Home Abandoned Stations The Low Line as fait accompli

The Low Line as fait accompli

by Benjamin Kabak

The Williamsburg Bridge Trolley terminal as seen in its younger and more vulnerable years.

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.

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Jonathan May 22, 2013 - 12:41 am

If there was a decade when youngsters dropped $55 million on building a park-shaped object underneath Delancey Street, it wasn’t the 80s. I don’t know where Ms. Hamilton’s nostalgia trip starts, but it seems to have run off the rails.

Bolwerk May 22, 2013 - 1:22 am

It’s a stupid, delusional idea. I suspect the fact really is many of these people’s primary goal is to mark their territory, and make sure other people suffer. They don’t like trains, and can’t be satisfied with not using trains themselves. They must make sure nobody has access to trains because, in their authoritarian little minds, everything that isn’t forbidden is mandatory.

There isn’t a benign explanation for taking away useful infrastructure. The irony to this is, if we fix the Le Corbusier nightmare that neighborhood became since WWII, there would be more than adequate space for a nice park upstairs. This is actually one of the few places in Manhattan below 125th Street where that is true. But it would actually improve the neighborhood, which is not the goal here.

Bolwerk May 22, 2013 - 1:33 am

Speaking of stupid, the video Cap’n Tranist links to really says it all. This MTA real estate honcho babbles about the city developing the area above ground, but he can’t imagine the space he is standing in being used for transit. He envisions a night club or restaurant or something.

And this, folks, is a transit agency. Trying to dispense with a transit asset, and inan area ripe for transit oriented development.

pete May 22, 2013 - 4:42 am

It is usually illegal in the USA to reserve any real estate for provision for the future without full construction but not funding approvals ( http://elr.info/sites/default/......20022.htm ). MTA can’t mention using the trolley depot for anything except commercial space renting without atleast $50 million (wild ass guess) in consultant fees.

Bolwerk May 22, 2013 - 8:24 am

I don’t see anything in that long-ass case you posted suggesting a local agency preserving a piece of infrastructure for future use is illegal.

John-2 May 22, 2013 - 2:35 am

I think it’s more that they:

1.) Like the quirkiness of the idea;
2.) Never plan to live in north Brooklyn, which would potentially stand to benefit the most from revived trolley service (if they ever do travel to north Brooklyn, it would probably be for dinner at Peter Lugar’s), and;
3.) Want to be part of creating something unique, even if they’d only ever show up at the new park for the ribbon cutting ceremony and would avoid the place like the plague after that.

(Or, if they actually did show up at the park on a regular basis, would file some sort of complaint with the MTA that you can’t really enjoy the park because of all those J, M and Z trains screetching in and out of Essex Street. So the agency needs to shell out a few million more dollars for soundproofing the Low Line or even completely sealing it off from the Essex Street station.)

Justin Samuels May 22, 2013 - 6:39 am

Turning that space into the low line, though, would be a waste of space. The MTA should rent it out to anyone who wants to developed the space commercially. It can be an underground shopping mall.

I agree turning it into the Low Line would be a big waste, and I don’t see it happening, because the MTA can get other uses for it.

In terms of using it for transit space, I’m not sure that trolleys will ever come back to NYC. However, NYC hadn’t really had transit expansion in decades (save the 63rd street tunnel and the E and J to Jamaica Center) until Sept. 11th. That federal money coming in led to the 2nd Avenue subway, LIRR to Grand Central, Fulton Street Complex, new number one station, etc.

So never say never, and I agree, if the MTA were to allow this to be used for something else it had better be a deal with a fantastic price (commercial real estate lease). Otherwise, there’s no arm in letting it stay as it is. Empty tunnels under 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue eventually became a part of later projects (the F train eventually run on the upper level of the 63rd street tunnel, while the lower level is being used for the LIRR to Grand Central).

Bolwerk May 22, 2013 - 8:29 am

Trolleys probably shouldn’t come back to NYC, but spacious LRVs are desperately mixing from our surface transportation mix, and if they’re actually redeveloping that neighborhood, it’s the perfect transit provision.

Pat L May 22, 2013 - 2:02 am

I think the main problem is that there isn’t really any pressing need to use it for anything, so people are free to talk about any scheme that catches their fancy.

Seeing a giant unused space makes people feel like something should be done with it, but underground space, awkwardly divided by pillars, next to an active subway line isn’t actually very attractive for any particular purpose, particularly in an area that still has a fair amount of room for above ground development.

Cap’n’s mini-bus-terminal is at least an idea that makes sense, but it’s still mostly a solution in search of a problem.

Alon Levy May 22, 2013 - 3:54 am

The Wall Street Journal in particular seems to be in the pocket of the Low Line’s opponents, 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.

