Home Brooklyn Under the El: Thoughts on urban development

Under the El: Thoughts on urban development

by Benjamin Kabak

One Brooklyn native has proposed building a pedestrian space underneath the Culver Viaduct. Rendering by John McGill.

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.

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Stephen Smith September 9, 2011 - 1:55 am

Seems to me like a commonsense way to utilize these is to simply deregulate them with respect to parking, affordable housing mandates, zoning, etc., while of course still holding them to health and safety building regulation (things like windows in bedrooms, staircases, etc.). Given NYC’s restrictive land use policies, it’s highly likely that owners of the land beneath the els would build structures – likely commercial or light industrial – below the lines.

Furthermore, you could give them the authorization to make modifications to the structure in order to soundproof it, which they very well might, given that they have the most stake in keeping in quiet (since it affects their property values). And even if they don’t soundproof it, they will still absorb some of the sound and vibrations, leaving less for the rest of us (right? I’m not a sound engineer…).

Alex C September 9, 2011 - 1:56 am

I have one problem with this…that “skylight” hole in the viaduct in the rendering. Right, rip out the two express tracks and expose the steel for skylights. I like the point of this idea, but the execution is awful.

Benjamin Kabak September 9, 2011 - 11:36 am

I agree with that and with what capt subway said below: Removing the express tracks would be a terrible idea. I still dream of the day express service is restored to the Culver line. That said, I’m more focused on the point rather than the execution. I think the point and the thinking is in the right place.

BrooklynBus September 9, 2011 - 2:41 pm

I agree with you.

I’m also dreaming of the long overdue return of the Culver Express. It just annoys me how the selfish local riders are opposed just as they are on the Brighton who want trains to continue to all run local now that the reconstruction is finished.

If this were Manhattan, the space would be used, like they did under the Queensborough Bridge.

Alex C September 9, 2011 - 10:38 pm

Part of the issue is that Prospect Park, Carroll St, Bergen St (though you can use the lower level there) are all highly used stops. Any express service would have to be a third line ran down to Church Ave. The C could perform such a service, but then you have logistical issues with fitting in a 3rd train in either Cranberry tubes or 6 Ave IND between W 4 St and Broadway-Lafayette (or rather the switches East of it).

Alex C September 9, 2011 - 10:42 pm

*Other issue being that the E then goes to Euclid, and you’d need some extra trains for that. That’s something the MTA won’t have for the next 5 years, if not longer depending on how the R32 and 46 hold out. Alternately, send E to Church, but then you need to fit the E in with either the F/M between W4 and Lafayette or with the A/C until Jay.

Andrew September 13, 2011 - 11:36 pm

Selfish local riders? What are you talking about? There’s no Culver express because there’s no demand for additional Culver service.

Incidentally, I thought you were opposed to SBS because of the increased access time, even though SBS stops are, by design, the busiest stops on the line. So why are you in favor of express service on a line whose express stops aren’t the busiest stops on the line?

Alon Levy September 9, 2011 - 2:26 am

The question is whether the issue with the Culver viaduct is one of land use policy or street and viaduct design. The 7 el over QB works because a) QB is extraordinarily wide, and b) the el is a concrete berm with relatively clean exterior. The noisier els in Astoria and Woodside are ugly steel structures over narrower avenues.

Shek Baker September 9, 2011 - 8:55 am

I’m not exactly sure what purpose is served by closing the concrete plant, unless it’s a zoning question. Seems to be a rock climbing gym et al can coexist with industrial uses.

capt subway September 9, 2011 - 9:01 am

Removal of the two express tracks is a truly bad idea. Once the structure rehab is finished all four tracks will be returned to active status. The express tracks were once used for “F” rush hour express service and various options for restitution of some sort of express service are constantly under review. In addition the tracks were, and will once again also be used for reroutes during general orders as well as for non revenue train movements and storage.

BTW, I’m not sure why it has come to be called the Culver Viaduct. Technically the Culver Line is the elevated part of the line from Ditmas Ave out to CI, the active portion of the former BMT Culver line, which branched off from the West End line at 9th Ave.and which was given over to the IND in 1954.

