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

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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.”

lowline prograaming concepts


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.

lowline rendering entrance
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.



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