Decoding Design

The Low Line: can New York's underground be revitalized?

The Low Line: can New York's underground be revitalized?

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A park with natural sunlight and plant life has been proposed to fill an empty subterranean trolley station in New York- is the future of sustainable urban design underground?

Last week, plans to repurpose New York City's abandoned Delancey Street trolley terminal were revealed by New York magazine. The solution? A sustainable underground park.

The project, located beneath the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan, has been informally dubbed "The Low Line," referencing the buzz for the elevated railway-turned-urban-park to its west, the High Line.

The High Line's renovation was met with critical acclaim since the completion of its first segment in 2009 and has since set a new standard for public spaces. Enter the Low Line: the proposed “Delancey Underground” would be another eco-friendly, privately-funded, design-heavy public attraction.

The project is the brainchild of designer James Ramsey of Raad Studios, Dan Barasch of PopTech and money manager R. Boykin Curry IV, who hope to use the two acres of space for a park that has natural sunlight pumped in through fiberoptic cables and mirrors that would allow plants to grow naturally.

This unorthodox approach to urban renewal is state-of-the-art in many ways. If successful, it could change the way we think about unused underground space.

Consider: the older a city, the more abandoned stations that likely exist. (In New York, there are nine stations that are entirely empty.)

This begs the question: what should we be using these spaces for, if at all?

Given the lack of open space in most dense urban areas, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the plan for the Delancey Underground is not the first idea to rehabilitate a deserted transit station. During the mid-1990s, the city made plans to make the historic City Hall station, out of use since 1945, into a branch of the New York City Transit Museum -- but the project was quietly forgotten only a few years later.

There may be many potential uses for the empty platforms: museum, park, or even a market or arcade. But proposals that involve the reuse of underground stations face many challenges -- largely stemming from their subterranean location.

While a project's intention may be “green,” lighting, heating and plumbing infrastructure to supply these spaces would be costly and potentially impractical. If the whole point is to create a re-used, sustainable place, it seems like the construction and extensive upkeep to make an underground space useable on a human level would be more expensive than simply designing around an existing structure above ground, such as Paris’ former Train Station (and now Museum) d’Orsay. Or the High Line.

A few factors make the Delancey station plan different from City Hall. The first one is the biggest: as a trolley terminal, trains aren't a safety concern, as they no longer pass through the space.

Additionally (and with another tip of the hat to the High Line), the designers are not seeking government funding and are instead relying on private donors to make the project happen.

According New York's Justin Davidson, the Metropolitan Transit Authority still owns the space but has been open to hearing Ramsey and Co.’s pitch. Despite all the hoops to jump, the group remains upbeat.

"In places as crowded as New York City," Ramsey said in an interview with SmartPlanet, "it is often too easy to choose development over public space. We feel that creative thinking, along with explorations of technology, can potentially serve a greater good, particularly in infrastructure-clogged neighborhoods with very few community amenities."

If they pull it off, the Low Line could change our attitude about going below ground.

Additional reporting by Reena Jana
Photo: James Ramsey/RAAD Studios

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure