Home Abandoned Stations A plan for a park underneath Delancey Street

A plan for a park underneath Delancey Street

by Benjamin Kabak

Renderings of the Delancey Underground pay homage to the Underbelly Project. Photo via Inhabitat.

Over the past year, since the Underbelly Project exposed New York City to the abandoned South 4th Street subway station, interest in the various unused parts of the subway infrastructure has been on the rise. It’s part of a cycle really. Over the years, various groups have called upon the MTA to reopen the City Hall stop, provide tours for shuttered stations and flat-out admit that some stations exist. After all, many at the MTA won’t admit that the South 4th Street shell exists, let alone that a street art project used it as a canvas.

Since Underbelly, though, the MTA’s relationship with its unused infrastructure has grown more strained. Transit sometime last fall sealed up one of the South 4th Street access points with a new false wall in an effort to keep vandals and urban explorers out. By doing so, though, they also allow a part of subway history when the city dared to dream big to fade away behind new walls. Not everything has been ignored though.

Across the tracks from the BMT’s Essex St. subway station rests the unused trolley terminal that, until 1948, brought riders across the Williamsburg Bridge. These days, the old station sits unused and in disarray, a visible relic of another error, but some architects and social innovators want to turn into an underground park. Eying the success of the High Line, they want to turn the trolley terminal into the Low Line. By channeling sunlight into the subterranean cavern via fiber optics network, they could print light and plant life to what is now a dank, dark space.

On Monday, James Ramsey, an architect and engineer from RAAD Studio, along with Dan Barasch of PopTech and R. Boykin Curry IV of a New York investment firm, unveiled the Delancey Underground website as part of a publicity push for their idea. They were featured in New York magazine and spoke at length with The Low Down NY about their idea.

Ramsey, who went on a tour with some MTA officials last year, talked about the concepts behind the Low Line. “We were thinking about this amazing space lurking underneath Delancey Street, totally in the darkness, dripping, just sitting there, not activated,” he said. “We started thinking, how can we activate this space, how can we make something appealing here? A very natural way to do that is to introduce natural sunlight. What happens if you (do that) is that you can actually grow some plants down there. It’s a totally bizarre fun idea but I think it makes a lot of natural sense.”

The trolley terminal at Delancey Street has sat unused since the late 1940s. Photo via Inhabitat.

A brief bit published by Inhabitat discusses some of the technology behind it as well:

Even though the park design will be set below the street, the goal is to create a space that is far from a dark, dank and depressing destination. The ground-breaking design team is banking on a high-tech fiber optic lighting system to enable a green space that is bright, sunny and welcoming. The park will be equipped with extensive lighting units utilizing fiber optics to channel natural daylight to the depths below. Dozens of lamppost-like solar collectors will be placed on the Delancey Street to complete this task. And as a bonus, the system the designers envision will also filter out harmful ultraviolet and infrared light, but keeping the wavelengths used in photosynthesis to foster and nourish plant growth.

The idea itself seems like a neat one on the surface. It rivals one out of Boston in terms of creativity and outside-the-box thinking, but the practical considerations make it a long shot. In conversations with transportation officials with knowledge of the situation, I understand that the team has a in with the current MTA leadership, but that leadership is on the way out in a few weeks. Hence, the recent effort to drum up public support. They’ve presented to city officials and will soon be meeting with Community Board 3 who would have to approve numerous aspects of this plan.

As far as the space is considered, the politics are a little more delicate. The MTA currently controls the unused trolley terminal, and they’re not going to simply hand it over to the Parks Department without adequate compensation or safety assurances. Furthermore, the authority rightly won’t contribute a dollar to this program, and anyone who replaces Jay Walder likely won’t view this project as a priority. Finally, it’s likely that the MTA or similarly situated government entity would have to open up this space to an RFP process and bidding before it could move ahead.

