The Low Line: A Conversation with the Delancey Underground Team

Architectural rendering courtesy: RAAD Studio/James Ramsey.

Wherever we went this past weekend, it was the question on everyone’s lips: “Have you heard about “The Low Line?” No doubt about it. The neighborhood is buzzing about the audacious proposal, reported in this week’s issue of New York Magazine, to turn an abandoned trolley terminal under Delancey Street into a large subterranean park.

We first met James Ramsey and Daniel Barasch, the guys behind the proposal, last spring, as they were just beginning to reach out to the Lower East Side’s elected officials and community activists. Saturday morning, we sat down for an in-depth interview about the Delancey Underground (the project’s official name), which will be presented to Community Board 3’s land use committee Wednesday night.

For the past five years, Ramsey has owned RAAD Studio, an architectural and design firm on Chrystie Street.  He was formerly a satellite engineer for NASA.  Barasch, an East Village resident, is vice president of the non-profit organization Pop Tech, which “supports the positive social applications of science and technology.”  Barasch has also worked for Google, UNICEF and the City of New York as manager of strategic initiatives. His family has deep roots on the Lower East Side, having immigrated here in the 1920’s.

It should be noted that The Low Line is an extracurricular activity for Ramsey and Barasch; RAAD and Pop Tech are not involved in pitching the project.  There’s no doubt, however, that they both find professional as well as personal inspiration in some of the same places. As Barasch put it, he and Ramsey share a “passion for reclaiming abandoned spaces” and for “turning them into something new and creative and exciting.”

Ramsey said he first became aware of the old trolley station a couple of years ago, while working with the former head engineer of the MTA on an unrelated project. The engineer described some of the “crazy experiences” and abandoned spaces he discovered in the 1970’s, while helping to build the 2nd Avenue Subway.  This conversation piqued Ramsey’s interest. He and Barasch visited the MTA archives, uncovered original diagrams of the Williamsburg Bridge Railway Terminal and were awe-struck by its shear size.

Williamsburg Bridge Railway Terminal. Undated photo; sometime before 1935. Photo credit: Abandoned Stations.

The station went dormant in 1948, after the city discontinued streetcar service. As Joseph Brennan wrote on the Abandoned Stations blog, “The trolley terminal… was just left vacant, and only small portions converted to storerooms. It is still there with the dust of over fifty years almost smoothing over the tracks.”

One day last March, Ramsey and Barasch met an official of the MTA and a few other people on the Delancey Street subway platform, where they would begin something of an urban archeological journey.  They were led through a secret portal, down some steps, into a corridor and past a strange control room with a lot of blinking lights.  Finally, they were standing inside the cavernous terminal. “It was this massive, expansive space, and they turned on a couple of lights,” Ramsey explained. He described what they saw:

It had a pretty profound effect on all of us… it was only when we went down there that we were able to see its cool archeological qualities. This thing was built at the turn of the last century, so it’s still cobblestone. The cobblestones are covered in dirt, but they’re there. These old tracks, this barrel vaulted ceiling. It’s pretty spectacular in that respect.

Photo by Danny Fuchs.

Photo by Danny Fuchs.

Graphic, provided by James Ramsey, shows the abandoned station’s large scale.

Barasch added:

Because there’s no elevated platform in this portion of the space, the ceilings feel very high, so it does not feel claustophobic and dark, like a messy subway station. It has the effect of being much larger. There’s graffiti in multiple areas, which is a testament to the fact that humans have lived there at various points. There’s a little control tower space (see photo above). The mindset that we had, we were thinking this would be like a tree house.

A lot of people might have stopped there,  content to know their curiosity about an historical oddity had been satisfied. But not these two. Their subterranean tour immediately led to more concrete conversations about what might be possible. Specifically, Ramsey began to explore whether technology he was already developing —  to channel sunlight into dark spaces — could be used below Delancey:

We were thinking about this amazing space lurking underneath Delancey Street, totally in the darkness, dripping, just sitting there, not activated. 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…

Architectural rendering/RAAD Studios.

Ramsey pointed out that “channeling sunlight” is not a new concept; it was used in some ancient Egyptian tombs.  In its story yesterday, Inhabitat  referenced more recent efforts to perfect the technology. Ramsey has devised a system, incorporating remote skylights and fiber-optic cables, to filter out harmful ultraviolet and infrared light, while transmitting natural sunlight below ground.  While it is not being used anywhere right now, he has demonstrated the set-up on many occasions. Later this fall, The Low Line team plans a large scale public demo in one of the abandoned buildings at the Essex Street Market.