Do you mean the WSJ is in the pocket of proponents? Otherwise the sentence doesn’t make sense.

Also, an article can be empty and still list all of the potential transit uses of the project.

Kid Twist May 22, 2013 - 8:02 am

Gabrielle Hamilton should just go see Rent again. It’ll be a lot cheaper for all of us.

john T May 22, 2013 - 8:02 am

I disagree with the Captain that a bus terminal shoudl be here. Most commuters would want to continue downtown or midtown, not end here.

To me, it would be ideal as a museum – an annex to the tranit museum spcializing in trolley, bus, and surface transit. It would be an asset to area and related to the nearby Tenement Museum, with a shared history. It would be as great as the Transit Museum has been for downtown Bklyn, and the families & school groups that patronize it.

Look at the photo above – adding streetcars would be so natural! It’s a shame that our transit agency is not as focused on transit as it should be.

marv May 22, 2013 - 8:52 am

Over time there been ideas of bring light rail through one tube of the Lincoln Tunnel and then having part of it continue across 42nd Street and part terminate at and use the Port Authority Bus Terminal. If this was ever to happen, could this space replace the bus slots lost?

Chinatown serves as a bus terminal of sorts of many out of town buses. Could this space serve as a real terminal for them?

Could this space (with direct access to the bridge and then connections to highways leading to: the Bronx, Long Isand, LGA, and JFK) serve as as a postal/fed ex distribution facility?

For all the above recognize that with an enlarged Kosciuszko Bridge on the horizon, the BQE will hopefully return to being a viable conduit for the region.

The idea is to recognize the special assets of this space and try to put them to work. Malls and parks are nice but may not be the best use of this space.

Bolwerk May 22, 2013 - 9:27 am

I doubt the Essex space is suitable for anything other than rail. It’s certainly not a replacement for slots at PABT42, which is in a completely different part of town.

Mike May 22, 2013 - 12:22 pm

There does seem to be a “we were here first” mentality among proponents of converting decades-old transportation infrastructure into parks. It’s as if they think because they were the first group to put up a rendering, they’ve laid claim to it, no matter how bad an idea they have.

An underground park seems like a terrible idea. Underground concourses require a constant level of activity to be safe, and a park would have little draw apart from its own novelty. It would be far better used as an express bus terminal, or even as a larger site for the transit museum.

Also, what’s with all the surface parking between Grand and Delancey at the base of the bridge? That’s a ton of open space for any major city, but for lower Manhattan how has that gone undeveloped?

Pat L May 22, 2013 - 12:59 pm

Those parking lots were apparently subject to a lot of wrangling, but are now (thankfully) being redeveloped [NYT]. If there’s going to be any real demand for that underground space, it probably won’t materialize until after the surface development is finished.

My understanding is that the layout of trolley terminal (pillar locations and available turning radius) make it difficult if not impossible to use for full-sized buses without substantial modifications.

Josh May 22, 2013 - 5:09 pm

Gabrielle Hamilton is a fantastic chef who really has no business writing about urban development other than that she’s getting her (well-deserved) fifteen minutes lately. I think people need to keep that in mind when they’re evaluating what she wrote.

Nyland8 May 23, 2013 - 8:58 am

I confess that when I first read about the Delancy Underground project on Kickstarter, I supported it and threw them $50. It was only afterward that I a) visited the proposed site, and b) attended their mock-up on Essex Street. It was then that I realized it was not a good location for their proposal.

First – it is too small a plot to do what they want.

Second, the ceiling is too low, which would create an only marginally ventilated area – hot and humid in the summer, and probably cold and damp in the winter – unless expense HVAC systems are installed with their electrical and maintenance provided for, which would take up precious space and, curiously, would also lower the ceiling height even more.

Third, there are too many columns in the way to ever create the ambiance they seek.

Fourth, subway noise would have to be abated – i.e. more expense, less space and less natural ventilation than it already has. In short, and uninviting cavern.

That said, of all the ideas proffered here, I like the Transit Museum annex the best. One of the shortcomings of the existing museum is that in order for trolleys to be on display, they must first be raised on subway trucks to platform height – then truncated down from the top to fit into the space, losing their top vents, ceiling fans and catenary lines – and nothing is worse for a museum than having to alter the originality of what is on display. It defeats the purpose.

Buses could be placed in the new annex too, and moving the trolleys and street cars out of the existing museum makes more room for other subway exhibits. The two museums can cross-pollinate, sending patrons to their sister exhibits across the East River, expanding membership and cultivating devotees. I know that I’d visit.

MTA gets exposure and revenues … and on and on. It seems like a win-win idea. Now … who do we have to sell it to?


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