Digging the LowLine
by Kevin Sweeting
If you stand on the end of the platform shared by the J and M trains in the Delancey-Essex Street subway station and squint past the rails of the M line, beyond the columns supporting the street traffic above, you can see a gloomy-looking expanse of empty space pocked with puddles and ringed with graffiti. A bit more than an acre in size, the cavernous rectangle stretches for three blocks below Delancey Street, between Essex Street and Clinton at the mouth of the Williamsburg Bridge.
Opened in 1904 as the Essex Street Trolley Terminal, the space served as a depot for streetcars operating along the bridge’s Brooklyn-bound trolley lines until 1948, when private trolley service over the bridge was suspended and control of the space was transferred to the newly formed MTA. No longer running streetcars, and without an obvious need for their strange vestigial infrastructure, the MTA had the space sealed and abandoned it.
A few years ago, two thirtysomething friends, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, decided that the space should be a public park — a subterranean science-fiction cousin to the High Line’s verdant boardwalk, called the LowLine. They proposed using an arrangement of lenses and tubes to collect natural sunlight from the surface and pipe it below, illuminating the space and supporting photosynthesis in what they are calling “the world’s first underground park.” In much the same way that the High Line’s modern repurposing of underused infrastructure redefined a long stretch of West Chelsea, the LowLine founders describe their project as “not merely a new public space, but an innovative display of how technology can transform our cities.”
The LowLine’s crusade to carve a park from an underutilized corner of belowground transit infrastructure is an innovative solution to a persistent problem: Community parks are a public good, and the Lower East Side is a neighborhood severely lacking in green space. The LowLine could be a subterranean respite in a neighborhood where real estate prices on the surface are inhospitable to the idea. What seems left unconsidered, however, is how it would fit into the future of a changing Lower East Side — and whose priorities “the world’s first underground park” would service.
The duo, who first conceived of their subterranean park in 2009, are not idle dreamers pitching fantasy civic projects for fun. Ramsey is the owner of the Lower East Side design firm Raad Studio and an ex-NASA engineer, while Barasch clocked stints at Google and UNICEF before moving into an executive role at PopTech. Hoping to bring their idea to fruition, Barasch and Ramsey followed a roadmap to success plotted by the Friends of the Highline and set up the Underground Development Foundation, an organization under which they could organize and advocate for the project, and began working with a real estate consultancy firm on an initial “scoping exercise” of the terminal space. In September of 2011, a quick look at the LowLine’s proposal was publicly unveiled on New York’s Intelligencer blog. People really liked it.
The technology behind the project has a kind of irresistible science fiction appeal: A series of parabolic mirrors stationed aboveground collect the sun’s rays and direct them below through a series of “irrigation tubes,” which pipe the sunlight across an undulating canopy that works as a fixture to splash the light across the terminal space. In the days following its online debut, the project’s psychedelic renderings and intriguing pitch for innovative, public green space became a mini-sensation and birthed a wave of stories on sites from CNN to InHabitat to Web Urbanist. The Architect’s Newspaper said it “could become the next park phenomenon”; Business Insider reported that the “ambitious underground oasis” had “New Yorkers buzzing with excitement.”
By the end of that year, the Underground Development Foundation was well on its way to being officially recognized as non-profit 501(c)(3) and Barasch and Ramsey had taken meetings to discuss their plans with Jay Walder, then-head of the MTA, as well as the commissioner of the city’s parks department at the time, Adrian Benepe, the city’s Economic Development Corporation, the Lower East Side Business Improvement District Board, and a string of possible wealthy supporters.
