“Lower East Side, not for sale!” “Chinatown, not for sale!” These were the chants on the streets of Chinatown two weeks ago, when protesters, huddled under umbrellas, marched to City Hall to demand the prevention of the 80-story tower currently planned for the East River waterfront. With more luxury apartments on the rise and the commercial landscape following suit, anxiety over the rapid gentrification of the Lower East Side is intensifying.
Though the Lowline – the one-of-a-kind subterranean park currently under consideration for the neighborhood – has sometimes prompted similar concerns, its position as neither a condo nor a retail space makes it a little more difficult to imagine how it might transform its environment. By turns called a “botanical garden,” a “Trojan Horse,” “a lightning rod of science” and a “Hadean companion to the sunny High Line,” the Lowline is one step closer to becoming a reality.
October 16 saw the unveiling of the Lowline Lab, an experimental space that showcases a portion of the landscaped garden imagined for the final product, and tracks the functionality of its sci-fi-like solar technology. “It’s an active experiment,” said co-founder and creator James Ramsey, explaining that the space will adapt according to the data they collect over the next six months.
This follows on the heels of “Imagining the Lowline,” a public exhibition held in 2012, which initiated the Lowline’s feasibility studies and presented a full-scale model of what a portion of the Lowline might look and feel like.
Open to the public on weekends, the lab is housed in a former warehouse on Essex Street, just a few blocks from the Lowline’s proposed site – the eerie, abandoned trolley terminal adjacent to the JM subway stop at Delancey. A commuter gazing across the platform used to have to squint to make out its rows of steel pillars and trash-strewn dirt floor. Now the MTA has taken to lighting up the space, perhaps because of its associated glamor as the potential home of the “world’s first underground park.”
Officially, however, the MTA is keeping mum about the likelihood of the Lowline gaining control of the site. “[We] actively try to dispose of surplus property to raise funds for our Capital Program, but the former Williamsburg trolley terminal space has little value now,” MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg told me. “We don’t object to its conversion to a park project as long as the city and other stakeholders support the project and it does not impose a financial burden on the MTA.”
The Lowline must iron out all practical concerns and prove the viability of the project, and the Lowline Lab is part of this design process. It invites the public to imagine what this forsaken trolley station – about an acre in size, stretching three blocks beneath Delancey at the mouth of the Williamsburg Bridge – might look like as a garden, one that survives on “irrigated sunlight.” Essentially, rays are collected by a series of mirrored dishes on the roof, channeled by a network of “irrigation tubes” and refracted indoors by strategically placed reflective disks.
According to its survey data, the Lowline Lab has received over 6,000 visitors in its first three weeks, quickly becoming one of the most visited sites in the neighborhood. Though the press has been dazzled by the idea, and though it has been pitched as a community-driven project providing the neighborhood with much-needed green space, there are those who argue that the local community was not sufficiently consulted about whether they want this attraction – which has the potential to become a tourist hub a la High Line – in their backyard in the first place. According to property appraiser Miller Samuel, the average price of a condominium in Chelsea has risen by 85% between 2009, when the High Line opened, and 2014. A similar effect on the Lower East Side might have disastrous implications for its working-class residents.
Kerri Culhane, associate director at the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, has been a vocal critic. “The team hatched a fully formed plan in consultation with themselves, offered a free after-school program to local organizations in support of the plan, and then counted the participation in the free programming as community support,” she told me. “No actual public opinion or commentary was solicited by the Lowline to develop or shape their plans.”
“They presented to some community boards but there were no meetings with real residents on the ground,” said Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a neighborhood housing and preservation organization.
Izzie Oquendo, who works at Roma Pizza right next to the Essex/Delancey Street subway station, said he was given “no notice” about the project. “I had to see it on Channel 25,” he told us.
“I don’t know anything about an underground park,” said Ringo, a former resident of Chinatown and the owner of a hair salon a block away from the Lowline site. “I do know that everything is getting a lot more expensive. We’re getting pushed out.”
When I heard about the Lowline, my neighborhood-preservation spidey senses began to tingle. I imagined the founders – James Ramsey of the high-end Tribeca-based design firm, RAAD, and Dan Barasch, a social entrepreneur formerly employed by Google – parachuting into what they considered to be neutral space, unwittingly destroying the intricate social and economic eco-systems that exist in the immediate vicinity. With sponsors like Goldman-Sachs and eBay, and $25,000-a-table fundraisers hosted by the likes of Lena Dunham and Spike Jonze, the whole thing seemed just a little too slick.
