(Exclusive) Here’s Your First Look at the Lowline Underground Park Proposal

Lowline rendering; courtesy of Raad Studio/James Ramsey.

Lowline rendering; courtesy of Raad Studio/James Ramsey.

The New York City Economic Development Corp. (EDC) this past summer conditionally approved a plan to turn an abandoned trolley station below Delancey Street into the world’s first underground park. Now, for the first time, we’re getting a look at the winning proposal to create the Lowline on the Lower East Side.

The Lowline team has provided us with a copy of the 154 page document, which we’re publishing in its entirety today (see below). It will be one of the topics covered at the next meeting of the organization’s Community Engagement Committee this coming Thursday from 6-8 p.m. (140 Essex St., all are invited).

The city put out a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) late last year for the former trolley station site. The Lowline was the only application received. EDC officials announced their decision July 13 at a meeting of Community Board 3. They said anyone who wanted to see the proposal would be required to submit of Freedom of Information Law request. But, we’re told, the Lowline organization wanted to make the proposal available to the community, and released it in consultation with the EDC.

If you’ve been following the project during the past five years, parts of the proposal will feel familiar. But there’s also a lot of new information about the design, cost, potential impact on the community and timeline for construction. We’ve provided a synopsis below, along with some additional context from Dan Barasch, the Lowline’s co-founder and executive director.

Barasch told us, “the proposal simply lays out a potential scenario for what the Lowline could become, but that the community visioning process will help inform the actual schematic design.” During the next year, he said, there will be large “town hall” style meetings as well as “smaller workshops on specific design ideas and that participants “will have a direct impact on programming, design, potential uses, and operational issues.”

There’s plenty here for project supporters to love, but also details that detractors of the underground park are sure to seize upon. In the past year, opponents have expressed worries about potential impacts in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and have come out against public funding for the Lowline. As you’ll see, the organization is seeking $22 million in city funding, while it plans to raise $35 million from the private sector. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the reaction to this proposal in the days ahead and be following up with concerns and questions that arise.

 

The Lowline Concept Explained

According to the proposal, “the Lowline is an exciting new initiative that aims to use cutting edge solar technology to transform the abandoned former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal into the world’s first underground park — a spectacular, one-acre underground public space.” It’s meant to provide the Lower East Side with “desperately needed green space,” to establish a new neighborhood hub and to set an “international model for the adaptive reuse and cultivation of abandoned underground spaces.”  The Lowline team calls it, “a historic preservation project fused with a futuristic underground garden” and “a new venue for culture and arts… offering programming to support local youth, artists and community organizations.” The facility, organizers say, will be, “free and open to the public five days a week, including weekends (from 6 a.m.-9 p.m. year-around),” and would (only) be closed for a minimal number of revenue-generating events.”

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Design

The 60,000 square foot space spans from the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge to Norfolk Street. The more spacious western end, is “bounded by steel, rivets, vaults and the original cobblestones of the trolley terminal,” which was shut down in 1948. Once the Lowline is finished in 2021, visitors will “descend a grand staircase near Norfolk Street” and be ushered into an open plaza, where performances and other public events are envisioned. “Tucked away from the plaza,” will be a 500 square foot gift shop. The eastern end will feature a ramble, “offer(ing) the unique experience of exploring dense and verdant underground gardens via winding pathways, marked by the old cobblestones and trolley tracks evoking this space’s original purpose.” There will be a variety of “casual seating options,” as well as a 1600 square feet cafe/bar. A third area at the far end of the ramble will be a flexible programming area.

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An early rendering shows the Lowline’s main entrance on Norfolk Street.

The heart of the Lowline will, of course, be underground, but it will also extend to the street-level plaza on the south side of Delancey Street. The team envisions entrances on both Norfolk and Clinton streets. Also planned: “clusters of solar concentrators… arrayed along the (street) in the median as well as the northern edge of the plaza.” The Lowline borders sites 4 and 5 of Essex Crossing, the large residential and retail complex now under construction. Solar collectors will be placed on the roof of the site 4 building, which will then reflect the light to street level and channel it underground. The Delancey Street solar concentrators could, the applicants say, “act as ‘street furniture’, possibly embracing multiple functions ranging from a weather canopy, to phone charging stations or WiFi kiosks, to bike storage.” They would  be “deployed rhythmically” to “create a processional quality along the approach to the bridge.”

 

Budget/Funding Sources

It is expected to cost $83 million to build the underground park, although the proposal states that this estimate could rise or fall depending on a number of variables. The trolley terminal has been mostly untouched for nearly 70 years. It will be a monumental job transforming a very old transportation hub into a futuristic underground park. The area will need to be sound proofed from the adjacent J/M/Z subway station. Historical elements will be fully restored. Electricity and plumbing will be brought into the space. The cost estimate also includes development of the sunlight channeling system.