With interest mounting, in February 2012, Barasch and Ramsey launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising a hundred thousand dollars to build an initial “full-scale installation” of the project’s remote skylight technology. The founders acknowledged that the LowLine park itself was still several years — and several bureaucratic leaps — in the future, but hoped that the functional prototype would be the process’s first step, an “invaluable tool in helping convince [the] community, potential funders, the City, and the MTA that this idea can work.” Online coverage continued to flow, with stories at Fast.Co.Design, The Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Hundreds of others followed. Kickstarter Co-Founder Yancey Strickler shouted out the project in a segment on CNN and highlighted it as the site’s Project of the Day. On April 6th 2012, the LowLine’s crowdfunding campaign closed, having easily blown past its initial goal to collect one hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars from thirty-three hundred backers.
That proof-of-concept installation, dubbed “Imagining the LowLine,” opened for two weeks in September of 2012 as a kind of public preview. The windows and skylights of the hosting warehouse were covered, while a solar collector on the roof piped light into a canopy fixture hung from the rafters. The fixture, a swooping circus tent of anodized-aluminum panels, released the light in slanting shafts that cut across a small mossy knoll topped by a single Japanese maple and prowled by a praying mantis the founders started calling “Zoltan.” The scene looked like a miniature sci-fi version of a Hudson River School painting.
During its two-week revue, the “Imagining the LowLine” exhibit played host to events and fundraisers and food carts. In all, eleven thousand people came to poke around. An online piece from the New Yorker favorably compared arriving at the mind-bending exhibit to Alice’s long tumble into Wonderland, saying “it seemed obvious why the LowLine needs to exist.” As a demonstration of the technology and the intrigue around space, the exhibit appeared to be a triumph.
The next two years were spent on a quieter campaign of political networking and fundraising. In order for the Essex Street Trolley Terminal to become a park, control of the space would have to be transferred from the MTA to the City’s Economic Development Corporation, which could designate it a public space and place it under the auspices of the City’s Parks Department, who would in turn partner with the LowLine’s Underground Development Foundation to build and run the park. But the unstaffed and underfunded New York City Parks Department already oversees some five thousand properties across the five boroughs, so creating new park space — especially experimental, underground (or elevated!) park space that will cost tens of millions of dollars to build — does not generally rank highly as a city priority.
The LowLine’s spiritual predecessors at the Friends of the High Line were able to shepherd their project to fruition by raising money independently, working to refine their idea, assembling political support, and laying out their primary plans while staving off the need for city involvement until all the pieces were in place — a path the LowLine also hopes to walk. In a 2012 interview, Ramsey mentioned that Friends of the High Line co-founder Joshua David was one of the first people he discussed the LowLine concept with. Both David and Robert Hammond, the Friends of the High Line’s other co-founder, sit on the LowLine’s Advisory Board. Unsurprisingly, fundraising plans for the LowLine closely mimic the efforts undertaken by the Friends of the High Line as it worked to support its initial planning efforts and contribute to the promenade’s initial construction. In that vein, the LowLine group and its Board of Directors spent 2013 and 2014 hosting a string of fundraising dinners and big-ticket parties aimed at simultaneously boosting the Underground Development Foundation’s coffers and currying favor amongst a network of wealthy supporters and celebrity advocates.
This type of private philanthropy is a model widely embraced by privately funded conservancy groups looking to bridge the gap between ambitious park plans and the anemic reality of the city’s municipal budget. Many New York City parks — Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, and Hudson River Park, to name just a few — are supported by organizations that supplement the money allocated to them by the Parks Department. Frequently, they pay for much more than the city does — seventy-five percent of Central Park’s budget is covered by private donations — and so these conservancies and “Friends” organizations often handle design decisions, staffing, programming, maintenance and usage decisions. Ninety-eight percent of the High Line’s yearly operating budget is covered through donations routed through the Friends of the High Line. In July 2014, Ramsey mentioned to The Architect’s Newspaper that the LowLine had ”several seven-figure pledges.” Three months later, tables at the organization’s 2014 “Anti-Gala” hosted by Spike Jones and Lena Dunham sold for twenty-five thousand dollars. This October, Anti-Gala attendees can purchase a hundred-thousand-dollar “Visionary Table.”
