Beneath Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side lies a derelict tram station that’s been closed since 1948. With cobblestones, vaulted ceilings and snaking tracks, the century-old site is a favourite of graffiti artists. But when architect James Ramsey saw it in 2009, he envisioned a different use for the gritty canvas: spraying it with natural light and creating an underground park.
At the time, Ramsey was tinkering with solar technology that could make this fantasy possible. While working at NASA, he realised that the high-quality optics he was developing for satellites could be used in architecture. Solar panels could collect sunlight and channel it via fibre-optic “helio tubes” to basements and windowless rooms, creating what Ramsey calls a “remote skylight.” The Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal, he thought, would be the “coolest, biggest, oldest” place to apply the new technique. He teamed up with Dan Barasch, a former Google strategist, and devised a plan to turn the 60,000 square foot site into a subterranean tropical garden called the Lowline. In an area devoid of green space, it would be a public amenity, science experiment and urban adventure rolled into one.
It sounds crazy, but the technology works. Since October, the Lowline team has tested the idea in a blacked-out lab nearby, which is open to the public on weekends until March 2017. Plants are thriving; children love it. If the city approves it, hopefully in the next few months, the park could open in 2021.
The idea touches on “the creativity and scrappiness of an urban dweller,” says Barasch. “It’s trying to challenge the assumption that cities and nature can’t be compatible.” New Yorkers have always elbowed into any open space they can find, building parks on abandoned lots or derelict piers, and the Lowline continues that tradition. Its name nods to the High Line park, located on an elevated train track, whose success has given credibility to other out-of-the-box designs. Like that west-side catwalk, the Lowline would also save a rare vestige of Manhattan’s past.
Under eight lanes of traffic, the trolley terminal is in an area of particularly bad urban planning. In the 1960s, the city razed 14 blocks of tenements around Delancey Street, promising to build new apartments for local residents. Five decades later, the site is finally being developed, in a $1.1 billion mixed-use scheme called Essex Crosssing, also scheduled to open in 2021. Ramsey and Barasch argue that the Lowline would energise a neglected neighbourhood, boosting local businesses and giving children a safe place to play all year round. With the mayor, Bill de Blasio, waging a campaign against inequality, a project that benefits such a diverse, mixed-income and underserved community feels well timed.
The public appears to have embraced the idea. Since the Lowline Lab opened its doors six months ago, 50,000 people have visited. The horticultural and technological workshop, located in a former market building on Essex Street, was designed by Ramsey’s Raad Studio and landscape architect Signe Nielsen. It is lit by soft, bright rays that bounce off an aluminium canopy. When a cloud passes by, it gets dimmer; you look up almost expecting to see a skylight. Ferns, palms and Spanish moss hang from the ceiling. Funnelled from three solar panels on the roof, the light is refracted but still natural, so it contains the full spectrum of colours that plants need to flourish.
Everything has fared surprisingly well, even on short winter days. When the gardeners joined the project last summer, they were initially uncertain about the technology, worried it wouldn’t produce enough light. But it works. “We were careful at first, but now we’re able to expand the palette,” says Mark Mini of John Mini Distinctive Landscapes. Nephthytis, dyckia, and fuchsia splendens are thriving. Mushrooms have sprouted on the moss and once a lizard appeared. Even sun-loving edibles have taken off: spearmint, French lavender and strawberry plants. “We’re creating our own environment in here,” says gardener Andrew Engel, who just added German hops to the mix. With over 100 solar panels, the real park could host many more species. “This opens up a whole new field of horticulture,” Mini says.
Visitors to the Lowline Lab overwhelmingly share its founders’ excitement, although there have been been mutterings about about security, sanitation and access, plus fears of further gentrification. “I think really beautiful spaces elevate everyone and should invite everyone,” Barasch says, but there’s a widespread misconception that good design is only for the rich. The Lowline team hopes to mitigate that perception through extensive community outreach and inclusive programming. Students can already get involved through the Young Designers Program, which uses the lab to teach science, engineering and design.
Even though the solar technology works, the Lowline still has a long way to go before it’s built. The city has indicated support, but has yet to approve it. Construction would cost over $60 million, which Ramsey and Barasch anticipate raising through public and private channels. (By comparison, the High Line cost over $187m.) Since the project touches on science, historic preservation, community development and education, it will be eligible for a range of local and federal funding sources, including tax credits. Annual programming and maintenance costs would run about $2 to $3m, covered by loyal contributors and earned revenue.
Whether or not the Lowline happens, the technology will probably endure. Natural light is crucial to our well-being so remote skylights would bring real health benefits to schools, hospitals, and offices. It could be applied to urban agriculture or luxury basements – even space stations. None of this is in the works yet, but Ramsey hopes to bring the technology to London, incorporating it into a design adjacent to the proposed Garden Bridge.
For now, the trolley terminal is brightened only by graffiti tags. Whenever the transit authority paints over them, they reappear like weeds. New Yorkers will always reclaim what’s theirs. “That’s what I love about the spirit of graffiti,” Barasch says. “It implies a sense of taking the city back.” In its own way, the Lowline may do the same.
The Lowline Lab (140 Essex Street) is open at weekends until March 2017