The Lowline plans over the next three years to raise $35 million from private sources, including major donors, corporate sponsors, foundations and individuals. The organization will seek $30 million in funding from public sources, including $22 million from the City of New York (the city has not committed any funds to the Lowline as of yet, with the exception of some modest grants for the existing Lowline Lab). The Lowline hopes to secure $5 million from the State of New York and $3 million from federal agencies “dedicated to historic preservation and innovation in science and technology education.” The organization is also seeking $18 million in New Market Tax Credit and Historic Tax Credits.

What about the operations budget? “Upon opening,” the proposal states, “the Lowline will be administered as a self-sufficient not-for-profit organization, and will not be reliant upon City funding for its core operations.” About 85% of its operating budget will come from private “contributions, gifts and grants.” The rest will be drawn from “earned revenue, with sponsored events accounting for the largest source of this revenue.”  According to the proposal, “the Lowline is committed to becoming a year-round free public space,” but that “it reserves the right to utilize the site for an extremely limited number of sponsored events… in order to generate a stabilized annual income exceeding $250,000 per year.” The organization also plans to support its operations from concession and the gift shop sales.

Rendering: Essex Crossing. ShoP Architects.

Rendering: Essex Crossing. ShoP Architects.

Partnership with Essex Crossing

The developers of the Essex Crossing mixed-use project long ago expressed their strong support for the Lowline. The underground park will be located adjacent to the Market Line, a 150,000 square foot retail facility being built as part of Essex Crossing. Delancey Street Associates, the development consortium, is a corporate sponsor of the Lowline. The proposal shows that the developers and the Lowline organization intend to maintain a close relationship going forward. The application included a letter from Delancey Street Associates in which the consortium, “pledges to work with the Lowline… so long as its mission of creating the world’s first underground park as a publicly accessible community asset is maintained.” The letter also stated that the two organizations would remain separate entities and that Essex Crossing would receive no “preferential or exclusive use rights.” The two groups intend to coordinate their construction efforts, an arrangement that the Lowline considers critical to keeping costs from spiraling.

 

Visitorship/Local Benefits

The Lowline team estimates that around one-million people will likely visit the facility each year, which would make it, “the leading free-of-charge downtown attraction focused on science, technology, and public design.” [As a point of comparison, approximately 500,000 people visit the New Museum annually.] The prognostication is based on attendance at the Lowline Lab, a weekend-only exhibition that opened in a former building of the Essex Street Market last October. According to a survey of Lowline Lab visitors, about one-third live or work on the Lower East Side, while two-thirds live elsewhere in the city or are tourists visiting New York. The proposal touts the Lowline’s positive impact on small businesses, which struggle in a neighborhood with little daytime foot traffic. It’s estimated that the facility would generate $14 million for local businesses annually. There are expected to be 25 full-time employees at the Lowline (the organization is pledging to hire locally).

The Lowline Lab in the Essex Street Market. Photo courtesy of The Lowline.

The Lowline Lab in the Essex Street Market. Photo courtesy of The Lowline.

Community Engagement

The proposal highlighted the Lowline’s, “extraordinary degree of local support” for the project. “From community leaders at settlement houses to local business owners, from school principals to green space activists, and from artists to parents,” the applicants wrote, “the Lowline has captured the imagination of so many members of our neighborhood.” It detailed outreach efforts that have taken place over the years, including exhibitions, surveys and the Young Designers Program, a partnership with local settlement houses to engage your people about the subterranean park plan. There were letters of support from Community Board 3, the Tenement Museum, Henry Street Settlement, Grand Street Settlement, the Hillman Co-op, the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, the LES Partnership, the Chinatown Partnership, the Seward Park Co-op, Educational Alliance, New Design HS and Russ & Daughters.

The proposal also referenced a neighborhood studycommissioned through a grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund and conducted by Hester Street Collaborative. It was intended to,”deliver strategic recommendations to ensure that the Lowline could best represent community values and interests.” The study included interviews with “a targeted group of local stakeholders to discuss community priorities and concerns and collect their ideas for programming and development of the site.” Some of those questioned represent groups (such as Good Old Lower East Side, CAAAV and Two Bridges Neighborhood Council), which are adamantly opposed to the Lowline. [You can read the full report at the end of this story.]  Among many other points, participants said they wanted to see, “a formal contract that provides and holds the project (accountable for providing) real community benefit in perpetuity.”

 

Next Steps

While the community engagement process is ongoing, the Lowline team will be preparing a rezoning of the underground space. It will need to  be formally transferred from the MTA to the City of New York. The Lowline would then sign a long-term lease (the organization suggested paying the city a $1 annual fee). The zoning is necessary, according to the proposal, “to allow the retail, restaurant, event, and other commercial uses intended for the project.” The site will undergo public review as part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

As indicated at the beginning of this story, the Lowline’s Community Engagement Committee meets Thursday from 6-8 p.m. at the Lowline Lab, 140 Essex Street. The public is invited to attend.