For a project that claims to be “community-driven,” it seemed so very out of touch with the ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhood of the Lower East Side. On top of that, important questions were going unasked by the mainstream media, who mainly seemed caught up with the coolness of the idea. Questions like: Who will this project really benefit? Will it really be a place Lower East Siders visit on a regular basis, or will it be a novelty, a theme park, used mostly by tourists and benefitting mostly those interested in raising the price of real estate? Most importantly, who will feel excluded? Culhane has expressed concern about the space being rented for private events. “If they succeed in gaining site control, this will be a privately controlled public space, which will be best suited to parties and exclusive events.”
So when Barasch and Ramsey invited the press to a free tour of the lab, I approached with skepticism. The first thing to greet me in the main exhibition space was a smorgasbord of panini, salad and glass bottles of sparkling water. I spotted Barasch standing close by in a tailored jacket and statement spectacles. I introduced myself. He was charming, apologizing for his mouthful of delicious sandwich. (And it was delicious… mozzarella, olive tapenade, sun-dried tomatoes… but that’s neither here nor there.)
In the center of the space, a footpath led the way through a rippling terrascape of ferns, succulents and waxy leaves. Stalactitic arrangements of pink flowers and tendrils drooped from the ceiling, and a pineapple peeked out from the bounty. The mossy plants were bathed in shafts of sunlight that gave the place a cathedral-like glow. Specifically, I was reminded of the natural light in Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. At one point, the plants were given a shower by one of the landscapers buzzing about; they seemed to perk up, releasing their fresh herbal scent, and a rainbow appeared in the central cone of sunlight. Yes, it’s possible for something to be completely beautiful and completely sly at the same time, I thought, tearing myself away. I wasn’t going to be a magpie, seduced by shiny things. I had hard-hitting questions to ask.
Not before indulging in more delicious panini, however. I edged back toward the feast. There I met a fellow journalist who was dishing up some salad. “What’s in it?” I asked. “I can’t tell,” he said, “It’s so friggin’ dark in here.” It’s true, the solar technology didn’t do much to make us feel like we were in the sunshine, or in a park. In fact, the installation had to be illuminated by golden stage lights lining its perimeter and contributing artificial light, something its designers say would be a permanent feature of the Lowline “for safety reasons.” Perhaps “botanical museum” would be a more appropriate label, I thought.
I noticed Barasch looking vulnerable, so I cornered him. I asked him how involved the City of New York is in this project. It occurred to me that though proper community engagement would be the ethical thing to do, private developers don’t necessarily have the kind of responsibility toward the local community that the city does (unless, of course, they claim their project is “community-driven.”) “Oh yes,” Barasch told me, “The city is actively involved in a new commercial development called Essex Crossing. In fact, the building we’re in right now will be torn down to make way for a – a new condo building,” he said quickly.
Essex Crossing, a $1.1 billion development that will expand over a million square feet, is part of the city’s project to renew the neighborhood. It will include acres of retail space, new restaurants, apartments, a 14-screen multiplex, a museum space and a public park – as well as a 90,000 square foot subterranean “Market Line”: an upscale retail corridor that, like the Chelsea Market, will include specialty food shops, as well as a new home for Smorgasburg. “The Lowline is at the core of this new development,” said Barasch. “If you look at a map it’s in the middle. So I think the city is looking at this as something that connects with the revitalization of the neighborhood. If we gain site control, we would be the city’s not-for-profit partner in running the space.”
The construction of Essex Crossing will temporarily displace the Essex Street Market, a beloved neighborhood fixture, which is due to reopen inside the maw of the new development a few blocks down. Ringo, a market regular, is anything but excited about this change. “You think the same piece of fish is going to stay affordable for someone like me? No. Not when a coffee costs $5. Chinatown is getting smaller and smaller.”
As for who would be footing the bill for the Lowline, Barasch said that, along with Kickstarter funding and corporate support, they also received a grant from the city council.
For Wendy Cheung, an organizer at the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, Essex Crossing and the Lowline are merely symptoms of the larger problem of what the city chooses to prioritize. “If we don’t have a rezoning plan to protect residents, if we don’t address the issue of displacement, our community will be destroyed.” Cheung’s association forms part of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, which recently organized the march to City Hall to demand a rezoning plan for the neighborhood. “The city is responsible for protecting us,” she said.
I asked Barasch about the Lowline’s methods of community research, and got the same answer I got from Robyn Shapiro, their Director of Community. “We’ve consulted with a lot of community leaders along the way. We did some work with the Hester Street Collaborative to engage people about how we go about doing this. Our city council members co-hosted a community gathering. Our Young Designers’ Program has offered us an opportunity to connect not only with local kids but with their parents, which culminated in an exhibit at the Mark Miller Gallery. Generally, everyone is very excited about the idea of more green space on the Lower East Side. We’re also very excited about our Bright Ideas Series, a series of talks related to design and innovation. Another thing we keep hearing all the time is that there needs to be more educational opportunities in the city, and I think that’s why our Young Designers’ Program has been so successful.”
