Coming up tomorrow and Sunday, it’s weekend #2 of The Lowline Lab. The team hoping to build a subterranean park in an abandoned trolley station under Delancey Street will be testing out the technology behind their proposal during the next five months. The Lowline reports that about 2500 people visited during the opening weekend at 140 Essex St., which is part of the Essex Street Market.
On Wednesday night, the organization held its annual “anti-gala” at the Angel Orensanz Center. Paper Magazine filed a brief dispatch from the party:
…Anti-Gala guests dug into a menu created by Prune’s Gabrielle Hamilton that included squab (claws intact and artfully poking through the wooden baskets in which it was served), leafy greens, and plays on street food, like pretzels and kebabs. Before The Misshapes took to the turntables and the Anti-Gala turned into an actual party, the night’s honorees, developer David Barry, President of Ironstate Development (the firm behind the URL Staten Island waterfront and the Standard East Village) and City Councilwoman Margaret Chin took to the stage. “It is going to happen!” Chin said, with New York State Senator Daniel Squadron standing behind her.
Fabulous evening tonight in support of The Lowline. If you think the High Line is great, it’s time to readjust your expectations for what’s possible in urban renewal. Please check out this amazing organization and support if you can–it’s a rare opportunity to redefine our urban landscape for the benefit of everybody! And besides, a subterranean park is the coolest idea ever. #lowline #urbanlandscape #greenspace #urbanrenewal #highline
— Megan Ellison (@meganeellison) October 22, 2015
The Lowline has never had trouble attracting media attention. In the past several days, there has been a flurry of news stories about the lab. Here’s a sampling.
Over the next few months, the Lowline and its partners, including the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, will conduct experiments and test the plants to see how successfully they grow in the faux underground conditions. The results will be used to directly inform the horticultural landscape of the future Lowline park. But the potential of the solar technology spans far beyond illuminating an underground public space. Says (Executive Director Dan) Barasch, “I just saw The Martian and…this is part of the same story of pushing the boundaries of how we really cultivate and grow green plants and edible food.” Case in point: The Lowline team says they were recently contacted by the Deputy Secretary from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about using a version of this technology to grow food for astronauts in space.
When walking into the Lowline Lab—a demo of what will be the world’s first underground park—the first thing you notice is a distinctly earthly scent. That is a result of the dozens of plant species growing within the 5,000-square-foot space, located in a former market on New York’s Lower East Side… James Ramsey, an architect from the New York–based Raad Studio, has devised a system that harnesses the sun’s rays via optical equipment positioned at street level, then transfers the light indoors through a protective tube, and finally diffuses it over the underground site. For Ramsey, who as a teenager worked at NASA in a lab building pieces of satellite, the possibilities of the Lowline seem almost endless. So much so that Paris, Seoul, and Ankara, Turkey, among other cities, have expressed interest. “It’s not just an underground park,” he says. “We are working toward creating a new branch of horticulture. These are simply the first baby steps toward a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to subterranean gardening, and the reuse of abandoned space underground.”
Stepping through the Lab’s inconspicuous door and finding a rainforest is simply surreal. I stopped by for a visit just a few hours before the space opened to the public last weekend, and was immediately blown away by how much freaking foliage the landscape architects stuffed into a whimsical package. At first, I felt like I’d walked into a Dr. Seuss cartoon, with oddly-shaped trees towering over colorful, hard-to-identify flowers… (When it was time to go) I took a few last gulps of fresh air and stepped out into the autumn air. It felt like stepping out of the forest and into the crowded, cough-inducing city street where respite’s hard to find. Indeed, that’s exactly what the Lowline is meant to be: a place for New Yorkers to escape in any season. I honestly can’t wait five more years for such a park.
There’s an entirely different tone in an exhaustive piece Vanessa Quirk reported for Atlas Obscura. It recounts the entire history of the Lowline project and asks some critical questions. Noting the enthusiasm for the Lowline when it was unveiled in 2011, she writes:
Caught up in the coolness of the idea, however, few stopped to consider one simple fact: a public space is not a technology start-up. It’s not a product you can ship to supporters once crowdfunding goals are met. The Lowline, which was conceived six years ago, and today exists as a not-for-profit advocacy group striving to make the idea a reality, still has many hurdles to clear before it sees the light of day–the most pressing being to convince the MTA to cede operational control of the site to the City. As imaginative as it may be in renderings, as popular as those renderings may be online, the Lowline would occupy a real physical space, one in which expectations, tensions, bureaucracies, and histories collide.
The article points to anxieties on the Lower East Side over gentrification and explores the Lowline organization’s community outreach initiatives. Atlas Obscura reports that the Hester Street Collaborative has agreed to help run community visioning exercises. Quirk compares the project with the three-year community planning process that resulted in a compromise plan for the Seward Park sites (now Essex Crossing):
The Lowline did not spring from the collective minds of the community. But visionary projects seldom do. After all, if it weren’t for the coolness factor, the craziness of an idea sprung from one unusual mind, the Lowline would never have generated all the media interest and support it has. Government officials and investors have lined up behind the project; community organizations (via Hester Street) have agreed to collaborate with the Lowline team; and–most important of all–the MTA seems, at long last, amenable to site transfer. The MTA’s Director of External Communications, Adam Lisberg, wrote in an email: “We do not object to [the Lowline’s] conversion to a park project as long as the city and other stakeholders support the project and it does not impose a financial burden on the MTA.”
You can read the full story here. As for The Lowline Lab, it’s free and open to the public this weekend 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The lab is located within the usually vacant Essex Street Market building at 140 Essex St., between Rivington and Stanton streets.