The LowLine’s strategies for securing control of their site and navigating local government bureaucracy have also closely paralleled those of the Friends of the High Line; publically available tax records from 2012 indicate that the LowLine paid James Capalino, a prominent real estate lobbyist and an early member of the Friends of the High Line’s Board of Directors, nine thousand dollars to “lobby state and local officials and officials of the Transportation Authority to gain their support” for the project. In July 2013, the project took a major step forward when nine New York politicians, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and the then Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, collectively sent a letter officially urging the city’s Economic Development Corporation and the MTA to begin discussing transferring control of the trolley terminal to the Park’s Department and the LowLine organization, citing the benefit the project could bring to neighborhood through “increased sales, hotel and real estate taxes and incremental land value” as a “year-round public amenity, [that] will be a draw for tourists and residents alike.”
With a string of successes behind them and big time money and political support falling into place, the LowLine seemed poised to spring from idea to reality. Oddly though, the LowLine’s public forward momentum appeared to slow, and in June of this year the team returned to Kickstarter and asked for two hundred thousand dollars to fund a exhibition space they are calling the LowLine Lab. The campaign page, illustrated with the same renderings that accompanied the first, explained that the LowLine team plans to build out a “laboratory” space to test three things: the performance of their solar technology, the flora to be used in the space, and the social and community value of the LowLine, a pitch that closely resembled the stated goals of the group’s previous “Imagining The LowLine” exhibit. On July 8th 2015, the LowLine closed out its second successful Kickstarter campaign, collecting over two hundred and twenty-three thousand dollars from more than twenty-five hundred backers. The LowLine Lab, which is scheduled to open this month, will be a kind of “open studio” — a working research space opened up for public visits.
The economic benefits touted by those nine New York politicians in their letter supporting the LowLine project come from an economic impact study undertaken by HR&A Advisors, a power-brokering consultancy firm known for its key role in the creation of the High Line, and which appears to have worked closely with the LowLine team even before Barasch and Ramsey debuted the project to the public. HR&A completed the survey in 2012 in an effort to generate momentum for the LowLine idea by showing the positive effect it would have on development projects being proposed for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, a stretch of prime real estate property immediately adjacent to the Essex Street Trolley Terminal that was then slated for redevelopment.
The LowLine has not publicly released HR&A’s report, but it did circulate the document privately amongst local politicians and developers. The most public attention the study received was a Wall Street Journal piece published on Christmas Day 2012 which presented HR&A’s finding that the LowLine “would boost land values of SPURA sites by between $10 million and $20 million and create between $5 million and $10 million in sales, hotel and real-estate taxes.” The article continued:
The LowLine backers say in the summary that they will seek to raise $55 million, figuring the actual cost will be in a range between $44 million and $72 million, including donations and between $7 million and $14 million in tax credits.
With a projected annual operating cost of between $2 million and $4 million for the LowLine, the summary notes the goal of the park would be self-sufficiency, aided by revenue from programming festivals, performances, private events, public art and children’s programming. Commercial space is also planned.”
The Seward Park Urban Renewal Area is an expanse of city-owned parking lots and low-rise buildings stretching for several blocks down Delancey Street that has stood mostly vacant and underused since 1967, when the city leveled blocks of apartment buildings, displacing about eighteen hundred predominantly Puerto Rican families. Since then, calls for SPURA’s redevelopment had languished in the corrupt political cesspool of Albany, but in 2013 — after entertaining proposals from nearly all of the city’s major development companies — then-mayor Michael Bloomberg and his consiglieres at the city’s Economic Development Corporation unveiled plans to transform the dormant SPURA space into Essex Crossing, a 1.65 million-square-foot mixed-use, multi-building complex clustered around the intersection of Delancey and Essex Streets. Ground was broken on phase one of the project, which is being spearheaded by Delancey Street Associates LLC — a umbrella organization of investment partners and local real estate developers — earlier this year.
