LowLine Team Returns to CB3, Addresses Gentrification, Funding Questions

It has been well over a year since the team behind the LowLine, the proposed public green space beneath Delancey Street, went public.  In that time, they have held countless informational sessions and fundraisers, met one-on-one with many groups, staged a high profile demonstration project in the Essex Street Market and generated a huge amount of media coverage.  But in spite of these efforts, co-creators Dan Barasch and James Ramsey know there’s a long road ahead if they are to succeed in transforming an abandoned rail station.  City and state officials in a position to move the project from the “cool idea” to “real-life project” phase have yet to come on board.  Even within the Lower East Side community, where the LowLine has been met with a lot of enthusiasm, Barasch and Ramsey have some work to do. It’s in this spirit, that they’ll be appearing tonight before Community Board 3’s land use committee.

In the past several weeks, they have been circulating a “preliminary vision and planning study,” detailing how the underground facility might be used, how it would be financed and what the impact could potentially be on the surrounding area.  This evening they’ll share some of the study’s fine points with CB3, which voted last June to “officially support” the LowLine project.   It would be an overstatement to say opposition to the Delancey Underground concept is now emerging, but in a community board meeting late last year, there were signs of new skepticism from some land use committee members.  Since that meeting, various activists have hinted that they’re concerned about the potential of the LowLine to be an agent of gentrification. Recently, we sat down with Barasch to talk about that specific issue.

HR&A played a big role in the development of the High Line.

First, some background on the planning study.  It was conducted by two high-powered firms, HR&A Advisers (which was intimately involved in creating the High Line) and Arup, an engineering firm that works with the MTA among many other clients.  In the past, the LowLine has been described as an underground park, made viable through the use of sunlight channeling technology Ramsey has developed.  But the concept has now evolved, the report states, becoming a “new community oriented public space… with quality programming” featuring art, performances and other events.  A very preliminary schematic divides the 60,000 square foot station adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge into several distinct spaces.  There’s a promenade, a planted pathway running alongside the J/Z train track, that would feature some sort of transparent but soundproof wall.  A 5,000 square foot plaza (expandable to 20,000 square feet) for performances would be created by moving ten columns. On the narrower eastern side of the station, a “ramble” is envisioned, a more densely planted garden area.  Entrances to the LowLIne would be created on the south side of Delancey Street, offering commuters safe access to the subway station without having to navigate one of Manhattan’s busiest thoroughfares.

The Seward Park development sites surround the proposed LowLine project.

A December story in the Wall Street Journal seized on a section of the study looking at the potential impact of the LowLine on real estate values at the Seward Park Mixed-Use Development site (SPURA), which surrounds the proposed park/public events space.  HR&A estimates that the addition of a “unique amenity directly adjacent to SPURA” would add 3-5% to residential, retail and hotel rents, increasing the value of the development sites by $10-20 million.”  Once additional real estate taxes are factored in, the study suggests the project could “constitute a $15-30 million direct fiscal benefit to the City of New York.”

One glance at these figures would be enough to unnerve most any Lower East Side affordable housing advocate.   Then, of course, there are the inevitable comparisons to the High Line, which found itself in the middle of New York City’s gentrification debate this past summer.   In our conversation, Barasch acknowledged these concerns but argued that the LowLine should be evaluated on its own merits and in its proper context.

The High Line, he said, has not only become a major new attraction for locals and tourists alike but, “it has had a tremendous impact on the West Side.  It has certainly unlocked new kinds of economic opportunities.”  At the same time, Barasch added, it “has been criticized, rightly so, for not necessarily having the full participation of the local community.”   But while there are lessons to be learned from the High Line, drawing too many parallels to this new (a much smaller) public project would be dangerous, he said.  “The Lower East Side in 2013 could not be any different than the far West Side when the High Line was getting started.”  For one thing, the development plan for the Seward Park site, the result of a lengthy community-driven process,  is already in place.  Plus, it’s considered unlikely that the densely populated blocks surrounding SPURA would be subject to the kind of large-scale rezoning that occurred on the West Side. “I don’t think it could possibly become the High Line District,” he said.

A look at the darkened space alongside the J/Z tracks on Delancey Street.

This year, the LowLine team is focused on coaxing the MTA, which controls the site, to sign off on their vision.  HR&A studied the potential economic impact, Barasch said, because “our goal is to be taken seriously at senior levels of government.  We wanted to have at our disposal the kind of data that needs to be in hand anytime a large project of this kind is being evaluated.”   It’s a foregone conclusion that rents will rise on the Lower East Side as a direct result of the 1.65 million square foot Seward Park project.  Currently there are provisions for a small park on Broome Street as part of SPURA, but the central focus is housing and commercial development.  What if rents go up, Barasch asked, “but there is no public space as a part of an historic opportunity to transform this particular small corridor of the city. You miss an opportunity.”   The idea is to create a kind of modern-day “town square” below Delancey Street that could become a showcase for the LES arts community, a place where both new and longtime residents could come together. “It could become an iconic and exciting location for all sorts of activities,” Barasch argued.

The preliminary business plan estimates that it could cost between $44-72 million to build the LowLine.  A lot of that money will come from private donations and sponsors.  But “like other parks and cultural institutions, ” the report adds, “(the foundation set up in support of the project) will aggressively pursue public funding sources to fund project construction.”   The team hopes to access up to $14 million in tax credits as well as direct grants from city, state and federal sources.  The facility, which would cost between $2.4-4 million to run annually, is seen as a “self-sufficient” operation relying on “income from food and beverage concessions and event rentals, sponsorship for public programs (and) special promotions,” as well as private donations.

In recent conversations, community activists have told us they are worried that the LowLine could potentially drain public resources from other worthy projects.  Barasch acknowledged that there are many pressing needs related to a city “infrastructure that’s decayed” and that NYC parks are currently underfunded.  But in his opinion, there’s value in “taking the long view and of dreaming big.”   If city leaders had not looked toward the future so many generations ago, he argued, “Central Park might not be here today.”  How often, he asked, “do you have an opportunity to build a new public space in a city as dense as ours?”

He also pointed out that while $55 million (the amount the foundation aims to raise) is a lot of money, it’s not much compared, for example, to the $600 million the MTA says it’s going to take to replace the South Street subway station, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.  “We’re not asking for a big government handout,” he said.  “We’re out there talking to people who are personally inspired by this idea and want to personally spend money they could spend on other charity projects… I’m confident there are more than enough resources in this amazing city of ours and more than enough individuals and institutions that care passionately about the city and have a larger, long-term vision that this kind of money is findable.”

“This is the year for us to get more feedback from the community in more tangible ways,” Barasch said.   In the past year, many organizations and individuals as well as most local elected officials have endorsed the project. The outreach campaign will be continuing. “Our hope is that when we reach out to community groups that they will want to talk with us and that they want to think about a public space as something that we could collaboratively build together.”

Tonight’s LowLine presentation takes place at 6:30 p.m. at Seward Park Extension, 56 Essex Street.