The Low Line Gets Real at Essex Street Market

Editor’s note: the following story was originally published in the September edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine:

For close to 20 years, the Essex Street Market building at the southeast corner of Essex and Delancey streets has been little more than a relic of the Lower East Side’s pushcart past. If the city has its way, the mostly vacant 1940 structure will face a bulldozer in the next few years, as the Seward Park area redevelopment project moves forward. This month, however, the building will come alive again, as the founders of the “Low Line,” the much-buzzed-about proposal to create a park below Delancey Street, stage a large exhibition in the rarely used space.

The big event, “Imagining the Low Line,” is a huge step for creators James Ramsey and Dan Barasch, who officially unveiled their bold idea one year ago. In the past several months, Ramsey and Barasch have gained the support of local elected officials, community organizations and potential financial backers. The exhibition and a series of events surrounding it are intended to answer several critical questions, including how much the project is likely to cost and whether it’s technologically feasible.

“It’s amazing to think of the support we have attracted in the past year,” Barasch said in a recent interview. “Now we need to show there’s a business model and a plan. That will start to come into focus in September.”

The centerpiece of the installation will be a miniature model of the park, complete with grass and trees and even some edible treats. A major priority is demonstrating that technology Ramsey has developed to channel sunlight to remote locations can work on a large scale. The system, which uses solar collection dishes and fiber optic cables, is the key to transforming the dank subterranean space into a natural wonderland.

Dan Barasch and James Ramsey. Image via Kickstarter.

Ramsey and Barasch spoke with The Lo-Down last year, in their first in-depth interview about the Low Line, also called the “Delancey Underground.” At the time, they described their unlikely rediscovery of an abandoned trolley station, alongside the Essex Street subway terminal, which had been dormant since 1948. During an eye-opening tour of the 60,000-square-foot space in the spring of 2011, they were awestruck by the station’s “cool architectural qualities.”

“This thing was built at the turn of the last century, so it’s still cobblestone,” Ramsey, an architect and former NASA engineer, explained in our initial interview. “The cobblestones are covered in dirt, but they’re there. These old tracks, this barrel-vaulted ceiling. It’s pretty spectacular.”  Even as melting snow dripped from the ceiling, they could not help envisioning the possibilities. What if the historic terminal could be reactivated and reclaimed as a dynamic public gathering place? they wondered.

From the beginning, the High Line has been a major source of inspiration for the Low Line. The old West Side railway turned spectacular urban open space has, of course, become a blockbuster tourist attraction and a powerful (some say too powerful) economic development engine. Ramsey and Barasch have argued that, just like the High Line, their project would be a boon to commerce and culture on the Lower East Side.

They’ve also suggested that the Low Line, similar to its uptown predecessor, could help reshape the way people think about neglected public spaces worldwide. In New York, this country’s most crowded city, the notion of maximizing limited space is nothing new. In the future, some of the best opportunities might very well be underground, where at least 13 acres of subway tunnels lay inactive. The concept will be demonstrated in a very visual way at this month’s exhibition. The Low Line’s first corporate sponsor, Audi, has constructed a 45-foot model of Manhattan, showing the island’s “underbelly.” Visitors will be able to see the subterranean potential in the deep, dark recesses of the city.

Photos taken in the abandoned trolley terminal, May 2012.

Bringing the Low Line to fruition will, of course, not be easy in New York, where the most straightforward development projects can become mired in bureaucratic red tape. For this reason, the Low Line team last year mounted a sustained public relations offensive, talking up their big idea to anyone who would listen. Barasch and Ramsey made their pitch in just about every setting imaginable — street fairs, high school gymnasiums, the Bowery Hotel and neighborhood pubs. They completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $155,000 from 3,000 backers. Members of the Lower East Side’s political establishment have lined up behind the idea, including: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, City Councilmember Margaret Chin, Community Board 3 and the LES Business Improvement District.  Ramsey and Barasch are going to need all the help they can get.

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz told The Lo-Down, “We want to make the Essex Street Trolley Terminal available for creative development soon. With 60,000 square feet of space, it’s a great opportunity for a revenue-generating project that our real estate department would help to coordinate.”

