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The Lowline is not a park

And that's okay—as long as everyone understands the true nature of this $60 million space

Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In this edition, Lange explores the design behind the Lowline, a new public space being built in a disused subterranean trolley terminal and billed as the world's first underground park—but that's not exactly what it will be.

I’m not mad at the Lowline any more. I was, for years, as I saw the same trippy renderings and the phrase "world’s first underground park" bounce around the internet pinball machine and never, ever exit. It seemed unstoppable as Kickstarter urbanism, meme-tecture, and the infrastructural sublime, with the added bonus of a High Line founder as board member and Lena Dunham as fundraiser.

It was a lot, especially for a project that is quite small: 50,000 square feet, underneath Delancey Street, adjacent to the J train. Until July, its founders didn’t technically even claim the space. Those dreamer-creator-founders, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, haven’t had real access to the site for years. But now, the Lowline has been selected by New York City’s Economic Development Corporation as designated developer for that subterranean acre and there’s a chance that the dream might become real.

The experimental solar technology that will allow the Lowline to grow plants underground now includes this two-part system: the rectangular panel tracks sunlight and sends it to the one-meter-round collector, which condenses the light and sends it down a series of transparent tubes.

When I wrote about the Lowline in 2013, I underlined the fact that, Kickstarter "success" notwithstanding, the idea still had many bureaucratic rivers to cross. This is bridge No. 1, three years later. Barasch and Ramsey put in the work and (though they did not know this during the city’s eight-month bid process) they were unopposed. So high are the opportunity costs, no one else wants it.

"We have a genuine interest in trying to take one acre of space that otherwise could be parking lot, or the basement for Job Lot," says Barasch. "We are playing off the truism that New Yorkers don’t have enough spaces to hang out that are free."

It won’t, of course, be free to build: That will cost an estimated $60 million. The founders, who have already created a 501c3, expect to be able to raise that from foundations, private donors, corporate sponsorships, and, possibly, public funds. Though the city has committed no money yet, they haven’t ruled it out, and in an interview with New York Magazine, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen seemed high on the project’s public value in a way I can’t follow.

It may sound like semantics, but the Lowline is not a park, not even "open space," as Glen referred to it. When I put this criticism to Barasch and Ramsey last week, they admit it’s fair.

"It’s a room," says Ramsey.

"We have used the words, the world’s first underground park simply as shorthand to describe the ambition," says Barasch.

"And they love that," I interject.

"They love that. It is ambitious and it helps describe what we are doing. If we are teasing out what we are really talking about, and it is hard to say this without sounding hubristic, we are trying to create a totally new kind of space."

The Lowline can be defined as high-tech eco-tainment crossed with a multi-purpose community center.

What is that space? How does it get used? And by whom? Barasch and Ramsey say, as they have all along, that those decisions are ahead of them as they proceed with the city-mandated design and community input process. Now that the Lowline is the city’s designated developer, there is a new set of hoops through which to jump.

In the next year, as part of the designation, the founders are required to raise $10 million, sponsor a series of community forums, and prepare a schematic design. After that, the site will have to be rezoned, which requires a separate Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

They say the finished product won’t necessarily look like the renderings, or like the Lowline Lab, the project’s current experiment-slash-installation on Essex Street. They want to preserve as much of the historic fabric—like trolley tracks—as possible. The spaces with large spans between columns could become event spaces with modular walls. There will be seating of various kinds.

"It might have 20, 30, 50 uses," says Ramsey. "We want that level of flexibility." The greenery will become a ramble at the end more thickly forested with columns.

Left: Inside the Lab, a parabolic metal canopy diffuses the light across a wider area. The bright spots are light coming directly from the tubes. Right: The Lowline’s founders consulted with a number of landscape architects, including Signe Nielsen and John Mini Distinctive Landscapes, on the plantings (advice and labels also came courtesy of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden). Ramsey designed the stepped planting beds, which are layered like mini-hills with drip pans, padding, engineered soil and stabilization fabric.

There is something undeniably dystopian about the idea that a neighborhood starved for open space might find its solution in a tunnel and yet, when I ask for their pitch for city funding, that’s their first answer.

"The value to the city of New York is that the Lowline will be first and foremost a community amenity that provides parks equity for the up to 200,000 Lower East Siders living in a neighborhood underrepresented in terms of green space per resident," says Barasch, referencing a New York Times story on overcrowded city parks, as well as coming megadevelopment Essex Crossing.

As landscape architect David Seiter commented on my Instagram—and the Lowline Lab is made for Instagram—"This should be a dance club. Why does it need to be a garden? Future public space will reclaim the streets, not the subterranean."

The closest I can come to a definition is a mouthful: a high-tech eco-tainment crossed with multi-purpose community center with a science and gardening focus. That’s a new kind of space, but I don’t think an overburdened public agency like the Parks Department (one potential freeholder) should spread its budget to accommodate this program.

