Thanks to a confluence of history and economics, many of New York City’s streets outside of Manhattan’s Central Business District are lined with elevated train tracks. From Astoria to Woodlawn, from Coney Island to Williamsburg and even through Morningside Heights, elevated train lines soar over city streets. How to incorporate these structures into the urban landscape has long proven to be problematic for New York City planners.
In certain parts of the city, the elevated trains are less intrusive than in others. The 7, as it travels above Queens Boulevard, occupies an elegant structure away from pedestrians and the flow of traffic, but the N and Q tracks through Astoria darken the streets below while impeding the flow of both people and traffic. One area in Brooklyn — the space under the Culver Viaduct — is a particular wasteland of former and current industrial usages mixed with an urban void.
A walk or a drive past the Viaduct on the border between Park Slope, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens and Red Hook isn’t very scenic. The trip passes through row houses overshadowed by the looming structure, a Lowes warehouse store and some industrial spaces that look abandoned. Until the train goes back underground at 4th Ave. and just south of 2nd Place and Smith Street, the area is an odd nothingness of quasi-development. It doesn’t have to be this way.
While digging through some old emails this week, I came across a post from the Architectural League of New York’s Urban Omnibus blog. Written by Brooklyn native John McGill, it explores possible development schemes for the area underneath the Viaduct. While the city has turned a former rail line into a popular public space and burgeoning tourist attraction, they could do something similar to the space under a current rail line.
McGill seems to call his proposal the anti-High Line as it doesn’t rely on deactivating a rail line. Rather, it is, he says, “an opportunistic repurposing of existing, functioning infrastructure to address the need for a vibrant and coherent public realm.” The proposal itself enters into some architecturally technical areas. After all, you can’t redevelop the space in and around the Viaduct in such a way that would threaten the structural integrity of the active train tracks above.
The plan itself would incorporate access to and views of the Gowanus Canal — a Superfund site that will eventually be cleaned — and relies upon the shuttering of a concrete plant, the only active business in the area. With some modifications to the Viaduct itself, McGill then proposes a variety of uses:
Four types of “preservation” emerged as essential to the architectural strategy: preservation of sunlight, of structural stability, of limited footprint at ground level, and of existing (historic) character. Informed by these criteria, Underline offers four potential modes of intervention: the creation of flexible space for public assembly; precast concrete decking hung from above on steel rods as a public landscape “ribbon;” pure infill at ground level; and adaptive reuse of, or interface with, existing adjacent structures…
Preserving this set of desirable existing conditions results in a series of distributed spaces connected by a linear public park. This establishes a sequence of unique visual experiences as one moves along, offering glimpses of unexpected adjacent activities, the regular appearance of moving trains overhead, and the rhythmic discharge and departure of passengers to and from the stations at either end of the project site — not to mention views of the city currently reserved for F and G subway riders.
Despite being distributed, however, the program is arranged in discernible clusters so that points of access to each component of the project are clearly legible from the street. Starting from the south, the first of these might contain an EPA monitoring station and public exhibition space, a café, public outdoor amphitheater, rock-climbing wall, and classrooms. The next section consists of covered outdoor basketball courts and a small public fitness center and lap pool, and in the final group retail and production spaces. Because each element is knit into the whole by the landscape ribbon, a loose affiliation emerges between both related and unrelated events in time and space.
It’s a fascinating plan really and one that New Yorkers do not see too frequently. It takes an underused urban space at the confluence of numerous neighborhoods that also supports key infrastructure and turns it into a potentially popular urban destination. Eleven months after McGill first published the proposal, we can also say that it’s not going to happen, and Brooklyn is worse off for it.
One of the major reasons why subway construction has stalled over the past 60 years is a public aversion to elevated lines. With the noise and dirt and debris that an above-ground subway causes, residents do not want to see these structures — which are much cheaper than a bored tunnel — dominate the landscape any more than they already do. But just maybe it’s possible to develop an elevated train with the neighborhood in mind.