The transit authority is, of course, under great financial strain, and MTA officials have made no secret of their desire to sell or lease the terminal for top dollar. In a video posted on YouTube last November, MTA real estate specialist Peter Hine was seen strolling through the trolley tunnel, boasting about the endless possibilities, including “recreational facilities… needless to say a restaurant or nightclub… retail. The sky’s the limit!”

Rendering by James Ramsey.

One reason the Low Line founders have spent so much time and effort cultivating support on the Lower East Side is that they may very well need to call on both community activists and local elected officials to fight for a public park below Delancey over other more lucrative offers that may come the MTA’s way. Ortiz declined to indicate exactly when a “request for proposals” would be published; late fall or early 2013 has been hinted. Asked whether the agency intended to consult the community board or elected officials when the time comes to weigh competing proposals, he did not respond. David McWater, co-chairman of CB3’s land use committee, is a big proponent of the Low Line. In a recent interview, he said “it would be an outrage if they (the MTA) didn’t consult the community.” Noting that the unused space was “not on anyone’s radar two years ago,” he added, “these guys deserve a lot of credit for coming up with a really creative idea.”

Over a cool drink at a cafe on Rivington Street last month, Barasch discussed the road ahead and how he and Ramsey intend to overcome the significant financial and political obstacles that lay ahead. Even though the centerpiece of the Delancey Underground will be a park, there will almost certainly be some money-making elements, such as retail establishments and food concessions. But Barasch suggested it would be shortsighted to look only at the revenue-producing potential of the Low Line itself. Just as the High Line has attracted literally billions of dollars in real estate development in surrounding neighborhoods, Barasch suggested, the Low Line would have a similar effect on the Lower East Side. While the city has resisted temptations to link the Delancey Underground to the adjacent and massive Seward Park redevelopment project, which will likely win final approval later this fall, it’s easy to see how the two initiatives could complement one another.

“There’s going to be limited public space in the Seward Park project,” Barasch said. “We want to show that the Low Line would be of immediate value for both local residents and the city as a whole.”

Another major goal this fall will be to answer lingering questions about building a park underground. Improvements to public spaces in New York don’t come cheap. The endless reconstruction of the East River Park Promenade cost $85 million. The Parks Department put a $6 million price tag on refurbishing Luther Gulick Park, a small parcel alongside the Williamsburg Bridge at Willett Street. The first two phases on the High Line cost $150 million. As part of this month’s Essex Market event, the Low Line will be releasing a feasibility study, including preliminary cost estimates. The price tag is expected to be $35-$50 million.

There’s also the question of who would pick up the bill. All along, Ramsey and Barasch have maintained that the project will be privately financed. The team demonstrated its fundraising prowess in the Kickstarter campaign, but there’s obviously a big difference between raising $150,000 and $50 million. The High Line raked in huge sums of money, in large measure due to benefactors such as Diane von Furstenberg. While there may not be donors with those kinds of deep pockets on the Lower East Side, Barasch is confident the innovative concept, once approved, will generate a lot of interest well beyond the immediate community. “There’s no Diane von Furstenberg but there are a lot of people in the LES diaspora who have powerful ties to this neighborhood and will want to be part of this project,” Barasch said.

Solar prototype installation inside Essex Street Market. Photo by Lizzy Zevallos via Low Line Facebook page.

Then there’s the matter of what exactly will actually be built inside the space. There’s no doubt Ramsey’s “sunlight irrigation” system is a key to transforming the space into a green oasis. But he has said the Low Line would not simply be an “underground space with trees in it.”  The idea behind the design would be to create a bridge between the past and the present — and to meld space-age technology with historic preservation. Ramsey has every intention of retaining distinctive architectural qualities of the old trolley terminal, including the train tracks, cobblestones and the high vaulted ceilings. Earlier this summer, Ramsey told the website Arch Daily, “it is this big cavernous, breathing space and (and we want to) make that something that you can interact with to experience a little bit of that awe and sense of wonder as you discover it.”

The upcoming exhibition will give people a first glimpse of what New York’s first underground park might look like. It seems fitting that this project, steeped in both the past and the future, will be staged in a building that is so much a part of the Lower East Side’s immigrant traditions. There’s more than a little irony that the old market site, destined to become a gleaming new market complex, will see one last burst of creative energy before fading into history.

Click here for details about the installation, which opens September 15.