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

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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.

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  1. I’d really like to know more about the possibility of making it into a bus terminal. That seems so sensible.

  2. I live steps away from the proposed Delancey space (on Suffolk St.) so I have followed the coverage of this proposal with great interest. The drinking culture of ‘Hell Square’ has diminished the quality of life for all the families on my street. I worry that a bus terminal would be the final straw for this besieged corner of the LES. You can see the lowline as a dastardly plot of real estate tycoons, or a designer’s folly, or a joyous urban experiment. As a parent of a toddler, I am excited at the prospect of a nearby indoor area for her to roam around in during the winter months. The author’s call to solve the Chinatown bus problem is legitimate, but I question the notion that nearby residents would prefer a bus terminal on Delancey to a communal civic space.

    P.S. In case anyone is about to post a note saying I’m crazy raising a kid in this neighborhood … I’ve lived and worked here for 15 years. I love the LES and believe that families have a right to be here.

  3. I live very close this site and, though I have kept an open mind, at this point I think of it with dread. A bus terminal–as well as more community gardens and improvements to actual parks–would likely be far better than his frivolous project, which will surely attract hordes of tourists but be of little benefit to most residents. Many of us are trying desperately to keep our already expensive apartments in the face of rampant landlord harassment. Do we need a development like this, which would be catnip to landlords and luxury developers? I and the neighbors I have discussed this project with would prefer improvements to real green spaces. The LES is not the right place for this tourist attraction.

  4. I live very close to this site, and though I’ve tried to keep an open mind, I now think of it with dread. I and the neighbors I’ve discussed this with would vastly prefer to have money spent on more community gardens and improvements to existing green spaces, as well as libraries and other public amenities, than on this tourist attraction, which would be catnip to landlords and luxury developers but offer little real benefit to residents. A bus terminal sounds like a better option. Many of us are already struggling to keep our already expensive homes in the face of rampant landlord harassment. The LES is not the right place for this fanciful project, which has been foisted on us with little community input. Not every cool idea is a good idea.

  5. Considering the traffic nightmare that is Delancey Street already, the idea of hundreds of buses going in and out of a terminal is quite frightening. Remember a thousand families are going to live in Essex Crossing. They would all be impacted by noise, traffic, and fumes. Find another place for a bus terminal.

  6. A Bus terminal? Please. Aren’t there enough cars and truck on Delancy street for you already? Do you work for the Bus Company?

  7. This Op-Ed only poses an underground bus terminal as a possible option; it’s not calling for that option. Two Bridges, a great neighborhood organization, is raising worthwhile questions:

    “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.”

    It may be that the site would best be left alone. In any case, this is a conversation that should indeed be community-wide.

  8. When Lena Dunham lives on Delancey Street then let us see if she endorses a tourist attraction beneath her windows. Also, a massive subterranean hall is going to be paradise for crime and homeless campers. Why do some wealthy elites think that if they get together at parties, eat roast beef, dance, drink champagne and pay money to a charity then they will not have to really do anything about social problems?

  9. We do not need a bus station at all. No way. I do like that the story questions this project. I doubt it could ever come close to being the highline in any way. Design by committee is a zebra. That said community input ain’t bad.

  10. Why in the world would that be at all sensible? Where would these buses travel ? You want times sq down here w all the bus station riff raff? H no.

  11. If it’s really a community park, shouldn’t it have actual park-like things? Swing sets? A dog park area? An area for indoor picnics? I don’t know many community parks that have bars and restaurants.

  12. It’s not like the money is there and is being directed to the low-line. They are raising that cash. Many make it sound like a waste of guaranteed or existing funds which is not the case.

  13. I live in the Lower East Side and would love to see the Low Line become a reality. It seems to me many are just resistant to change. Fear of change is normal but you should not let it prevent innovation or the neighborhood from improvement. When the Op-ed’s main alternative to an underground year round new space for Lower East siders is a “bus terminal” you know that the not in my neighborhood mindset has taken over.

  14. They have already received one grant from the city and are aiming to get more capital funding from the city. I’m all for having any such funds spent on an aboveground project that would improve or expand existing green spaces.

  15. A bus terminal would be awful for the neighborhood. Anyway, the Chinatown bus companies don’t want to go in a terminal: being in a terminal would cramp their free-wheeling, illegal operations.

    In any event, rampant gentrification will before long clear the streets of these crappy buses. As more shiny new luxury condos are built, the new very wealthy residents will certainly put pressure on the City to clear the streets of the refugee-camp bus crowds in front of their buildings.

  16. A lot of curmudgeoned minds are gathering here to protest what can and should be a great civic minded project that is embraced and celebrated for it’s creativity. NYC is a magnificent city and if it can be enhanced by the unexpected, WHY NOT? A destination for creative minds to explore which challenges familiar concepts contributes to the foundation of any great city. NY should be that. This city should inspire and we should be a part of that process. Our neighborhood has an opportunity to lead here but instead, our noble concerns have drifted to where to hide the chinatown buses, fear of the saturation of homeless campers, and the classic( what about the kids????). Ok we got it, but I profoundly disagree. Every “cool idea” that has the potential to create something uniquely inspiring…..is not only a good idea but it’s the reason to subsist in any great urban environment. The best thing we could do for ourselves as a community is to embrace this brilliantly devised trojan horse and make it our own. Dear neighbors, let’s live for the best that can be and not for the fears that hold us back.

  17. Don’t be naive Sabina. A bus terminal would turn into a Port Authority. Two Bridges might enjoy that, as they now play host to buses they don’t want, so it is really a shell game on their part. And what makes anyone think that money donated for the Lowline wouldn’t dry up for a terminal? In this case, money is not fungible. The Lower East Side is already a tourist attraction from Katz’s to Donut Plant to Tenement Museum. Another attraction would be great for the local economy. Of course Two Bridges is not concerned about that as Essex Crossing is not their neighborhood. This really is not their concern beyond a way to foist their bus problem on another area.

  18. Whether this becomes a park, bus terminal, or something else entirely, the folks pushing it should declare it an alcohol-free zone asap. Now and forever. Just like real parks and bus terminals. Or, if they want to lose my support and the support of many others — apply for a liquor license now, so we know where they stand. If this is not a family-friendly place, it doesn’t have a chance of ever getting built.

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