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How Will the Lowline Make the Leap From Idea to Reality?

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Since Dan Barasch and James Ramsey unveiled their plans for an innovative underground park, the project, known as the Lowline, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, gained the support of government officials, and won the hearts of many local residents. But how will the Lowline move from being an idea that people really like to being a physical place that people actually visit? We recently sat down with Barasch to talk about the future of the underground park, and he shared with us details from the Lowline's comprehensive vision and planning study, developed by HR&A advisors, engineering firm Arup, and law firm Kramer Levin, among others. We learned what needs to happen next, why the space can't be reused for transit, and how it would be a new cultural amenity for the neighborhood.

Gaining access to the underground site
The Lowline is proposed for the former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal, a three-block long acre of land that sits below Delancey Street in the Lower East Side. It's currently controlled by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and for anything to actually happen, the Lowline creators need access to the site. Getting access to the site is complicated because the MTA can't just hand it over. The site would need to be put up for a competitive public bidding process (like the Fulton Center, Grand Central Apple store, etc.) to find a tenant, and the MTA has way bigger things to worry about than this acre of land. Barasch said that they are working to give the MTA as much information as possible to make it as easy as possible for the MTA to move the Lowline site up on the agenda. The team has spoken with people in the MTA, and they generally support the idea, but it's just not a priority right now.

The timeline
"I'm hopeful that we could do it in under ten years," said Barasch, who thinks the space will follow the timeline of SPURA. "If you could tell me when the first SPURA building will open, I bet that's around time the Lowline will open." Now that the nine parcels of land that make up SPURA, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, are actually being developed, there will soon be a lot of attention on the area, and it could really speed along the Lowline. This year, the Lowline hopes to continue fundraising and work with the MTA to make the site more of a priority.

Speaking of SPURA, how is that connected to the Lowline?
The Journal ran an article that highlighted the fact that the Lowline could boost the property values of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. These numbers came from HR&A Advisors, who have been working with the Lowline to create a business plan and project the economic benefits of the park (HR&A also worked on the High Line). The Lowline site actually sits right in the middle of the SPURA parcels, so HR&A estimated what the value of having a cultural amenity in the midst of that development would be.

The Lowline would not be just an underground park
Many people have wondered why they would visit an underground green space when there are plenty of above ground green spaces with lots of sunlight. But calling the Lowline a "park" isn't totally accurate. It would be a culture park that hosts art shows, performances, and events, and it would be tied to the neighborhood gallery scene. Preliminary designs call for a densely planted "ramble," but this would be accompanied by a gallery, plaza, and connecting grassy common. The whole site is currently dotted with support columns, and the design would remove ten of these to created a 5,000-square-foot column-free plaza. Sunlight would be piped in using fiber optics and a light filtration system created by Raad Studio. Of course, all design plans are "very, very preliminary," as they would need to go through an official design process with public input, and many factors (like SPURA, requirements from the MTA and the DOT) could influence the design.

The cost to build and operate
Engineering firm Arup worked with the Lowline team to determine the cost of building the underground park, putting the estimate at roughing $55 million, but up to $72 million. The team plays to raise "a significant amount" of the funds through private donations, much like other parks and cultural institutions do. As evidenced by the Lowline's extremely successful Kickstarter campaign, the plan has received a lot of support and interest, but many larger donors are reluctant to commit until the plan has public approval. Operating costs would run between $2.4 to $4 million, and the Lowline intends to be self-sufficient, earning revenue from events, sponsored public programs, and fundraising.

The connection to the subway
The Lowline would provide two additional access points into the J/M/Z subway station at Delancey and Essex Streets while also provide a unique subway-viewing experience. The Lowline site runs adjacent to the J/Z track, and the space would have a promenade alongside the tracks. If you're thinking, "wow, that sounds loud/dirty/unsafe," think again. The park's design would incorporate a demising wall or transparent material as a border, providing protection and noise and air quality while framing views of the subway. Additionally, the design would preserve the trolley tracks and infrastructure in the terminal, much like the High Line preserved the elevated tracks.

Re-using the space for transit is not feasible.
Some people have made the argument that the space should be used for transit. Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas suggested it be used as a bus depot for a rapid transit bus line. But Barasch says the space would not be big enough for this, and there are no vehicle access points. It was built for the very specific purpose of turning trolleys around and trolleys don't exist anymore. Plus, no one, not the state or the MTA, has shown interest in this site in a really long time.

Working with the community
Because the Lowline is such an unusual and innovative idea, some people assume that the creators are oblivious to what the community wants. But Barasch stressed the fact that they have been reaching out to all community groups and businesses (see a list of local supporters here) and regularly updating the community board about the project. They want the Lowline to be "an authentic extension of the Lower East Side's identity."

The future
It's common knowledge that beneath New York City, there are dozens of abandoned and unused tunnels and stations. In an ideal world, Barasch sees an entire network of Lowlines that transform these spaces into historic artifacts and cultural amenities. "This will be a really unique space," says Barasch. "We are trying to make the underground sexy in a way that it's not."
· Lowline [official]
· Lowline coverage [Curbed]