Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The city has given a green light to the subterranean Lowline in a former trolley tunnel.
Dan Barasch envisions verdant gardens below New York City’s concrete and asphalt. He pictures locals parading down flights of stairs to be confronted by stalagmites of ferns, bromeliads, and mosses in sunken spaces flooded with light.
It surely sounds fantastical, but New York City is one step closer to a year-round subterranean park now that the Lowline, a one-acre underground green space, has received a preliminary go-ahead from city officials.
On Wednesday, the city’s Economic Development Corporation designated the Lowline as the developer approved to work on plans for the decommissioned trolley terminal beneath the Williamsburg Bridge.
During the early 20th century, the site was a turnaround point for trolleys, but has been disused since 1948. In the interim, the space above ground has transformed into one of the densest pockets in a city already strapped for space. Barasch, the Lowline’s co-founder and executive director, wondered what might happen if developers built down, instead of up.
To prove the premise—an underground park sustained by light siphoned from the sidewalks—Barasch and his collaborators set up a prototype in a former warehouse space two blocks north of the park’s prospective future home. In the Lowline Lab, sunlight streams from a solar canopy mounted above 3,000 plants, including fruit that flourishes with no regard for the season. Inside, there were plump strawberries ready to be picked in March; a rambling mint patch was overgrown in the middle of December. The result, says Barasch, is a pleasantly puzzling sense of being completely immersed in a botanic garden in the midst of an urban area.
It’s hard to deny the project’s whoa factor, but supporters say that its utility stretches beyond a novelty experiment. “My first reaction was a combination of, ‘wow, that is the craziest thing I have ever heard,’ combined with ‘what if they can actually do it?’” says Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development. Glen views this project as a prospective model for other imaginative ways of revitalizing overlooked patches of public space—especially in neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side, where, she adds, “there isn’t much space to claim.” Zany ideas like this, she says, could be key to reactivating vast networks of often-invisible structures that are all but forgotten. “We are so cramped,” she says. “We owe it to ourselves to turn over a new leaf.”
Still, New York magazine reported that some transit enthusiasts have wondered if the space should be re-commissioned as a thoroughfare for trains or buses. Meanwhile, a handful of locals have expressed concerns that the project is destined to draw the same tourist crowds that sometimes choke the High Line, the green space topping a 1.45-mile-long elevated train track on the city’s western edge.
To Glen, these concerns are trumped by the project’s potential to, for all intents and purposes, accrete square footage that seemed non-existent. “We’re not taking something from some other purpose and having a debate over how to use that land,” she says. “We’ve created another acre of parkland where no one ever thought there could be one.”
But before the project can move forward, the creators will need respond to any public concerns by convening presentations, hosting site tours, and speaking before the local community board, which pledged support last December. This process “is like getting a blessing of the community,” says Stephanie Báez, the vice president of public affairs at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “If they get a thumbs-up from everyone, that’s another check in the box,” she adds. The team will also have 12 months to drum up $10 million in backing, and draw schematics that outline the sustainable mechanisms that will keep the project afloat.
Barasch says that the underground space bears traces of its former life; cobblestones and cables remain fixed to the floor and ceiling. “It’s like a fossil in amber,” he says. The solar technology, Barasch adds, could transform the space from a relic to chimera. By directing light down into the tunnel—similar to a magnifying glass throwing light—“we deliver this futuristic technology that invigorates the space and makes it like something completely unknown,” he says.
Glen wants to throw her weight behind the momentum that the project has already generated through programs in its temporary space. There, the creators have welcomed 70,000 visitors since October 2015; Glen views its success as a testament to the project’s viability. “The plants are alive—they’re growing,” she says. Moving forward, she adds, perhaps more fantastical ideas can serve as launchpads for surprising urban activations. “We’re open for business for other crazy ideas.”