Finally, you cannot simply recreate the High Line and the chic district around it by fiat and/or from scratch. The nieghborhood around the High Line was already “hot”. The super trendiness of the ‘hood, which developed organically over a period of 10-15 years, made the High Line as a linear park viable. The High Line did not create the trendiness, the trendiness created the High Line. The High Line was simply the icing on the cake.

MaximusNYC September 10, 2011 - 3:41 pm

There is actually a certain quasi-underground hip status to the Gowanus neighborhood where this viaduct runs. A number of music venues and art spaces have opened in the area in recent years. But it’s still quite rough and industrial for the most part. I suspect that the industrial tenants that mostly occupy the area don’t want to have their existence disrupted by gentrification (I’ve heard that many of them have opposed cleanup of the Gowanus Canal for this reason). So it’ll be a long time before a plan like this can gain enough local support to happen.

Christopher September 9, 2011 - 10:55 am

I’m a big fan of these types of intervention, too. Pruned — the landscape and architecture blog — has done series on parks of this nature. I’m also a big fan of viaducts. Maybe from growing up near Chicago. I love living near the Myrtle Avenue L. It’s happy making. And love walking Myrtle from Knickerbocker to Wyckoff. Underneath the tracks.

When I used to lived in East Harlem I thought how wasted it was to have just parking under the Metro North tracks on Park Avenue. That could be a great park space linking to the two sides underneath the tracks. Instead of parking for city vehicles.

While I think the 7 train viaduct is very nice to look at — it’s horrible placemaking. Queens Blvd is far too wide and all that space is given over to just parking. While there is probably a need for some parking there that area could be so much better used and link the two sides of the Queens Blvd.

BrooklynBus September 9, 2011 - 11:59 am

I am also intrigued with the general idea The area underneath does not have to be a wasteland. At least the areavunder the 7 in Flushing is used for parking. Of course that is something all the anti-car people would oppose. Not saying it would be right for this area. Of course everyone would love it for bike parking.

Benjamin Kabak September 9, 2011 - 12:02 pm

Car parking isn’t a dynamic use of the space. Neither is bike parking. And both parking uses would require there be a destination or a residential neighborhood close enough to support bike or car parking. The areas around the Viaduct are not suffering from a lack of parking though, and anytime you can make something dynamic instead of a graveyard for idle one-ton mounds of metal, you do.

BrooklynBus September 9, 2011 - 2:45 pm

As I said, I wasn’t proposing car parking for the area and I was being facetious about bike parking.

I’m also dreaming of the long overdue return of the Culver Express. It just annoys me how the selfish local riders are opposed just as they are on the Brighton who want trains to continue to all run local now that the reconstruction is finished.

If this were Manhattan, the space would be used, like they did under the Queensborough Bridge.

Bolwerk September 9, 2011 - 3:52 pm

Given the congestion on Queens Boulevard, wasting that space on parking is rather offensive. It was designed for trolleys (here’s a video), and today would make an ideal anchor for a much-needed Queens Boulevard surface rail service.

capt subway September 9, 2011 - 5:29 pm

I agree 100%. I’ve always advocated light rail for Queens Blvd. The long defunct Queens Blvd streetcar, which followed almost the exact same route as the present day Q60 bus, was unique for NYC in that it ran almost entirely on PROW: on the outer roadways of the Queensboro Br, under the Flushing line viaduct and then in the side median strips of Queens Blvd. Bringing it back would provide a much needed supplement to, and attractive alternative to the way over crowded Queens Blvd and Flushing lines. Articulated trams of up to five cars, such as are found all over Europe, could be used. BRT style fare collection and all-door loading would speed up service significantly.

Bolwerk September 9, 2011 - 6:44 pm

Yeah, no kidding. It can almost only be malice to replace something like that with buses, when there is a perfectly good ROW right there to use for something that does the job better, faster, cheaper, and without contending with or even creating traffic congestion. It’s almost too stupid even for the people who think buses are a good substitute for high-speed rail.

Keith R.A. DeCandido September 9, 2011 - 12:01 pm

I love how your opening paragraph waxes rhapsodic about elevated trains without once mentioning the Bronx, which has elevated trains all across it (the 1, 4, 2, 5, and 6)…….

Benjamin Kabak September 9, 2011 - 12:03 pm

Woodlawn is in the Bronx, and I’m hardly waxing rhapsodic about elevated trains. They’re not exactly good for neighborhoods.

Keith R.A. DeCandido September 9, 2011 - 1:58 pm

*looks at paragraph again*

*hits self over head with ballpeen hammer*

Sorry. *goes off to get more coffee*

(Having said that, there is no elevated train in Woodlawn. Yes, there is a Woodlawn station at the end of the 4 train, but that station is actually in Bainbridge, at the southwest corner of Woodlawn Cemetery.)

—Keith, dumbass

Bolwerk September 9, 2011 - 3:53 pm

Not good for neighborhoods? Those neighborhoods often wouldn’t be there if not for elevated lines!

David in NYC September 9, 2011 - 12:17 pm

Weld and smooth all the rails together!
The worst part about MTA elevated trains is the thundering noise made by metal wheels hitting uneven metal rail joints thousands of times every day. This is done in other civilized nations.
WELD the rails!

Bolwerk September 9, 2011 - 3:58 pm

You’re right, they could be made a lot quieter with proper care. It doesn’t get rid of the problems with els, but at least it minimizes them.

Seems to me the MTA almost doesn’t give a shit in some cases. The Jamaica Line seems to be in terrible shape south (east?) of Broadway; it’s noisy and crawls like molasses. I’ve had to use it to get to court before, and I feel terrible for anyone who has to commute that way every day.

Andrew September 10, 2011 - 9:49 pm

It’s no noisier than any other el in the city, and trains in that area are slow because of the sharp curves (i.e., to prevent derailments). The line itself is in perfectly good shape – I think the track has been replaced recently, the signals were replaced about 15 years ago, and the stations have all been rehabbed.

Bolwerk September 11, 2011 - 5:44 pm

Actually, it seems to slow down after Myrtle-Broadway, not Broadway. Using Google Maps, I’m not seeing many sharp curves. None between the Williamsburg Bridge and Crescent Street – in fact, it’s a straight shot to Broadway Junction going towards Jamaica. After that, there is a sharp curve and another before Cypress Hills, and then the curves are gentle to Jamaica. So, it seems like only two of them are really sharp in Brooklyn.

But yeah, the only el that seems rather quiet is the Queens Boulevard viaduct in Sunnyside.

Andrew September 11, 2011 - 8:34 pm

There are no particularly slow spots between the bridge and Broadway Junction aside from crossing moves between local and express, unless your train is delayed due to congestion at the Myrtle interlocking. There are sharp curves between Broadway Junction and Alabama, and then a pair of sharp 90 degree turns between Crescent and Cypress Hills. After that it’s fairly straight the rest of the way.

The Queens Boulevard viaduct is a viaduct, not an elevated structure. It’s no more elevated than the Brighton embankment.

Bolwerk September 12, 2011 - 2:15 am

There is a single curve between Alabama and Broadway Junction, and it looks rather modest to me. Count it as heavy if you want, but that’s only three “heavy” curves in the entire in Brooklyn-Queens on the Jamaica Line – there is arguably a fourth one as the el leaves Jamaica Ave.. I dunno, looks like a distance thing mainly. The local J is about as fast as the curvier L on average (~15mph), but significantly longer.

A viaduct, by definition, is an elevated structure.

Andrew September 13, 2011 - 11:29 pm

It isn’t a large curve but it is very tight, due to the complex interlockings in the area and an oddly placed support structure (supposedly built to carry a never-built express track on an upper level). It’s the tightness of the curve that dictates the maximum safe speed.

The J runs a longer distance than the L. Most of the curves on the L aren’t quite as sharp as on the J, and CBTC has much finer control over speed restrictions than the traditional signal system on the J, with its cumbersome grade timers.

An elevated structure is a steel structure open to the street below. That doesn’t apply to the Queens Bvld. viaduct (or, for that matter, on the Culver Viaduct).

Alex C September 9, 2011 - 10:53 pm

MTA Policy: If there is a way to half-ass it to save a few pennies, do it. Not sure if this is incompetence or budget-based. You’d have to go ask the (sometimes insane) people on SubChat (lot of which are current and former employees of the MTA) for that info. On the Culver viaduct, they used Sonneville’s low-vibration track, which is fantastic. This LVT system has of course comes with a switch design that uses its embedded sleepers. MTA half-assed it and just went with wooden sleepers on the diamond crossovers just to the west of 4 Ave-9 St station. What else is new.


Andrew September 10, 2011 - 9:46 pm

Is it possible that Sonneville LVT switches don’t meet NYCT standards but the rest of the system does?

Alex C September 10, 2011 - 9:56 pm

I’d be shocked if it didn’t. The Sonneville system is used for heavy rail around the world. The Gotthard Base Tunnel uses the Sonneville system, and that’s supposed to handle heavier 82.5 foott-long intercity and high-speed trains (at slower speeds of course, but still ~100 mph). Other subway systems have used it, too. I appreciate the tensile strength of wood, but wish the MTA would have gone all the way and used the LVT switch package.

Alon Levy September 11, 2011 - 11:17 pm

Just because something is the worldwide standard doesn’t mean that Americans are going to use it.

Bolwerk September 9, 2011 - 4:00 pm

It’s a small contribution on the whole, but one obvious thing to do with els is encourage night life under them.

Actually, that is probably why Second Avenue is such a mecca for nightlife today. When els ran in Manhattan, it was bars that ended up underneath them.

Matty September 9, 2011 - 5:06 pm

I feel like Chicago treats their elevated lines much better than we do. Most of them are in alleys, true, but even the areas downtown when the tracks go down the middle of the street people don’t seem to mind.

Al D September 9, 2011 - 5:13 pm

Honestly, I’m not really getting this. There already is a park under the viaduct along Smith St. I don’t know about the air rights issues, but the viaduct next curves over private land (I think) and then over the canal and then over more private land, and then over a building(!) where people live. Possibly under the 4th Ave station there could be a little cafe open space thingie, but there is a distinct lack on continuity to the land below, and along with all the apparent associated emininent doamin issues, I’m not following this concept.

Additionally, as already mentioned by many others, the loss of the express tracks is a bust.

ajuse September 9, 2011 - 6:19 pm

The proposal doesn’t include the removal of the express tracks, if you read the Omnibus piece. The skylights would have to be engineered to accommodate them, which is obviously a technical hurdle requiring some suspension of disbelief. This is clearly intended as a provocation and an indication of an exciting possibility — not a fully worked out, “shovel-ready” project.

Lee September 10, 2011 - 1:00 am

There’s a similar project in Chicago to create a short walking trail beneath the L. It’s proposed in a Business Improvement District master plan, so it has some funding and community support behind it. They dubbed it the Low-Line: http://www.thisislakeview.com/.....documents/

IsaacB September 13, 2011 - 4:16 pm

A solution in search of a problem. Or, less delicately, artistic onanism. The neighborhood under and around the el is active with a variety of uses vital to Brooklyn and New York city, including retail, creative, industrial and residential, yet of a modest density. McGill’s “ruin porn” photos do not do the area justice.

Jane Jacobs wrote (paraphrasing) that for a neighborhood or park to be vibrant, safe and viable, it must be well integrated with its surroundings with people naturally coming in and out. A “gerbil chute” under the el in Gowanus will fail this test. (By the way, we’ll check back on the High Line in 10 years, when the initial euphoria wears off, when the city cuts its funding and when bad things start happening there).

People who want to view the sky, the el and the canal can stroll on 9th Street. we don’t need to “invest” in a structure that will require a constant flow of cash and manpower to keep from falling apart and becoming a place where you go to score drugs or get attacked.


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