 

 

Lowline “Young Ambassador” Applications Due Sept. 16

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During the summer, the Lowline opened applications for its Young Ambassadors Program. It’s a paid 6-month mentorship and job training program for 16 local high school juniors. Here’s a reminder that the deadline for those applications is coming up this week. They’re being accepted through Sept. 16. A synopsis of the program:

Young Ambassadors will gain experience in teaching and communicating science, serving as docents and leading interactive educational sessions focused on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) at the Lowline Lab. Young Ambassadors will benefit from career workshops and networking opportunities with the Lowline’s core team and city-wide collaborators—gaining exposure and experiential learning opportunities in STEAM career pathways. In addition, each Young Ambassador will receive a $1,000 scholarship for their participation in the program.

You can learn more here and also access the online application. The Lowline is, of course, a project to build the world’s first underground park in the old Delancey Street trolley station. The city recently gave the Lowline team permission to move forward with the plan.

Followup: City Approves Lowline Proposal For Former Trolley Terminal

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Lowline rendering; courtesy of Raad Studio/James Ramsey.

Almost five years after they went public with a headline-grabbing plan to create the world’s first underground park in an abandoned trolley station on the Lower East Side, founders of the Lowline have cleared a major hurdle. As we first reported Wednesday night, city officials have given their conditional approval for the ambitious project.

Representatives of the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) announced the decision at a meeting of Community Board 3. The Lowline responded to a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) put out by the city late last year for the old Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal. No other applications were received. In the next year, the Lowline is required to raise $10 million, submit schematic plans for the 60,000 square foot space and,  as a press release put it, “implement a robust community engagement plan.”

In an interview, Lowline Executive Director Dan Barasch said, “It was an extraordinary day for us. It feels wonderful that the city is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. We’ve enjoyed extraordinary support across the community. Now we have a real vote of confidence from the city.”

Alica Glen, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, said in a statement, “The Lowline represents an incredible fusion of technology and public space. For eighty years, this underground space has sat idle. Now we’re putting it to use for the people of the Lower East Side and for all New Yorkers to enjoy. We can’t wait to see this experiment unfold.”

Charlie Gans, an executive vice president, took the lead for the EDC at the community board, describing the Lowline as an innovative public gathering and cultural space. “We have decided to conditionally designate the Lowline,” said Gans. Over the next year, he explained, there will be quarterly meetings of a new Community Engagement Committee and 5-10 public design charrettes. The historic trolley space, inactive since 1948, is owned by the City of New York and leased to the MTA. If the Lowline organization meets the agreed upon commitments, Gans said, “the acquisition process” will begin next fall.  Shovels could be in the ground by late 2018.

Photo: Courtesy The Lowline

Photo: Courtesy The Lowline

Back in November, members of CB3 complained to the Economic Development Corp. about the lack of local consultation before the city officially issued the RFEI. As a result, officials extended the deadline for applications by a month. At the time, they said the community board would not have a role in the selection process, but that there would be many opportunities for feedback from local residents. On Wednesday evening, Gans called the city’s decision just “the first step in a long process” and said, “We’re going to be making sure that the Lowline is engaging with the community in a real way. That’s why this designation is conditional.”

For some community board members, these assurances fell far short of their expectations. Damaris Reyes, executive director of the housing advocacy organization, GOLES, is an outspoken critic of both the city’s handling of the former trolley space as well as of the Lowline proposal itself. Referring to last winter’s discussions between CB3 and the Economic Development Corp., she said Wednesday evening, “I feel so dissatisfied and so disappointed that you did not respect this community board enough to come to us the right way.”

Realistically, she argued, no developer could have pulled together a compelling proposal in the short amount of time between the publication of the RFEI and the submission deadline. “The Lowline,” she said, “has had an unfair advantage of working on this and putting together all the details, the renderings, for several years now.” Reyes added, “I just want to say that I’m really disappointed in the way that EDC is now coming here to tell us there was one applicant, that they’re designating the Lowline as the applicant, not recognizing that perhaps you need to go back to the drawing board and rethink this, because there could be a million and one uses for that space, and that you disregarded what we said, the challenges that we are facing in our community.”

In 2012, Community Board 3 voted 44-0 in support of the Lowline project. Many board members continue to be enthusiastic backers of the underground park vision. Others have their doubts, including MyPhuong Chung, chairperson of the land use committee. While acknowledging the city’s efforts to give applicants an additional month to submit proposals, Chung told city officials, “we didn’t have any input in the decisions that were made,” and noted that gentrification has only become a bigger issue on the Lower East Side since the board endorsed the Lowline four-years ago. Referring to pressures on the community, she said, “these are real issues and, moving forward, we need to address them. Please know that we’re serious about this.”

Other land use committee members questioned whether the Lowline would be a drain on public funds that could be used for other purposes, whether the space would be frequently closed to the public for private events and whether, as public member Harriet Cohen put it, would be overtaken by “hot dog stands and concerts.”

