Home Abandoned Stations LowLine moving forward despite huge funding gap

LowLine moving forward despite huge funding gap

by Benjamin Kabak

While I’ve burned a lot of pixels on the QueensWay recently, the city’s other rails-to-park project is slowly inching forward. The LowLine, an ambitious plan to bring natural light underground in order to turn the Essex St. Trolley Terminal into a park, has garnered a lot of attention as a creative idea. Not surprisingly, I’ve been very skeptical about a plan that involves during unused transit infrastructure into a green space, but the organizers have assured me that there is no real transit use for it in 2013.

Lately, in between fundraisers and Kickstarters, the LowLine has developed a following of politicos. Last month, Manhattan representatives urged the EDC and MTA to work out a transfer of the space. The letter claimed that the Delancey Underground park “could generate at least $15-$30 million in economic benefit to the city by way of increased sales, hotel and real estate taxes and incremental land value,” and a Who’s Who of New York politicians, including our two senators, members of Congress, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator Dan Squadron and Council Members Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin, all appended their names to the effort.

And yet, the money needed is very problematic. While the founders have been able to fundraise minimal amounts to put together prototypes and other exhibits, Kim Velsey in The Observer highlighted the considerable obstacles that remain. Construction could cost anywhere from $42-$70 million, and annual maintenance would run around $2.4-$4 million. Even the most popular parks in New York can’t cover their expenses from concession revenues.

The park proposal has had more staying power than I ever imagined it would, but I still grow uneasy about turning over transit infrastructure to anything other than transit. It’s exceedingly difficult to find money and the will to build new transit spaces in New York City. Reserving pre-existing ones for future uses should be a priority. The LowLine is a creatively futuristic idea, but can it ever be anything more than that?

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Marc Shepherd August 16, 2013 - 2:08 pm

I share your opposition to QueensWay, but there really is no plausible transit use for the former Essex Street trolley terminal. There’s already a subway line going across the bridge, and the trolley tracks don’t go anywhere. It’s a transit dead-end.

Bolwerk August 16, 2013 - 8:17 pm

I agree it’s not very useable right now, but why throw it away? At worst, they can make some money off it instead of throwing it away. It would be nice to keep it for a future generation that might care about light rail or streetcars.

And the underground park idea actually is dumb. There are plenty of sensible uses – supermarket, bar, wine cellar, club, any other retail, even casino. Put the park upstairs in that park-starved hellhole.

Frank August 16, 2013 - 3:49 pm

Before public money goes to this, has it ever been tried anywhere before? The high line followed a tried-and-true formula of rails-to-trails which has been successful all over the world in both urban and rural settings. This “low line”, frankly, is a completely different animal–it’s not even a “line” because it consists of one station. I find it dubious that people would want to hang out in a subway station instead of a real park, never mind the technological elements. It seems to be it would need to be commercialized to the hilt to attract people and get the climate control and maintenance you’d need down there to make it comfortable.

Phil August 16, 2013 - 4:12 pm

Would the MTA be able to use this space for anything at all?

Epson45 August 16, 2013 - 4:56 pm

They use the space for MTA HQ

VLM August 16, 2013 - 5:00 pm

They don’t use the space for much right now. Some storage, but largely it’s empty.

TH August 16, 2013 - 4:48 pm

I question this project for many reasons, but the number one reason is that the city/MTA/whomever should not be giving up public space for what is basically a private art project. Yes, the space will ‘open to the public’ but much like the High Line, this is not truly public space. Its not even truly functional as a park. You can’t walk through it on your way to work, you can’t go there to play a basketball game or lay in the sun, or eat your lunch. Its a destination that is only about the technology of growing the plants underground, essentially a private art gallery occupying public space.

While there may not be a transit use for it in 2013, that doesn’t preclude that there will never be a use for it. Suppose plans change for future phases of the SAS, it could be used as means of connecting the long-talked about East Village ‘cup-handle’ to the Nassau St. line, or suppose that a new East River tunnel is eventually built from the SAS at Hanover Sq. to connect to the Fulton St. line at Court St., the space could maybe then be used to relocate the displaced Transit Museum.

I also hate that this project addresses only a lame desire to fill up some vacant space. Its short-sighted to develop a project without addressing the long-term impacts of the local population. They suggest that the project:

“could generate at least $15-$30 million in economic benefit to the city by way of increased sales, hotel and real estate taxes and incremental land value.”

None of which, except for the taxes and land value, which of course drive up rents, would have any impact on the immediate area. It would be far wiser to take an inclusive approach to development and discover what the people truly need. I can almost guarantee that no one in the LES wants an underground gallery full of tourists that causes their rent to raise. There is also a large parking lot directly above the station. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to turn that into a park? Perhaps the parking can move underground? If these want to showcase their plant-growing technology, maybe they could pitch it to MoMA?

aestrivex August 16, 2013 - 11:08 pm

In the absence of a clear use of the area, I see no real reason to object to the construction of a park. Even if it is a weird park that is likely not to be very widely utilized.

Nyland8 August 17, 2013 - 9:40 am

If it’s “likely not to be very widely utilized”, then what on earth makes it worth the annual operating costs? Let alone the development costs!

Alex C August 17, 2013 - 12:44 am

I like parks and projects and such, but come on. This is going to be an underground public space with protection from the elements, also known as a bum’s paradise. This place will be full of homeless men a week after opening.

Bolwerk August 17, 2013 - 9:18 am

Using it as a homeless shelter seems like a more socially positive use than as a park.

Nyland8 August 17, 2013 - 10:42 am

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I was intrigued by the original Kickstarter promotion and, without having explored the space, donated to the prototyping project that was built a few blocks away, where some of the technology of piping natural light, and cultivating underground green-space, was showcased.

Then I went on to examine the trolley terminal myself, and I attended the prototyping showcase in the warehouse, and I could come to only one conclusion. The LowLine, as it is envisioned, is a waste of time, a waste of money, and a waste of space.

It is small, it is low ceilinged, it has no natural airflow, it is a forest of columns, and it is a noisy echo and vibration chamber that will never yield the bucolic environment its proponents imagine – at least not without expenses greatly disproportionate to its worth as a green space.

My first impression, having seen the space, is that it is long enough to become a small subterranean train yard. In scale, it is reminiscent of the underground IRT yard between the 137th and 145th St. stations in West Harlem. Its elevation is high enough to keep train sets safe from Sandy-esque storms, and perhaps it might be considered for such service, although I admit I haven’t bothered to check the elevations of any other yards that service the J & M Lines. They may never need it.

The best alternative idea was a suggestion I read on this blog from someone who advocated a transit museum extension – this one for trolleys, streetcars, cable cars, etc. One of the limitations of the transit museum at Schermerhorn is that trolleys first have to be propped up on subway trucks to be at platform height – and then have to be truncated on top to fit in the tunnel. So you wind up with something that is sandwiched into total inauthenticity – which is an anathema for a museum. There is no room for ceiling fans, let alone catenary extensions, and they can’t really portray the scale and proportions to the public that entering streetcars at sidewalk elevation would do.

This defunct trolley terminal would make a great trolley museum, and a terrific satellite to the transit museum in Brooklyn. The location is accessible, the rumbling ambience of the nearby J & M Lines is appropriate, and returning this space to revisit its original use could be as profitable as it would be poetic.

Matthias August 19, 2013 - 9:59 am

I love that idea!


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