Day 691: The Downstairs Park

originally published November 21, 2013

On a day such as this, when the mercury has given up its climb and packed its full breadth of ooze down below -10 degrees, I feel I should find something to appreciate in this woefully frigid city.

For the few months of the year that allow it, we are privileged to enjoy a serene swath of river valley, as well as a smattering of beautifully-landscaped parks. This means that in over a century of urban development, there have been some scraps of real estate that our councillors have opted not to fill with strip malls and cul-de-sacs. Other cities have been forced to act more creatively, to extract its green space from the bones of its history.

Rail trails are a popular solution – snatching up miles of abandoned track and converting them into miles of cycling, jogging, and someday (hopefully) hoverboarding fun. New York and Paris have vaulted the rail trail concept to include abandoned elevated tracks. Now New York is ready to take things in the next logical direction: straight down.

The story of the next phase of the city’s “outdoor” recreation begins here, on a strip of 10th Avenue once known as Death Avenue. The railroads had hired men on horseback – the ‘West Side Cowboys,’ which sounds like the name of a male strip club – to ride in front of the street-level trains to warn people to get the hell out of the way. Still, it was a mess. From 1929 through 1934, New York built a 13-mile elevated railway. It was designed to cut through the middle of city blocks, even running through taller buildings when necessary.

The High Line freed the neighborhood of Chelsea from its vicious traffic monster, which was great for about twenty years until the trucking industry began nudging the elevated rail service toward obsolescence. The southern stretch of the line was mostly demolished in the mid-60’s, and the last High Line train delivered its payload of frozen turkeys in 1980. The stretch of track sat there throughout the 80’s and 90’s like a mossy urban turd in the heart of the city.

Though it had been slated for destruction, an innovative movement began in 1999 by a pair of Chelsea residents who wanted to see the structure turned into something useful. The model they pointed at was the Promenade Plantée in Paris, an elevated 2.9-mile park built atop the old Vincennes railway and opened in 1993. And why not? The space is there, the structure is sound and there are enough people in the area that a park won’t be unused. It’s not ideal for Frisbee or a pick-up football game, but it can still be a park.

The High Line opened in 2009, phase two popped its cork in 2011, and phase three, which will stretch the park west to 12th Avenue and north to 34th Street, is on its way. The High Line is an inventive display of urban reclamation, repurposing a piece of the city’s history in a functional and ultimately appreciated way. The High Line is perpetually packed with strollers, runners and buskers, and crime has hovered right around nil. It has been an inarguable success.

And with similar projects in development in Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia, it seems only natural that New York would try it again. Only this time the city will be reclaiming a piece of its underbelly.

That’s the Williamsburg Trolley Terminal, located under Delancey Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. For those readers who are not in tune with New York’s geography, the Lower East Side is where the city’s new immigrants were traditionally crammed in those old photographs, with sections divided by ethnicity. The area is still wall-to-wall urban and downright dreary with its lack of greenery, making it the ideal location for a fresh park. But rather than hip-check a block’s worth of buildings into dust to make space, the Lowline team felt the city could benefit from a park underneath their feet.

Yes, this would be the Lowline, the High Line’s subterranean Boy Wonder. The trolley station was opened in 1908 but boarded up forty years later when the outdated mode of transportation was superseded by the subway. There are still cobblestones down there, criss-crossing tracks and massive vaulted ceilings. In its prime the station was a bustling stop en route to Brooklyn, poised at the feet of one of one of lower Manhattan’s three eastbound bridges. Now it’s sitting idly, awaiting a fresh reason for frenzied foot traffic within its innards.

But a park? How the hell is that even possible?

Helio tubes, baby. This technology is the heart, soul and pancreas of the Lowline: solar collection dishes on the surface collect the sunlight, which is then transmitted via fiber optic cable down these ‘helio tubes’ to the dome underneath, where the sunlight is spewed upon the park-going denizens. Science fiction? Well, it’s science, but thanks to an aggressive Kickstarter campaign and a team of minds far sharper than my own, it’s science fact.

The Lowline team set up an exhibit in an old warehouse in the neighborhood back in 2012 to show off the technology. A lone 30-foot aluminum solar canopy dumped perpetual sunlight on the trial-run park underneath. Because this is natural sunlight that will be feeding the Lowline park, it will provide the necessary nutrients for photosynthesis to occur, meaning the grass, trees and shrubs underneath will be real, not made of plastic. It’ll also filter out harmful UV rays, so you won’t have to worry about getting burnt.

Just the fact that I can seriously discuss the likelihood of acquiring a sunburn in a subterranean trolley station tells me we are neck-deep in the glorious future. The flying car can’t be too far away now.

The Kickstarter campaign brought in over $155,000 to set up the demonstration exhibit. The display was a complete success, earning the Lowline project an impressive buzz among local business organizations and politicians. There are still obstacles ahead, namely acquiring the property from the Metropolitan Transit Authority (the city doesn’t own its entire underground) and of course obtaining the funds to actually build the thing. But this summer nine elected officials sent a letter to the city, promoting the Lowline as a magnificent idea for New Yorkers.

According to the Lowline’s website, the team hopes to have negotiations for the land finalized next year, with a target opening date of 2018. That’s five years from now, roughly the length of time it took to build the High Line to replace those street-level train tracks.

It’s a beautiful thought, something to distract me from the seemingly endless sea of snow and frozen air outside today. Make this happen, New York.

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