The Lowline Lab in the Essex Street Market. Photo courtesy of The Lowline.

The Lowline Lab in the Essex Street Market. Photo courtesy of The Lowline.

Committee member Dominic Berg was board chairperson when the Lowline went public in 2011. He was supportive of the project then, and continues to believe in it to this day. He suggested that other developers interested in the space could have started to work on ideas years ago. “This is a project that has been very, very well publicized for a long time,” said Berg. “The Lowline has been methodically working with the community… reaching out to all of the community leaders, trying to make sure that they are listening to the community and clearly trying to do what’s right for the community.” 

Another longtime supporter, Councilmember Maragret Chin, urged people concerned about the project to become involved. She sponsored the first meeting of the Community Engagement Committee last month, along with Daisy Paez, tenant president of the Grand Street Guild apartments. She called the Lowline’s use of sunlight channeling technology for the park and the organization’s youth programming “amazing.” Chin told board members, “We can all have input… It’s really what we make of it. So I really encourage all of you to work with us and to work with EDC.”

Lowline co-founders James Ramsey and Dan Barasch. File photo.

Lowline co-founders James Ramsey and Dan Barasch. File photo.

When it was finally his turn to talk, the Lowline’s Dan Barasch said, “Our approach has always been, very consistently, that we simply want to take the space and turn it into a beautiful public gathering space that is used for the entire community, designed in close partnership with the community.”  He encouraged anyone who’s interested to take part in the next community engagement meeting (it’s happening July 25.) Barasch said the committee, “will talk about real things — hours of operation, whether or not there’s retail, whether or not there’s programming happening in the space.” None of these things, he said, are “etched in stone.”

EDC officials have said they felt some urgency to develop the underground space now in order to capitalize on Essex Crossing, the large-scale residential and retail project now under construction in the immediate area. The developers are bullish on the Lowline, which they believe will draw locals and tourists alike to Essex Crossing’s shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. During this week’s meeting, Tim Laughlin of the Lower East Side Partnership said he’s convinced the subterranean park will also provide a boost to the neighborhood’s existing independent businesses. “I have long thought that the Lowline, as a project, would be a driver for small merchants,” said Laughlin. He cited the Lowline Lab, a prototype that opened in the Essex Street Market last October. The weekend-only community space has attracted 70,000 visitors. A food festival held in February drew a large crowd and led to big sales increases for Essex market vendors, Laughlin said.

There were, however, differences of opinion about the Lowline’s potential positive impact on local businesses. Cathy Dang, executive director of the advocacy organization, CAAAV, said she watched a longtime diner on Hester Street struggle after the opening of an art gallery. While the owner was, at first, optimistic about the arrival of a new clientele, he now believes the changes in the area have actually cost him business. Dang said she’s concerned the Lowline will have a similar impact. Laughlin countered that Essex Crossing and the Lowline together will, “drive foot traffic” and “support cultural institutions, support small businesses — both ones that have been here for multiple generations and ones that are new.”

At one point Wednesday night, Damaris Reyes asked Barasch whether his organization had released a community impact study conducted by the Hester Street Collaborative for the Lowline in 2015. The exchange offered a glimpse of the contentious history between certain community activists and the Lowline team over the last few years. During the meeting, Barasch acknowledged that the study had not been published. Reyes contended that opinions of Lowline detractors, such as herself, were initially discounted during the research phase of the project. Barasch said this assertion is untrue.

[This past March, The Lo-Down interviewed Barasch, Reyes, Hester Street Collaborative’s executive director and others about the research study. The initiative, paid for by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, was envisioned as a collaboration with GOLES, CAAAV and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. These groups initially agreed to participate in surveying their constituencies. Leaders of all three organizations told us they ultimately decided against taking part due to insufficient funding for robust outreach efforts. Members of the groups did participate in interviews conducted as part of Hester Street Collaborative’s survey. We’ll have more about this community engagement exercise in a future story.]

In the next several months, members of Community Board 3 will be seeking assurances from the Lowline team and from the city that the underground space will, in fact, operate for the benefit of the local community. City officials acknowledged that the former trolley space will eventually go through the city’s land use approval process (ULURP).  Hearings before the community board and City Planning Commission will be required, the Borough president will weigh in and the City Council must vote on the final land disposition.

 

Breaking: Lowline Underground Park Proposal Wins City Approval

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

New York City officials tonight are announcing the initial approval of the Lowline underground park proposal in an abandoned former trolley site below Delancey Street.

Since the fall of 2011, when the concept was first made public, co-founders James Ramsey and Dan Barasch have been trying to persuade the MTA and two mayoral administrations to sign off on their plan. They hope to convert the 60,000 square foot space into a lively green space, using sunlight channeling technology.

Last year, the NYC Economic Development Corp. put out a Request for Expressions of Interest for the old trolley station. The announcement is being made now at a meeting of Community Board 3.