As public space, even public amenity, the Lowline shrinks expectations about what a city should provide for its citizens, particularly the smallest. Yes, it’s cool to walk into a dark interior and find, at the end of snaking, glowing translucent tubes, under an undulating geometric steel canopy, 3,500 green and sweet-smelling plants. Would I have a cup of coffee there? Yes. Would I bring my kids? No, not without other active inducements. At a botanical garden, at least there are trees, even if kids get reprimanded when they try to climb them.

Even an unclimbable tree underground is not the same as a tree on the surface of the earth, and neither is piped and filtered sunlight the same as rays upon your skin. The more restricted the edges of a park—by elevation, by water, by walls—the more restricted the activities within it. High style, high maintenance, low square footage "parks" serve the least number of people with the highest number of regulations.

James Ramsey, left, and Dan Barasch, co-founders of the Lowline.

The Lowline founders find purpose in the limited public space provision at Essex Crossing, but both projects’ definition of public space seem inadequate in similar ways. Because the local community’s priority was affordable housing, the development will include just a 15,000-square-foot outdoor park designed by West 8 as well as landscaped indoor space, partly separated from the shopping along the three-block, partly subterranean Market Line. What the Lower East Side and Essex Crossing really need is outdoor space free of commerce and micromanagement, and that’s not happening.

Public funding would subject the Lowline to the same roundelay of questions about number of days closed, the presence of retail, the presence of advertising, and the right to freely assemble as have been asked of "park" projects like the Garden Bridge (0.6 acres), the now-threatened proposal to build a Thomas Heatherwick-designed landscaped bridge across the Thames in London.

If the Lowline is simply a not-for-profit leasing space from the city, then they can raise their estimated $2 million to $4 million annual operating costs, and set the parameters as they see fit. If that ends up being a nightclub, fine by me (though probably not by the neighbors), though as of now Barasch and Ramsey seem firmly committed to daytime educational programming to benefit the immediate community.

Justification number two for its public utility is as a daytime draw for the area’s small businesses, though if the Lowline is selling food and drink, it could also be seen as a rival. The founders see the Lowline as different from the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, or a coffee shop with a living wall—the square footage is indeed significantly larger—but that difference won’t seem clear to me until more details about design and governance are nailed down.

As public space, even public amenity, the Lowline shrinks expectations about what a city should provide for its citizens.

Ramsey, as the project’s designer, will also have to figure out how to deploy the extensive above-ground infrastructure the sun-collecting technology will require. This seems like an even trickier proposition. The Lab has served as proof-of-concept, demonstrating over the past nine months that Ramsey’s light collectors can keep those 3,500 plants green and growing, in a room where temperatures have never dipped below 60 degrees, through four seasons.

Two solar collectors installed on the roof of the abandoned Essex market space, each about the size of a car tire, have kept those plants in health. To fuel the Lowline, they’ll need 50 to 100. Where will they all go?

Ramsey suggests they can be absorbed into the streetscape as furniture: canopies for the rather sad aboveground pedestrian plaza on Delancey, or paired with streetlights, or transformed into more traffic-calming infrastructure for a dangerous boulevard. The Department of Transportation will, obviously, have to get involved, as well as the architects of Essex Crossing’s buildings.

Watering time. The indoor air temperature at the Lab never dips below 60 degrees, so the plants grown there are suitable for Zone 9 and above, which includes New Zealand, Mexico, parts of South America and some Japanese island.

The Lowline will also need separate, subway-style above ground entrances, as well as its own elevator. The Lowline isn’t only resurrecting that unloved subterranean acre, but creating a series of small insurrections up top.

The De Blasio administration’s late embrace of the Lowline seems consistent with its support for Pier 55, the BQX, and the development of an "Innovation Cluster" on Governors Island. In the absence of design leadership from within the administration, they are embracing the visions of others, some of which have been kicking around for a long time.

The Mayor’s affordable housing initiative is based around numbers of units, when it might have been easier to sell upzoning to outer borough neighborhoods if those units were combined with transit improvements and open space upgrades and additions. Decoupling design from pursuit of equity does both a disservice.

Yes, the BQX will go through Red Hook, and yes, the Lowline may offer additional free space to a dense, gentrifying area of Manhattan. But I don’t believe those are the primary drivers for either project. Improving bus service along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront would be a far less glamorous, less expensive, and less real estate driven way of improving connectivity in the boroughs. How far would $60 million get you toward an aboveground, low-tech, open-air room?

I personally want more than the Lowline for public space. If corporations, foundations, and users want to contribute, by all means. Unlike some donor-driven park projects, the Lowline does not preclude a raft of future possibilities or set a dangerous precedent, as long as everyone involved understands its true nature.

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