Essex Crossing is unprecedented in its scale, with all the hallmarks of a Bloomberg-era redevelopment project: The six-acre complex is spread across nine separate plots of land and is scheduled to be in various stages of construction for the next decade. When complete, Essex Crossing should comprise hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space, dozens of restaurants, swaths of new office space, a badly needed grocery store, a new home for the Essex Street Market, a fourteen-screen multiplex, a museum space,a fifteen thousand square foot public park, and one-thousand apartments, about half of which will be permanently designated affordable.
The 1.1-billion-dollar project will undoubtedly bring further change to the look and feel of the already-gentrified surrounding neighborhood — where luxury development is quickly erasing what’s left of its history as a working-class pocket in Lower Manhattan — as well as introduce waves of a new class of commuters, tourists, commercial tenants, and residents to the area. At the center of all this change could be the LowLine.
Renderings for Essex Crossing reveal plans for a ninety-thousand-square-foot subterranean retail corridor connecting the basements of the complex’s three largest buildings, each of which will occupy a block-long parcel of Delancey Street, stretching from Essex to Clinton Streets. Dubbed the Market Line, that space will be anchored by an expanded Essex Street Market and host a new outpost of the Smorgasbord food hall, “incubator spaces,” and dozens of upscale retail and specialty food shops — kind of like an underground Chelsea Market. It would also sit immediately adjacent to the LowLine’s proposed home, directly below the automobile traffic chugging along that exact same three-block length of Delancey Street. A proposed aboveground site plan that Ramsey’s RAAD Studios shared with QDB Magazine in 2014 shows what appear to be entrances to the Lowline sprouting from the sidewalk on the corner of Norfolk and Delancey Street, immediately outside Essex Crossing building no. 3. Similar plans for the LowLine’s below ground space show it sharing a southern wall with Essex Crossing’s northern boundary. The two projects are immediately next to one another.
In a 2014 interview with The Lo Down, a Project Manager for Essex Crossing named Isaac Henderson called the LowLine a “tremendous opportunity to both give us visibility and access to sites 3 and 4 [Essex Crossing buildings], the Market Line space, and, in a perfect world there would be both connections between the LowLine (and the Essex Crossing project).” Henderson continued to explain that the Essex Crossing developers were “friends” with Barasch and Ramsey and that the two projects had discussed the possibility of connecting and shared their plans with each other. When I spoke with Dan Barasch on the phone in late June, he confirmed that the two organizations have shared initial plans and have a “really constructive dialogue” and “a strong capacity for partnerships” but reiterated that official plans for access between the two projects hadn’t been finalized.
The financial benefits the LowLine could bring to SPURA’s future developments as outlined in HR&A’s economic impact study did not go unnoticed; the team behind Essex Crossing was not the only candidate for redeveloping the SPURA parcels that noted the possibility of having the LowLine as an adjunct or extension of their space. Barasch told me that the LowLine had worked on plans with several of the original groups that had submitted redevelopment proposals for the space and that several of those developers, including the group behind Essex Crossing, had contributed to the LowLine’s private fundraising efforts over the years.
The LowLine is expected to cost upwards of fifty-five million dollars to build, the majority of which Barasch and Ramsey expect to come from private philanthropy, both personal and corporate. Space — even public space — that is created with funding from private interests is always going to privilege the needs and preferences of the interests funding it. The High Line is again a wonderful example. Financed in large part through a system by which real estate developers with projects in the surrounding area could expand their buildings beyond the area’s standard zoning limits in exchange for donations to a High Line Improvement Fund — and supported on many fronts by wealthy Chelsea residents — the High Line, which has no playgrounds for local children and is light on space for public assembly, but offers a nice stroll over to the shops at Chelsea Market, has stimulated billions of dollars in new development and helped raise property values along its snaking corridor by a hundred and three percent. The debate around the High Line’s success as a community space continues, but in purely economic terms the value it brought to the neighborhood undeniable. That is a benefit surely appreciated by the High Line’s most generous private benefactors, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, who live in the neighborhood, own businesses headquartered within a block of the High Line, and who have given a total of thirty-five-million dollars to the elevated promenade over the past five years.