The decision is being called a conditional designation, meaning the Lowline team must meet several requirements during the next couple of years. These requirements include engaging the local community through a series of visioning sessions, holding quarterly meetings of a new community engagement committee, raising $10 million within a 12 month period and completing schematic designs within the next year.

We’re attending tonight’s meeting of CB3’s land use committee, in which more details of the city’s agreement with the Lowline are expected to be unveiled. We’ll have a full report when new information is available.

UPDATE: We will have a comprehensive report from Wednesday night’s community board meeting Thursday on The Lo-Down.

Lowline Launches Young Ambassadors Program, Community Engagement Committee

Photo courtesy of The Lowline.

Photo courtesy of The Lowline.

It’s been a busy summer for the team behind the Lowline, the proposed park that would be created in an abandoned trolley station below Delancey Street. Here’s an update on what they’ve been up to in recent months.

Just today, the Lowline opened applications for its new Young Ambassadors Program, a six-month long paid mentoring experience for high school juniors. Here’s a description of the program from the organization’s news blast:

Young Ambassadors will gain experience in teaching and communicating science, serving as docents and leading interactive educational sessions focused on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) at the Lowline Lab. Young Ambassadors will benefit from career workshops and networking opportunities with the Lowline’s core team and city-wide collaborators—gaining exposure and experiential learning opportunities in STEAM career pathways. In addition, each Young Ambassador will receive a $1,000 scholarship for their participation in the program.

You can learn more here and also access the online application.

Also this summer, the Lowline established a Community Advisory Committee. The board, made up of Lower East Side residents and community leaders, met for the first time on June 13. A second meeting is scheduled July 25 (see flyer below).

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Earlier this year, leaders of several community-based organizations raised concerns about the Lowline proposal during meetings of Community Board 3.  They called for more engagement with the local community about the vision for the underground park [some of them remain adamantly opposed to the proposal]. While the community engagement committee had been in-the-works for some time, it’s one way the Lowline organization is addressing the concerns.

According to minutes from the first meeting, committee members include representatives from organizations such as Henry Street Settlement, University Settlement and Fourth Arts Block, as well as tenant leaders in the immediate area. Among the resident groups participating: reps from the Grand Street Guild apartments, Seward Park Extension and Vladeck Houses. At the June 13 session, there was a wide ranging discussion about the programming, design and governance of the Lowline.

Back in November of 2015, the city’s Economic Development Corp. (EDC) solicited ideas for the underground trolley site. The Lowline submitted its proposal as part of that process and the organization’s leaders have been meeting with city officials to answer questions and provide additional information. A city spokesperson tells us no decisions have been made as of yet, although EDC officials are scheduled to update Community Board 3’s land use committee on the topic next Wednesday evening.

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Lowline Garden Party. Photo by: Limor Azran Garfinkle.

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Lowline board member Marquise Stillwell with Nasir Mouzon-Cooley. Photo by: Limor Azran Garfinkle.

On June 7, the Lowline hosted a “garden party” at the Lowline Lab, the temporary exhibition space that’s been set up inside a former building of the Essex Street Market. The organization’s co-founder, Dan Barasch, told guests that the lab has served an important purpose. “We’re really proud,” he said, “that (the Lowline is) no longer (just) an idea. The Lowline is now a tested, science-based approach to solving one of the biggest problems we face in New York City: a lack of public space for all.” The lab, which is only open on weekends, has attarcted 60,000 visitors and has proved,” said Barasch, “that the underground park can be a place of “inspiration, of learning, of peaceful reflection and of community.”

Also at the garden party, the Lowline honored Nasir Mouzon-Cooley, a local teenager who has participated in the organization’s Young Designers Program. Mouzon-Cooley connected with the program through the Educational Alliance. In remarks prepared for the fundraiser, he said, “I am proud of the fact that I was given the chance to share my vision of what the Lowline could be for my community… Being part of the Lowline project was a once in a lifetime experience and I’m so happy I was able to share a positive part of my life with you all.”

 

Council Member Chin Helps Lowline Launch Community Engagement Committeee

City Council member Margaret Chin at a demonstration project of the Lowline in 2012. Photo courtesy of the Lowline.

City Council member Margaret Chin at a demonstration project of the Lowline in 2012. Photo courtesy of the Lowline.

Coming up on Saturday, City Council member Margaret Chin will be co-hosting a community engagement event at the Lowline Lab.

The lab is a prototype of the full-scale park that’s envisioned in an abandoned trolley terminal beneath Delancey Street. The city’s Economic Development Corp. has been weighing the idea since February 1, when proposals for the space were due.

During Saturday’s event, visitors will be able to learn about a new “community engagement committee” that’s being set up. Late last year, members of several community organizations voiced concerns about the Lowline’s outreach efforts on the Lower East Side.