While they’ve done quite a bit of thinking about the possibilities, Ramsey and Barasch emphasize that much of the work they have done so far is meant to set up a community conversation. In the past few months, they’ve spoken with a lot of neighborhood “stakeholders,” attended community board meetings  — even participated in the visioning process for the revitalization of Luther Gulick Park. Barasch said Wednesday’s CB3 presentation and discussion is another step in the process:

A big focus for us this week is to officially bring this to the community and ask the community what would be most impactful. There are some initial ideas, having spoken with folks in the community. There may be some opportunities for local retailers to use the space in some kind of community-oriented way.

The idea of a park obviously has great appeal on the Lower East Side, where green space is in short supply. “This area right here, I feel like, is so bereft of this kind of thing, of this kind of interesting space, of public areas, parks in general.,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey and Barasch are, of course, very much aware they’re wading into potentially treacherous waters, since the underground real estate they’re eying is surrounded by the contentious 7-acre Seward Park redevelopment parcels. The 60,000 square foot abandoned trolley station has barely been mentioned in the community board’s SPURA deliberations.  Even though city officials and CB3’s leadership might be intrigued by the idea, they are wary of anything that might complicate already complex negotiations.

Barasch said, “I think it’s exciting to be part of a larger urban development process… the city and community are really focused on this area right now.” But he added, “I think our larger question is, ‘how can we be a part of the process’ and be helpful and not be distracting… We have no desire to disrupt the ongoing process.”

The team has attended a few recent SPURA meetings. Like a lot of participants, they were particularly struck by this historical image, shown during a power point presentation, depicting a lively street scene on Delancey, leading to the Williamsburg Bridge.  Barasch referenced the photo, in discussing the notion that the large space could have multiple uses:

It was a source of inspiration for us in thinking about what the Lower East Side was like before the Robert Moses era, and the really bustling streetscape above ground and this sort-of merchant and mercantile diverse community… Obviously you can’t bring back the past (but a 21st century version) is exciting to think about. We want to engage with the community on whether there’s a way (through the project) to help support the Essex Street Market…

There are of course a lot of hurdles ahead.  Presumably, the MTA, which controls the abandoned station, would have to agree to entertain bids from multiple applicants.  Ramsey and Barasch, who have created a non-profit (The Underground Development Foundation) to advocate for their idea, might be vying against other proposals.

Many people will have doubts about the technology Ramsey plans on using until they see it with their own eyes. There are also structural and engineering questions. A feasibility study has not yet been performed. And then there’s the money. The first two phases of the High Line, on the West Side, cost more than $150 million. Doing any kind of construction underground is astronomically expensive. It’s anyone’s guess how much The Low Line might cost.  Prominent money manager R. Boykin Curry IV is the third key member of the development team.  Barasch said:

I think we are well positioned to raise significant private capital for it, look at opportunities for grants or loans – we are not expecting the city to pay for anything substantial – but we have a couple of ideas of how we might start financing this in a creative way.

If the success of the High Line is any guide, the Low Line could be quite a tourist draw. Some people in the community will be nervous about this prospect, fearing that such an attraction would only quicken the pace of gentrification on the Lower East Side. Others will see it as a potential boon to small businesses, who are desperately fighting to attract more visitors – more foot traffic – to the neighborhood.

Over the weekend, CB3 Chair Dominic Pisciotta, said he’s optimistic about the idea, though cautious of the potential pitfalls. After speaking with Ramsey and Barasch earlier this year, he concluded the project could be “a great amenity for the neighborhood” if the technical and financial hurdles can be cleared.

Are Ramsey and Barasch prepared for the long and arduous road ahead?  Their answer was an emphatic yes. “I personally feel really inspired by helping to make the city a better place in some small way,” Barasch explained. Ramsey concluded by asking, “if not us, who? If not now when?”

The presentation before CB3’s land use committee takes place Wednesday night at University Settlement, located at 184 Eldridge Street, at 6:30 p.m.

  • Lgsnyc

    This is ridiculously awesome! Oh please let it happen!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jillfehrenbacher Jill Fehrenbacher

    Thanks for your continued reporting on this inspiring project, Ed!

  • lodown

    Thanks for Inhabitat’s links, Jill! You guys are the best.

  • diane davis

    I think this idea is sick, heartless and crazy!!!