The group behind Essex Crossing is not the only party with an interest in bringing the LowLine to the Lower East Side. LowLine Board member Peter Shapiro, the owner of Brooklyn Bowl and Port Chester’s Capitol Theater, recently became a partial owner of the Slipper Room, a burlesque theater about one-third of a mile from the LowLine’s proposed home. Shapiro is joined on the Board by David Barry, the President of Ironstate Development Company and a Fortress Investment Group board member. Ironstate oversees development projects in New York and New Jersey worth somewhere north of a billion dollars; it recently rehabbed the nearby Cooper Square Hotel into the Standard East Village (shitty cocktails but some decent reds by the bottle). Zach Aarons, the youngest member of the LowLine’s board, works in real estate development at Millennium Partners and is a venture capitalist who lists investments in “seed rounds or Series A rounds of technology companies mainly in real estate tech” in the “What I’m Looking For” section of his AngelList profile. Earlier this year he started a “real estate technology accelerator” called MetaProp.
It is no surprise that the LowLine, a project that has taken deliberate steps to highlight the role it could play in increasing the value of the surrounding real estate, is being supported at the highest level by people with financial and ideological interest in the continued growth of New York’s real estate value. That someone would look ahead at Essex Crossing’s years-long, 1.1-billion-dollar project of neighborhood redefinition and think, “what else can we do to raise property values in this area” is as best a summary of New York real estate as I can find. That supporting the LowLine can be favorably framed for the public as the creation of “green space” without having to actually sacrifice any of the area’s incredibly valuable surface-level square footage, is obviously another added benefit.
With a clear path to success marked out ahead of them, and with the support of local interests and well-connected board members supplementing the enthusiasm radiating off the peanut gallery of crowdfunders, the LowLine campaign has succeeded in cultivating a sense of inevitability that pushes us to imagine the finished space. The question at hand isn’t so much whether the LowLine will happen, but what it will look like when it does.
Officially, the LowLine has played close to the vest with details on how the space will look and how it will function day-to-day. Barasch has mentioned preliminary plans for a densely planted “ramble” accompanied by a gallery, a grassy common, and a plaza for hosting events and programming. The preliminary concept renderings that have been used to illustrate the project proposal show a kind of science fiction-y cathedral space dotted with families and people strolling past fountains and lounging on grassy knolls. The LowLine has been consistent in its plan to create “green space” on the Lower East Side — one of the most intriguing parts of their solar technology is its ability to support photosynthesis — but the vision we’re shown for the “world’s first underground park” doesn’t much resemble any traditional conceptualization of green space or “the outdoors” in any immediately recognizable way, and a consideration of the realities of the underground terminal and how it will function reveal the contours of a very different possibility.
In large part, it is the LowLine’s defining quirk, the fact that it is underground, that really complicates things. Public space isn’t by definition outdoors, and New York City is full of publically accessible indoor atria and plazas, but park space, urban park space in particular, is generally expected to serve a neighborhood function, or at the very least serve as a respite from its visitors’ crowded apartment buildings or antiseptic offices.They are spaces largely cherished as an escape from the rougher edges of urban living and the crowding and intensity of the urban landscape. On a more micro level, parks work as informal, democratically accessible gathering spaces and venues for community activities. People can play basketball or skateboard on swaths of blacktop, couples lounge on patches of grass, kids play on playgrounds, families barbecue, people stroll around or bike or jog or take in the scene, annoying Columbia students throw around Frisbees. Even the High Line, which doesn’t really functionally resemble a park in any traditional sense, offers breezes and people watching and opportunities to take in the skyline or catch views of the Hudson River. All of this, of course, would be impossible inside the LowLine.