This committee is one way in which the Lowline team is addressing those concerns. Earlier this year, co-founder Dan Barasch told us, “We’re hoping to build out this idea of a community engagement committee… We think it’s important that we have a clear, committed governance structure in which we are showing we have diversity of community stakeholder input.”

Council member Chin has been a staunch supporter of the underground park, which would use sunlight channeling technology. In the past year, Chin and Council member Dan Garodnick allocated $8500 for programs at the lab.

The event will take place from noon-1:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Lowline Lab, which is located at 140 Essex St. Here’s the invite if you would like to RSVP.

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Big Crowd Turns Out For Essex Street Market/Lowline Festival

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Did you notice the long lines yesterday waiting to get inside the Lowline Lab? The Winter DayLife Festival, featuring food vendors from the Essex Street Market — inside the temporary laboratory at 140 Essex St. — drew thousands. In fact, we’re told, more than 8500 people walked through the doors.

The line snaked around Rivington Street throughout much of the day. The Lowline Lab, a prototype of the proposed park below Delancey Street, is open to the public every weekend. On Sunday, the Lowline crew teamed up with the Essex Street Market Vendor Association and the Lower East Side Partnership for the big event.  Merchants taking part included Saxelby Cheesemongers, Osaka Grub, Davidovich Bakery, Puebla Mexican Food, Arancini Bros, Ni Japanese Deli, Porto Rico Importing Company, Peasant Stock, Formaggio Essex and Pain D’Avignon.

The happening was, of course, good news for all involved, but especially for the Essex Street Market. As you may know, the vendors have experienced a drop in foot traffic during the past couple of years. The collaboration is part of a larger marketing campaign to lure people back to the historic public facility.

As a reminder, the Essex Street Market is open every day at 120 Essex St. Read more about all of the vendors here.

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Essex Street Market/DayLife Festival: Feb. 21 at the Lowline Lab

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Coming up Sunday, Feb. 21, the Essex Street Market is bringing a one-day pop-up event to the Lowline Lab.

As you’ve probably noticed, the lab is operating from 140 Essex St., formerly part of the public market. It’s a prototype of the full-scale Lowline underground park that’s been proposed in an abandoned trolley erminal below Delancey Street. The Winter DayLife Festival will feature many of your favorite vendors, including Saxelby Cheesemongers, Osaka Grub (a new merchant), Davidovich Bakery, Puebla Mexican Food and Arancini Bros. The merchants are coordinating the event with the Lower East Side Partnership (LES BID).

It will take place from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

We also wanted to mention that the vendors have launched a new newsletter. This month, it includes info about a Valentine’s Day Instagram contest, details about new vendors and profiles of some of your favorite Essex Street Market small businesses.  Here’s a link if you’d like to subscribe.

CB3 Tells City: Commit to Real Community Role in Deciding Fate of Former Trolley Space

Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal space. Photo: NYC EDC.

Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal space. Photo: NYC EDC.

Members of Community Board 3’s land use committee last night pressed city officials for a more robust role in deciding the future of the former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal below Delancey Street.

In November, the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) put out a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) for the site. After the community board complained about a lack of local consultation by the city, the EDC extended the deadline for submissions from Dec. 23 to Feb. 1. Last night, EDC Assistant Vice President Lusheena Warner and Merik Mulcahy, an associate who drafted the document, came to CB3’s land use committee to talk with board members about their concerns.

The forgotten trolley terminal space was not on anyone’s radar until September of 2011 when James Ramsey and Dan Barasch went public with their proposal to create an underground park using sunlight channeling technology (The Lowline). They have spent the past four years lobbying the MTA, which controlled the 60,000 sq. ft. terminal. It was a surprise to everyone two months ago when the city announced that it would be seeking proposals from interested developers. The RFEI asks for “plans involving the long-term lease and activation” of the site with an eye towards enhancing “connections to, and accessibility for, the surrounding community;” meeting community needs; and promoting economic development.

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Last night, land use committee members said they appreciated the extension of time but also called for a lot more outreach in the community. One meeting, they told the officials, is just not enough.

The key question, said board member Damaris Reyes, is, “What constitutes a ‘community benefit’ in the publicly-owned site?” “Who gets to decide?,” she asked. She said the board has asked for a true community-driven process that goes well beyond the membership of the land use committee.

In response, Warner acknowledged the concerns and said. “There is definitely a role for the community.” When Reyes coyly asked, “Did you say you would involve us in the selection process?,” Warner replied, “I did not say that.” The officials said they would come back to the community board to “talk about the proposals.” But citing the city’s confidentiality rules for public bids, they said it would not be possible to discuss specific applicants. “We are not trying to select someone behind you back,” added Warner.

Committee members agreed that it was premature to tell the city their preferences for the space below Delancey Street. They pointed out that little is publicly known about the engineering constraints of a site that’s been dormant since 1947. “It’s not quite right,” said Harriet Cohen, “to start throwing around a lot of ideas” in the absence of details about what’s possible “in this very specific piece of real estate.” The EDC team acknowledged that there would be no city-driven analysis of the site; they’re relying on applicants to spell out what they think is feasible.

