fluid paragraphs about “silos of knowledge” and “curating global intelligence”—had met [James] Ramsey, 35, here in New York, through a friend. Their work reflects the politics and aesthetics of their generation’s sensibility, which is all about being green, recycling, repurposing and community building through technology. But the connection to my generation—and to all New Yorkers, both permanent and transient—is that Ramsey and Barasch’s inclination toward technology, green space and community stands tall, but not so tall as to cast in shadow their dedication to art, the urban and the gritty…
Ramsey and Barasch’s vision of the Lowline has become anything but fiction. There’s been a Kickstarter campaign backed by 3,000 supporters. The $150,000 they raised online financed a full-scale model, with working remote skylights and parabolic dishes, which the duo and their dedicated team exhibited for a month…There’s been legal vetting; a budget and a business plan; and endorsements from community board #3, the City Council, the State Assembly and the New York State Senate. What they most need now—apart from the $55 million it will take to build—is for the MTA to let them have the space. It may take another 5 years, or 10, but the Lowline, with its even spread of political, financial and community support, is poised to become the New Yorkiest thing to happen to New York City since the Double-Dutch tournament at the Apollo Theatre.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard such an over-the-top adulation 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 Line shall exist, and exist it shall.
But those hurdles Hamilton mentions aren’t insignificant. She speaks of $55 million as though it’s a drop in the bucket, but it is exactly the opposite. Barasch and Ramsey won’t be able to fund that total through Kickstarter, and if we cast a glance across town, even the High Line raised only $44 million from donors for its first two sections. Will the city fork over the dough for the Low Line? Should it?
Meanwhile, getting the MTA on board won’t be easy either. There is no real reason for the agency to give up on valuable transit space. True, it has sat unused for longer than it was in use, but as Cap’n Transit explored last year, it could and should be in use again. Until we know for sure there are no transit uses for the space and until the MTA is adequately compensated for the terminal, it will remain in this limbo of past ghosts and future promises.
A few years ago, the Low Line had the ears of some higher-ups at the MTA, but those higher-ups have long since moved on and out. The Low Line gets press because it’s a unique idea, but ultimately, we don’t even know if it’s a sustainable or realistic idea. The MTA would have to go through an RFP process for the space, and build-out and maintenance costs won’t decrease. It’s not going to be five years or ten, as Hamilton imagines, and it probably shouldn’t be ever.