Lacking soil, all the plants would be potted or bedded in planters. The Essex Street Trolley Terminal space is part of the New York City subway system. Temperatures in the Delancey-Essex Street subway station hit nearly ninety degrees this summer. When I spoke with Barasch, he explained that the project’s engineers are working on some sort of demising wall to seal off their space from the station’s active tracks and a ventilation system to help control the space’s temperature. But, as the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council Associate Director, Kerri Culhane, has pointed out before, there would be no breeze and no view
. On overcast days and in the evenings, when sunlight is rare, the space would be lit by artificial light. You would walk through a door to get inside. The overlap the LowLine would have with the spaces we recognize as parks seems slim.
In function and design, the LowLine is really an atrium. Tellingly, HR&A’s Economic Impact Study names the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center and Apple’s underground store on Fifth Ave — both of which are retail atriums, neither of which are parks in any any sense of their set up or use — as models for the LowLine. City ownership and ostensibly democratic access qualify the LowLine as public space, but it can hardly be heralded as “the world’s first underground park” without first retooling any colloquial understanding of the word.
The LowLine is not without its merits. The design of the space is prepossessing and would offer access to an otherwise unused piece of fascinating New York City history. And, on a certain level, it is idiotic to argue against adaptive reuse of unused space. There is also an undeniably impressive technological appeal. From a design perspective, the solar irrigation technology seems innovative and necessary in a way that so much new technology, particularly environmentally conscious technology, can only grasp at. Imagine the ecological benefits that could come from offsetting even a small percentage of our daytime light usage with bottled sunlight. Imagine the benefits solar irrigation could bring to innovative indoor farms like Ecopia, or the forthcoming flood of marijuana operations.
So, while it is hard to deny the initial appeal of the LowLine’s futuristic concept, the draw it would have as a repeat destination for Lower East Side residents, once they’ve paid their visit and satisfied their curiosity, is harder to see. The Bodies Exhibit didn’t exactly become a neighborhood hangout. Essex Crossing’s commitment to solidifying the Lower East Side as a tourist destination, and the proposed LowLine space’s proximity to Essex Crossing’s “more destination-oriented uses on Delancey Street,” suggest a space that seems set up to cater to tourists or the single-visit curiosity of residents checking out the space or attending a one-off event. Like the seating filling the pedestrian plazas along Broadway’s mid-town intersections, or the High Line even, the LowLine seems designed to function more as a tourist benefit than as a setting for spontaneous leisure or local activity.
Barasch and Ramsey have explained that the space’s “self-sufficient” model for covering their projected two-to-four-million-dollar yearly maintenance and upkeep costs will couple private donations with programming revenue generated through “festivals, performances, private events, public art and children’s programming” and from the leasing of commercial space. Engineers who have worked with the LowLine on plans for the space have said that it can hold close to fifteen hundred people; a capacity that would easily rank it among the largest rentable event spaces on the Lower East Side.
If the #Lowline transformed into your new favorite concert venue, who would you want to perform? Tag them! pic.twitter.com/VCV8RyvQhz
— the Lowline (@lowlinenyc) July 24, 2015
The LowLine’s use as an event space, and the necessary revenue it would draw from hosting those events, would likely require it to remain open into the night. A recent LowLine tweet suggests the space could host concerts, and it’s not hard to imagine it becoming a popular venue for fashion shows or public exhibits. The High Line has had success employing a similar supplementary funding model by renting exclusive access for parties and events at various points along its thoroughfare through a partnership with the Skylight Group, a event production company known for specializing in “large, distinctive, typically historic locations.” Jennifer Blumin, the founder and president of the Skylight Group, sits on the LowLine’s Board of Directors and is married to LowLine co-founder James Ramsey. The Slipper Room’s Shapiro, another LowLine Board member, has also worked as a producer for the Green Apple Music Festival, the Central Park Jazz & Colors Festival and the Great GoogaMooga, all of which are privately run festivals held in public parks.
Most importantly, it will be the tone of the LowLine’s commercial space — the lease to which is, again, an essential source of revenue earmarked to cover the space’s operating costs — that will play the largest role in defining the space’s day-to-day atmosphere and use in the coming years. Even if the commercial space is kept small, its location within the LowLine’s official space will give that tenant, and ultimately the demographic they hope to attract, an incredible amount of control in defining the feel of the larger room. For a concessions lessee, even simple questions about what will be served (coffee vs. booze, panini vs. Pies and Thighs) and their operating hours will be integral in defining how the space is used and the rhythms of the visitors it caters to. Tougher questions about seating and the tenant’s popularity further complicate things. A passing familiarity with the commercial development currently roiling through the Lower East Side, or, honestly, a quick stroll down Orchard Street on any Friday evening, makes it too easy to imagine the LowLine playing host to a corny Pan-Asian Beer Garden, or serving as the waiting room for the newest location of Parm. What happens when tour buses begin dropping piles of eager tourists in the area? How is the space negotiated when the sidewalk scene rushes inside to take cover from a sudden rainstorm? Who polices the LowLine’s maximum capacity? Am I allowed to stroll the space with my margarita? These are not insignificant questions.
Private commercial leases to concession groups like the one bundled into the LowLine’s plans are common in New York parks. The Pavillion at Union Square pays the city an annual rent of three-hundred-thousand dollars to operate in the park’s northern pavilion. Midtown’s Bryant Park has been run by the non-profit Bryant Park Corporation since 1992 and is fairly credited with the surrounding area’s dramatic rejuvenation. Recently however, the BPC has faced criticism for opening the doors to unsubtle corporate sponsorship with recent projects like the Southwest Porch, an open-air bar and restaurant “celebrating” Southwest Airline’s service out of Newark and LaGuardia Airports, and the Bank Of America Winter Village, a complex of boutique-style shops, food stands, and a seventeen-thousand-square-foot ice skating rink that takes over the park every year from October through March and is sponsored by Bank of America, headquartered on the park’s northwest corner in the Bank of America Tower at “One Bryant Park.” This growing privatization of common spaces is hardly a phenomenon without precedent in New York: Damrosch Park, behind Lincoln Center, is closed for private events more often that it is open to the public and its benches and trees have been pulled out to create space for circus tents and Fashion Week runways.
From here, the LowLine’s return to Kickstarter earlier this year takes on new light. What appeared to be a scrappy but ambitious urban design project working towards creating green space in an underserved community seems to actually be quite a large and well-supported organization with close relationships to developers crashing projects into the immediate neighborhood. Over the past several years, details on the project’s space have emerged that suggest a final outcome very different from what many have come to expect. The LowLine’s proximity in location and concept to the rising Essex Crossing complex, and its financial reliance on philanthropic largess and the fees collected through events and programming, open the door to the slow erosion of the space’s commitment to public access, a type of privatization with a disappointing precedent among New York’s parks. Worse still, it seems obvious that the LowLine is being conceptualized and funded and brought into this world to satisfy the priorities of a class of residents, developers, and politicians who are inclined to measure a project’s “success” not in terms of its function as a “park” or use as a community space but along the metrics of the financial growth it generates.
If it comes to pass, the LowLine, it seems, will not be the World’s First Underground Park, but just another place in New York. A closer relative to Dorney Park than Central Park, it is an atrium, an event space, and another example of our lowered expectations for the city. On the LowLine website, Barasch and Ramsey explain that “the Lowline aims to build a new kind of public space” and it seems likely that they will be successful. That this type of place — a place which under reasonable scrutiny seems to be more of a semiotic gesture in the direction of “park” than an actual park — will be received first as park-like-innovation and then, like all innovations that ride their wave to shore, as eventually just another park, has also succeeded in cultivating a feeling of inevitability. In much the same way we have changed our expectations for who pays to build our public spaces, we have also changed our expectations for role they play in our lives. This is how you build the World’s First Underground Park.
Renderings of Essex Park Crossing by SHoP Architects