Dominic Berg, a former board chairperson, strongly encouraged the city to work with CB3 on a series of workshops/visioning sessions to solicit opinions about the site. “It will be easier for the EDC to have community buy-in (for the project that’s ultimately chosen) if we have workshops,” said Berg. “The EDC really needs to plan for that. Short of doing that, you’re going to hit a wall.” Mentioning that he’s been supportive of the Lowline, Berg acknowledged there could be other good ideas. “Everyone should understand the options,” he said.

Last month, CB3 approved a resolution urging the city to rescind the RFEI, giving the local community an opportunity to reshape the document to its liking. Warner made it clear the city would not be entertaining further delays. But she suggested there would be many more opportunities for community engagement. She was noncommittal about workshops, but said it’s something the EDC would consider.

After proposals are received, the city could take a variety of steps to activate the space. Last night, the officials said the site would be subject to ULURP, the city’s land use approval process. It requires consultations with the community boards and borough president, and the approval of the City Council. It remains to be seen whether the city will issue a separate Request for Proposals (RFP), or begin negotiations with a developer responding to the RFEI.

A new resolution approved by the committee last night called for a real “community process” to develop local priorities for the site and to guide the selection of a developer. It memorialized EDC’s commitment to come back to the board with information about proposals under consideration. And the resolution stated that community engagement should inform both the selection process as well as the implementation of the winning proposal.

The elephant in the room last night was, of course, The Lowline itself. Some members of the panel are supporters of the underground park proposal. Others are skeptical of its merits. But that debate will take place another day. First, the community board wants guidance from the EDC about the range of possibilities in the former trolley space. Then it will start to develop guidelines. It has been three years since the board voted unanimously in support of the Lowline project. Eventually, board members will be called on to reaffirm their support or to reverse their earlier position.

City Extends Deadline For Williamsburg Trolley Terminal Site to Feb. 1

Trolley site below Delancey Street. Image from NYC EDC.

Trolley site below Delancey Street. Image from NYC EDC.

The city’s Economic Development Corp. (EDC) is giving groups interested in proposing ideas for the former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal space  a little bit more time. After hearing criticism about its handling of a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) in the site from members of Community Board 3, the EDC today extended the deadline from Dec. 23 to Feb. 1.

Last week, Community Board 3’s land use committee approved a resolution asking the city to rescind the RFEI and give the community board an opportunity to help shape a new document. While CB3 was advised that the Request for Expressions of Interest would be going out, board members wanted to see more collaboration from the city. During the past several years, a local group has been lobbying the MTA for access to the 60,000 space for the Lowline underground park. The dormant trolley terminal is leased by the MTA but owned by New York City.

In a letter to EDC President Maria Torres-Springer, City Council member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer expressed support for the community board’s position. Extending the deadline, they wrote, would allow the city to “solicit a variety of proposals and garner increased community feedback.” They also requested added site visits for groups interested in submitting proposals, as well as “clear opportunities for increased communication with Community Board 3 and elected officials on ways to engage with future progress on the site.”

In a phone interview this afternoon, CB3 Chairperson Gigi Li said the board would like to see a clear timeline and plan for engaging the community — not only before the proposals are due but also after the deadline. She said CB3 wants to be consulted as the city evaluates various ideas for the site.

Council member Chin is a longtime supporter of the Lowline project. CB3 approved a resolution in support of the Lowline back in 2012. That being said, several members of the land use committee expressed reservations about the project last week. The board’s most recent resolution, however, was solely focused on the city’s process, rather than any concerns about the Lowline’s plan for the former trolley terminal.

CMChin MBPBrewer Letter Re.rfei Trolley Terminal by The Lo-Down

CB3 Panel Calls on City to Rescind Williamsburg Trolley Terminal RFEI (Updated)

Trolley site below Delancey Street. Image from NYC EDC.

Trolley site below Delancey Street. Image from NYC EDC.

Community Board 3’s land use committee last night blasted the city’s handling of a potential development initiative for the old Williamsburg Trolley Terminal site below Delancey Street. The panel approved a resolution, urging the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) to rescind its RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) until the community has an opportunity to help shape the document.

The RFEI was put out by the EDC on Nov. 23, in partnership with the MTA. They’re seeking “expressions of interest from qualified parties for development plans involving the long-term lease and activation of the vacant” trolley terminal, which has been dormant since 1948. The team behind the high profile Lowline underground park proposal has for several years been pushing the MTA to relinquish the space. The transit authority holds a long-term lease for the site.

Lusheena Warner, an EDC assistant vice president, said the city is looking for proposals now to take advantage of the momentum around the big Essex Crossing project. The nearly 2-million square foot commercial and residential complex is being built on nine sites adjacent to the subterranean trolley space.