It took the High Line supporters ten years to realize their goals of a park atop that rail line. Patience, it seems, is a virtue for proponents of creative uses for public space. Maybe the Low Line — bad name and all — isn’t a perfect idea; maybe it won’t see the light of day. But it will make people think, and if the city can turn an abandoned trolley terminal into something useful, the early ideas will have been well worth it.

The Low Line park would bring light underground. Image via Inhabitat.

You may also like


David September 20, 2011 - 12:14 am

Oh gawd, please let this happen!
I don’t care if it falls apart in 3 years, the gritty NYC we all love also needs a few more delightful surprises, at least upon initial viewings. Inspiring design usually doesn’t have to cost any more than the usual tile and brick wallpaper.
Please Everybody, Pray the Usual Away!

Alex C September 20, 2011 - 12:21 am

What’s their plan on keeping rats out? And for keeping subway noise out? And most of all, what’s their plan for keeping this place from becoming a gigantic underground homeless campsite? This would be a bum’s paradise. Natural sunlight, keeps warm in the winter, cool in the summer, protection from weather, and the subway tunnels nearby.

Bolwerk September 20, 2011 - 2:42 am

It’s really cute and all, but…this is the type of stuff that always bugs me about urban livability activists. Whoever is pushing for this project wants to take a piece of infrastructure, which could do worlds of good if it were restored to its intended use, away forever and make it into a playground for yuppies and hipsters.

Besides, why ignore the area above ground around Delancey? Frankly, there might not be an uglier neighborhood below 14th Street, at least on the east side. Not to mention how hostile it is to pedestrians.

P.S. Joseph Brennan has some pictures of what that area used to look like in the early 20th century.

Benjamin Kabak September 20, 2011 - 9:19 am

Cap’n Transit made a similar point to me via Twitter last night because he’s written about turning it into a bus depot for a Brooklyn-bound BRT service. That sounds pretty good to me, but no one in any of the policy shops is pursuing a similar line of thinking. If our choices are between a rundown, dirty, abandoned terminal and something semi-useful, I’d take the latter. After all, it’s been over 60 years since the last trolley ran.

Bolwerk September 20, 2011 - 11:24 am

Aye, it seems like a plight of learned helplessness. The groups that should be fighting for better transit have given up on all but boutique projects, and, worse, the livability activists largely just want nice parks to be near when they aren’t driving. :-\

LRT or BRT, it’s an obvious way to make midtown-bound and other trips easier for a vast swath of Brooklyn between Greenpoint and Fulton Street, not to mention the waterfront areas. This terminal could feed passengers to the F, the M15 Select Bus, and maybe even the future SAS. But I’d really be surprised to see BRT being able to work in there, given the tight turning radii necessary under there.

Andrew September 20, 2011 - 11:39 pm

Why not drop them off at Marcy Ave., where they can pick up the J and M (which serves the same corridor as the F in Manhattan) without duplicating the subway line across the bridge (which costs money and threatens reliability on the rest of the line)?

The M15 is two long blocks west of the terminal, on Allen (and it doesn’t even stop at Delancey, although obviously that could be changed). SAS will be even further west, on Chrystie.

Bolwerk September 21, 2011 - 2:03 pm

Terminating at Marcy occurred to me (there is potential space for a terminal there), but the M is a part-time service, and I personally didn’t see either the Select Bus or SAS respectively as that far to walk.

But, you seem to be exaggerating the distances a little. The terminal seems to be less than one west side of Manhattan long block from the Select Bus and less than two from the SAS – maybe that’s a bit to expect someone to go for the SAS, but not the Select Bus. Also, still nearer by are the M14 and M9.

If you want to go really crazy, redirecting the Select Bus shouldn’t be out of the question – or creating a new one that terminates in that area.

Andrew September 22, 2011 - 11:19 pm

Running buses or LRV’s over a major bridge is expensive and hurts reliability for all riders, even those who don’t ride over the bridge itself.

The former trolley terminal is around Suffolk. Allen is a 5 minute walk and Chrystie is a 7 minute walk, ignoring vertical circulation time. That’s a longer walk than any designated transfer in the city.

Redirecting SBS – taking through riders on a scenic trip around the neighborhood to serve a marginal transfer point – is quite crazy.

Bolwerk September 23, 2011 - 10:06 pm

Suffolk would be 4-5 short blocks. The transfer would be similar to the out of system transfer at 63rd and and 59th, if no services are changed to accommodate such a new service.

Of course there is no need to redirect the entire SBS service. It would make much more sense to simply divert some of the SBS service to the terminal as needed, or use a potential future SBS service. AFAIK, the SBS ridership down there is fairly light and the terminal is as good a transfer point as any – all that assumes such a fantasy service actually services underserved neighborhoods in Brooklyn, rather than paralleling exiting subways.

I don’t see why routing over the bridge would be a technical problem. It might be a political one, since it would only make sense to do with dedicated lanes or sufficiently high tolls to keep traffic down. (I think this only makes sense if the terminal could be a hub for a larger Brooklyn and maybe even Manhattan LRT network. If that is done, it would make a very useable transfer point. If there is just one service paralleling the J, I don’t see what sense it makes to bother.)

Andrew September 26, 2011 - 9:07 pm

The walk from 63rd to 60th is three blocks; what makes it difficult is the vertical component (way up, then way down). As I said, your proposed transfer would be the longest designated transfer in the city. I do not think that’s an exaggeration.

Diverting some SBS service to your terminal would reduce frequencies on the line south of there. A lot of people will have to wait longer for the bus.

Routing buses through any traffic constriction results in unreliability. Bus lanes and congestion pricing can help, but as a practical matter, there will always be some higher-than-normal degree of unpredictability on or near a bridge. That unpredictability affects not only people on the bus at the time but also people waiting for the eastbound bus in Brooklyn. On particularly bad days, traffic will be so bad that the bus can’t get back on schedule at the terminal, and service will progressively get worse and worse. That can (and does) happen to any bus route, but it’s most likely to happen on a bus route that runs through a particularly congested area.

And you didn’t address the expense. Paying bus drivers to cross a bridge that already has subway service is wasteful.

There already is a bus terminal by the Marcy Avenue station, with buses serving a variety of Brooklyn and Queens corridors.

al September 20, 2011 - 1:26 pm

Run a BRT, LRT, or rubber tyred tram up Grand St/Ave from the unused terminal to the intersection of Broadway/Queens Blvd Queens. Add a similar facility from Main St over the LIE, Queens Midtown Tunnel and 34th St. It could make a difference with the crowding on the Queens Blvd and Flushing Lines.

Andrew September 20, 2011 - 11:22 pm

Doubtful – the locals aren’t particularly crowded, so why do you think that someone who isn’t willing to spend a few extra minutes on the local in exchange for greater comfort would be willing to take surface transit, which would be far slower than even the local train?

The F, M, and J/Z trains would all make far better time from central or eastern Queens to this location than any form of surface transit. And it’s not like this is much of a commuting destination, so after taking a long trip on the surface, most riders would then have to transfer. Why would anyone bother?

al September 21, 2011 - 3:44 pm

The 7 local is packed to crush capacity during AM rush along Queens Blvd. The same could be said on the L in northwestern Bklyn. The Grand St/Ave section would connect the L (as well as the G, southwest Maspeth, southern Greenpoint) to a less crowded route to Downtown Manhattan. The crosstown section at 34th St could alleviate some of the crowding on 42nd St Shuttle, and the E between Penn Station and Lex Ave.

Both lines have to be in place to make sense.

You are conflating legacy local buses with vehicles that have rapid boarding, fare prepayment, and signal and lane priority. The MTA subways average 20mph. (Locals average less).

There are local buses along and perpendicular to both corridors that can serve as feeders and allow whatever option built to run like an express bus with far fewer stops.