A spokesperson at Margaret Chin’s office confirmed that she co-hosted a community gathering with fellow council member Rosie Mendez “a few years ago,” where she “explained the benefits of the Lowline to members of the community,” namely “housing and tenant associations.” Chin and Mendez were also two of nine elected officials to pen a letter urging the Economic Development Corporation to begin discussions with the MTA about transferring the Williamsburg trolley terminal site to the city, touting the potential economic benefits of the Lowline.
The Lowline Lab’s “preliminary survey data suggest extraordinarily positive feedback,” Barasch told me later. “This feedback will only continue into 2016 as thousands more Lower East Siders are invited into the space to provide their own ideas on how reclaiming abandoned space and introducing nature can improve the lives of local residents.” Like the Lowline Lab, the Mark Miller exhibit and “Imagining the Lowline” also invited public feedback.
But Culhane of Two Bridges and Reyes of GOLES maintain that it is not sufficient to rely on people to volunteer limited feedback on a project for which the fundamental design — namely, an underground park — has already been decided.
“A proper community engagement process would involve having lots of different meetings all over the neighborhood, and presenting multiple options for the space,” said Reyes. (Culhane has suggested a bus terminal, for example.) “It would involve going into spaces where people don’t traditionally have a voice, and not only engaging the usual stakeholders. I have a hard time thinking about what this project would cost to build, when we have above-ground parks with real sunlight that are underfunded.”
Later, Barasch added that “the community board approved an official resolution of support for the concept. The Lower East Side Business Improvement District, which represents both small businesses and property owners, endorsed the project as a way to support small businesses by delivering desperately needed daytime foot traffic.” But in Culhane’s opinion, “presenting the project at a community board meeting is not the same as having a community meeting, where significant outreach is done in advance to ensure that everyone who should be at the table is in fact at the table.”
“Some stakeholders expressed their support very early on, but that’s very different from real community engagement,” said Reyes. “When you’re presenting an idea you want to see to fruition, and you already know what it is and how it’s going to be done, it’s difficult to imagine what kind of community engagement you could have from that, other than getting people to endorse what it is you’re doing.”
At the Lowline Lab tour, James Ramsey, whose Tribeca loft was recently featured in the New York Times, called the Lowline a “gift to the Lower East Side.” It’s all very well to turn unused urban space into something creative and inspiring, I thought. It’s all very well to find resourceful ways of monetizing that space. But can you really call a project “community-driven” when the community is only selectively engaged? It seems that, instead of asking local residents whether they want an underground park at all, the team asked visitors to their exhibitions (which included, but were not limited to, local residents) what kind of underground park they would want. This doesn’t leave a lot of space for opinions beyond endorsements. Along with “co-design,” “community-driven” is one of those fuzzy, vogueish terms that are difficult to pin down — but it definitely doesn’t mean “topdown,” which seems to be the most apt term for the Lowline’s approach, well-intentioned though it may be.
Barasch confirmed Culhane’s fear that the Lowline might be used as a sponsored– and sometimes private – event space. In an effort not to be too dependent on public funding (and becoming just another neglected city park), the Lowline – should it go ahead – will be open to events like weddings and private concerts. But the likes of restaurants would not have a presence in the space, Barasch said. “We’re not trying to create an underground mall.” They don’t have to — the Market Line is taking care of that.
Barasch led me through a back room that is currently used as a storage space for the Essex Street Market. Stepping over its dusty, dimly lit debris — mainly bits of old furniture — I wondered whether the kind of community outreach Culhane and Reyes are looking for would make a difference anyway. Essex Crossing is on its way like a giant, rolling boulder. Its ground has been broken. The Lowline is not what will transform the neighborhood – if anything, it’s the tip of the iceberg.
We climbed a staircase that took us to the roof, where we could view the mirrored dishes that were soaking up the sun. “Look, we’re not involved in anything residential,” Barasch said, squinting in the glare. “We’re building a park. We’re trying something new and inspiring. I understand people’s concerns, but if it gets to the point where no change is good under any circumstances, then there isn’t a lot of space left for innovation and creativity. I’d rather live in a city that embraces innovation and creative design, even if this means the rents are a little higher.” The Lowline might seem “a little out of place” in today’s Chinatown, but in a decade or two, it would be nestled between Essex Crossing and the Extell Tower. It would fit right in.