She heard an earful from community board members. Bill LoSasso called the city’s failure to consult the community board in advance “borderline insulting.” He noted a similar approach when the city released a request for proposals last month for a development site on East 14th Street.

Another board member, Damaris Reyes, pointed out that one group in particular (The Lowline) has been advocating for the space. She said there are “concerns in the community” about the project and talk about “what could be there instead.” Reyes, head of the housing organization GOLES, asked, “Why now?” Given the tight deadline (applications must be in by Dec. 23), she said there’s worry that other proposals could be at a severe disadvantage. “The Lowline is a sexy idea,” Reyes said. “A lot of people think it’s a great idea. But our needs must be considered. This community is experiencing a lot of displacement… We need to consider the impact” of developing the site. “There should be a community process. Some of us feel so strongly about this that you will be hearing from us. This is not a closed matter.”

Warner explained that the EDC could issue a request for proposals after seeing the initial ideas, or it could begin negotiations with an applicant right away. A group of interested parties toured the site last Friday. She said the site would be subject to ULURP, the city’s land use approval process (community boards, the borough president and the City Council would all be consulted). Cathy Dang of the housing organization CAAAV said she’s concerned the trolley terminal RFP would interfere with another project, the Chinatown Working Group’s zoning proposal. “How did the idea come up to release this RFEI?,” she asked.

Board member Enrique Cruz suggested there might be viable alternatives to the Lowline, including the use of the underground space as a downtown bus terminal. “I hope the deck is not stacked against other proposals, ” he said. Board member Lisa Kaplan added, “It is imperative that what happens (on the site) is consistent” with the neighborhood’s character and for the benefit of the low income community” that lives in the area.

In June 2012, Community Board 3 voted 44-0 for a resolution strongly endorsing the Lowline project. It read, in part:

Community Board 3 officially supports the Delancey Underground project and its initiative to build a community‐centered “Lowline” public space, and looks forward to working closely with the Underground Development Foundation in ensuring that this new amenity is developed in partnership with and for the benefit of the Lower East Side community.

 

Community Board 3 Resolution Support for Low Line Project by The Lo-Down

Last night, Lowline co-founder Dan Barasch was in the audience but was not called on to speak. We talked with him after the meeting and he later provided us with this statement:

The Lowline agrees completely that all members of the community should have adequate time to engage and respond with what should become of the former Williamsburg Trolley Terminal. We do hope we have the opportunity to present our proposal: a free community public space, powered by solar technology, and creating a natural oasis in the center of the neighborhood we love so much.

Barasch highlighted not only the past support of the community board but also that of local elected officials, non-profit organizations and private individuals (see a list of supporters here). “Over the last four years,” he said, “we have worked to gather input from thousands of people across the Lower East Side and surrounding neighborhoods.” He pointed to the Lowline’s Young Designers Program, which has engaged more than 1,000 young people within the community and two exhibitions in abandoned building of the Essex Street Market (one of which is going on now). “We’ve collected a ton of input, feedback, and ideas over these years,” said Barasch. “We look forward to continuing to engage more and more local community members, and we welcome any opportunity to improve community engagement and foster an inclusive design process.”

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Warner, the city official, said the RFEI (as opposed to a request for proposals) is meant to be broad — to solicit the widest variety of ideas. She said the city is committed to taking community concerns into account. While deflecting the panel’s demands to rescind the RFEI, she said, “I understand where you’re coming from and I understand your frustration.”  City officials tell The Lo-Down there was no effort to circumvent the community board. They say CB3 was advised last month that the RFEI was forthcoming, although, we’re told, there was no detailed briefing by the EDC at that time. The notification was apparently made so that the matter could be placed on CB3’s December meeting agenda.

If nothing else, last night’s meeting got out into the open opposition to the Lowline by groups such as GOLES, CAAAV (Organizing Asian Communities) and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. These organizations are suspicious of the city’s motives, particularly since Alicia Glen, a high ranking administration official, has been a vocal Lowline supporter. It should be noted, however, that the resolution approved by the community board last night was focused solely on the city’s process. There was no mention of the merits or shortcomings of the Lowline project. The panel is asking the EDC to rescind the RFEI and to work with the community board to shape a new document that reflects community interests.

All members of the committee voted for the resolution with the exception of Tim Laughlin, head of the LES Business Improvement District (he abstained). The full board votes on the resolution Dec. 22, the day before the trolley proposals are due.

UPDATED 2:30 p.m. After last night’s meeting, the EDC has agreed to extend the deadline for applications. City officials and community board leaders are now discussing how to incorporate more neighborhood-based feedback into the process.

Here’s the City’s Request For “Expressions of Interest” in the Lowline Site

City Will Release Request For “Expressions of Interest” in Lowline Site Next Week

The Lowline in the News: Tech Lab Weekend #2, Anti-Gala at Angel Orensanz

Lowline Lab Opens Saturday in Former Essex Street Market Building