Factor in:
that Grand Ave is a mile or more from the M, with cemeteries and railroad ROW in between breaking up the street grid.
crush loads slowing loading or preventing boarding on Queens Blvd express, 7 Local (Queens Blvd) and north/east Midtown.
the longer less direct route the Queens Blvd lines take to Midtown South.
the distances to and from Queens Blvd from southern Sunnyside and all of Blissville.
the distance from the Main St/LIE and Queens College area to any subway.
the distance from most of Maspeth to any subway.

Both lines would run through industrial employment zones that currently only have local buses as transit options.

The combination of the 2 lines would connect the Lower East Side to Flushing/Corona/Forest Hills/Elmhurst. All have large hispanic and asian populations. It would also connect 2 of the city’s Chinatowns together. A 3rd would be to the north.

If reconfiguring the surface approaches on the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge proves too difficult, then shift the terminal to Marcy Ave.

Bolwerk September 21, 2011 - 10:22 pm

I think where ideas like this shine is where they’re carefully crafted offer some redundancy during downtime for subways, but also offer some useful service during peak hours. I gave an example concerning the L Train a few months ago. A real weakness with the two-track services is buses can’t handle the overflow to them, but nothing really replaces them when they shut down.

Not sure I think much of connecting places just because they share ethnic components though. :-\

Andrew September 22, 2011 - 11:43 pm

You are still misusing the word “crush.” No NYCT services are truly crush loaded on a regular, ongoing basis. The 7 local falls well short of NYCT’s guideline loading capacity, let alone crush capacity.

Even the fastest possible magical bus on city streets will still be slower than the subway – even ignoring the transfer to the subway that most riders will need to finish their trips.

And the capital and operating costs would be astronomical.

The Q54 already serves most of the corridor you’re discussing. That its peak headway is 13 minutes would imply that it doesn’t have a terribly strong market. How about we spend our money on busy corridors instead?

Kid Twist September 20, 2011 - 9:28 am

If it keeps the hipsters off the streets, it just might be worth it.

Spencer K September 20, 2011 - 10:05 am

That’s easy, open up another ironically themed bar which sells PBR and Schlitz, has a bocce court, and gives out trucker hats.

Eric F. September 20, 2011 - 8:47 am

I would do it the opposite way. Put Delancey Street in the box and put the park on top.

Chris September 20, 2011 - 11:04 am

I’m not wild about this idea, but I do like how the shape of the bench on the right in the lower rendering seems to play off those on the High Line.

SEAN September 20, 2011 - 11:29 am

What ever keeps people from “Crossing Delancy” is fine by me. LOL

James P. Herman September 22, 2011 - 1:44 pm

How about a link to the underbelly project…


Video of the Day: Inside the Essex St. trolley terminal :: Second Ave. Sagas November 28, 2011 - 1:09 pm

[…] the plan involved bringing sunlight from above through fiber optic cables to create a park in the abandoned Essex St. Trolley Terminal. As New York City has seen the High Line take off on the West Side, the park proponents envision […]

Website Designer January 24, 2012 - 11:40 am

I savour, lead to I discovered exactly what I was having a look for. You’ve ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

TROLLEY STATIONS | | Forgotten New YorkForgotten New York March 14, 2012 - 9:47 am

[…] Since it’s plain the space will never see active trolley service again, a plan has emerged for the the space to be turned into a park, a la the West Side High […]

TROLLEY STATIONS | | Forgotten New YorkForgotten New York March 14, 2012 - 9:47 am

[…] Since it’s plain the space will never see active trolley service again, a plan has emerged for the the space to be turned into a park, a la the West Side High […]

Samuel May 3, 2013 - 10:24 pm

Not only would it be a good idea to have an underground park in an abandoned trolley terminal that’s next to an active subway station, but it would also be a good idea to have some kind of passage connecting the subway platforms with the underground park. That way’ subway riders could get off the subway at Essex Street and then either take a walk or sit on a bench. This space could also be put in local travel guide books so that more people will know about the space.


Leave a Comment