Op/Ed: Is the Lowline a “Community-Driven Park” or a Trojan Horse?

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.
Lowline rendering by James Ramsey.

The following editorial was submitted to The Lo-Down by the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. It was written by Kerri Culhane, the organization’s associate director.

When a hedge fund investor, a professional marketer and a self-described “high-end” designer hatch an idea for a “community driven park” in a vacant subterranean transportation facility, “the community” should evaluate this novel proposal with a critical eye, and should certainly be involved in the process. As the Lowline juggernaut gains more high-profile supporters, it should strike anyone that there has never really been a meaningful community vetting of the proposed use for the MTA trolley turnaround. Two Bridges has suggested to our elected officials and the community board that the space be assessed as a potential bus terminal; but without celebrity support, our proposal has fallen on deaf ears.

The Lowline team states the need for their project by noting the lack of open space in the area—not acknowledging that an underground room with some trees does not count as open space. However, there is actually a fair amount of open space in the vicinity, including Seward Park, Luther Gulick Park, Sara D. Roosevelt Park, East River Park, Hamilton Fish, and the many small (but threatened) community gardens that dot the neighborhood. If the $70 million estimated cost of the Lowline were spread out among our existing under-resourced local parks, the number of residents that could be served would far outstrip the number served by the Lowline.

For all the talk by the Lowline promoters about how they’d “like it to be driven by the input of the community itself, just sort of figuring out what the adjacent communities would really like,” no mechanism exists for the community to offer input on what this publicly owned space might be. Do a Ted Talk; proposals to the community board of what the Lowline team thinks it should be; and an afterschool curriculum for a handful of children in the neighborhood constitute meaningful community engagement?

Don’t Call It A Park

The designers of the Lowline developed an interesting method of harvesting natural light from above ground and intensifying it indoors, which is the heart of the Lowline design. The Lowline developers consistently call it a park, but in reality, there is nothing park-like about it. In effect, the Lowline is a murkier, subterranean version of a corporate atrium. Like those indoor spaces, in the Lowline, there will be potted plants—but no weather, no changing sky, no breezes, no views. In this heated & air-conditioned environment, lit with supplementary electric lighting, the only variety generated will be by the rumble of the passing JMZ trains in the adjacent tube.

In the winter, when an indoor public space might be most appealing, there would be little light to harvest from the outside; in summer, it’s likely that people would want to be outside, by the river. The novel concept and all the hype will sure attract many one-time visitors—the Lowline is an ideal tourist attraction.

LOWLINE PLANSThe dramatic renderings of the Lowline show pools of bright light illuminating the darkness, with trees and people filling up the space. What is never shown in renderings appears in the Lowline plans—a large kitchen and bar, and a 116-seat dining area. Similar to the Basketball City “community facility” that morphed into the Javits Center of the Lower East Side, in plan the Lowline looks a lot more like an event space than a community park; and an event space for rent might help pay back the estimated $70 million it could cost to build the Lowline.

Lessons from the High Line

The Lowline designers have called the High Line “a spiritual predecessor to what we’re proposing,” so much so that they changed their name from Delancey Underground to Lowline to play off that relationship. The High Line has much more than the Lowline ever could—namely seasonal variety and views—but both are implicitly designed to attract real estate investment and tourists. For local small businesses and low-income residents, the High Line has been a disaster. Real estate values are soaring, pushing out long time residents; and tourists bypass the local mom & pop shops. The owner of the shuttering La Luncheonette was recently quoted in Vanishing New York calling the High Line “a Trojan Horse for the real estate people.”

The Lowline actively courted real estate developers as part of the SPURA project, even commissioning an economic analysis from HR&A Advisors showing how much value the Lowline would add to real estate developments in the neighborhood (not publicly available). On the Lowline website, however, the lists of supporters is carefully curated. Categories include “public” and “community” supporters (though they were recently asked to remove the name of a major community-wide tenant advocacy organization, who were listed as a supporter without knowledge or consent). Omitted from the list are the large real estate development companies who have given generously for Lowline benefits, among them Forest City Ratner, Douglaston Development, and the current SPURA development team.

So what is the Lowline, and who is it for? The Lowline developers consistently refer to it as a bottom-up, community driven park. From the steady promotional push and constant fundraising events, the Lowline is a high-profile celebrity cause. What is to be made of the disconnect between what is being said by the Lowline developers (this is a community park) and the apparent reality (this is a celebrity-driven marketing campaign to fund the creation of a tourist attraction and event space that may be “a Trojan Horse for the real-estate people”)?

Could it be a bus terminal to alleviate the Chinatown bus crisis? It is a transportation facility, after all. Could it be a community market? Could the Lowline become a space that truly reflects community needs & interests? Or could the money be better spent on real parks elsewhere in the neighborhood? The level of investment and the potential impact on the neighborhood demand a genuine community-wide conversation to inform this “community-driven” process.