Yes, that neglected trolley terminal under Delancey Street has already been dubbed the “Lowline site” by some. As of now, the underground park proposed for the space has no actual claim on the Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal, but the project already feels smugly wrapped in destiny — and that’s exactly what Community Board 3 railed against at last night’s Land Use meeting, requesting that the city halt steps to “activate” the space until the board could be consulted further. With the city expected to begin reviewing official proposals as soon as next month, members said they were blocked from influencing a crucial stage of the process and argued that the well-organized Lowline team has an unfair advantage.
As the Lo-Down already caught wind, NYC’s Economic Development Corporation publicly released a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) on the 60,000 square foot space, which is owned by the city, on November 23. But they only met with Community Board 3 last night – and the deadline for proposals is December 23. (City reps said they had reached out to CB3 before the RFEI was ever released so it should not have been a surprise.)
An RFEI is more open-ended than an RFP (Request for Proposal) and is typically used to gauge interest in a site before moving forward.
EDC rep Lusheena Warner called the document “very broad,” and added, “Essentially what it says is that, we’re going to look at proposals holistically….what’s financially feasible, what fits in with the community.”
But though this process may lead to a second RFP round, Warner also clarified that the city can select a “viable proposal” outright, bypassing the community board’s input at that stage. Still, she added, “regardless of whether or not we would move to an RFP, we are going to work with the community board at that time.”
Board member Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, expressed concern over what she called the EDC’s “short term memory.” She referenced the process that led to Essex Crossing, which saw extensive community involvement from the get-go.
“Yes, the Lowline is a sexy idea and there are lots of people who think that it is a great idea,” she said. “But our community and our needs have to be taken into account before an RFEI is issued.”
Indeed, the Lowline, as we’ve looked at before, has some very cool design tricks to roll out if given the chance: “irrigated sunlight” using solar panels to allow “stalactitic arrangements of pink flowers and tendrils” and “a rippling terrascape of ferns, succulents and waxy leaves” to thrive underground. In 2012 the Land Use committee voted to support it.
But concerns that the Lowline might have negative effects on the historically working-class community are not necessarily exaggerated, either. As we previously reported, the High Line’s opening in 2009 seriously upped Chelsea’s real estate game, pushing the average price of a condominium up 85% in five years.
“We are a community that is experiencing lots of displacement,” said Reyes. “For some of us, we are on the brink of survival here. And that cannot be something that’s an afterthought, after somebody puts their concept forward and now we have to work within the parameters of that particular proposal. It doesn’t really leave room to create process where many different things can be considered.”
The vacant trolley spot, closed in 1948, has been eyed by the visionaries of “the world’s first underground park” for years by now. Community members complained that momentum behind the Lowline team — a slick pairing of a former Google employe and an architect from Tribeca-based RAAD – amounted to an unfair head start, with little room for other less well-known proposals to mature and throw their hat in the ring.
Kerri Cullhane, the Associate Director of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, called the short time frame for accepting proposals during the holiday period “sole-sourcing.”
“It really does make it impossible for anybody to compete,” she said. “We’ve all seen the level of renderings, designs, and research that has been done by the Lowline…Even if somebody had a really great idea, it will not look as good on paper, it will not have the funding.”
Warner continued to say that all proposals will be considered by EDC. “I understand all of your concerns about the process, but again, if there are things that people would want to see, we would love to hear them,” she said. “There is nothing in this piece of paper that says something can’t happen, because it is completely open.”
Today, Anthony Hogrebe, a rep for the EDC, reiterated to us that “an RFEI does not prescribe specific uses and is a much less onerous process than an RFP, which should make it easier for any interested parties to suggest ideas for how to activate this space. It was a public release that was shared with press. We have and will continue to engage the community before, during and after the RFEI, and will have conversations with the CB and local elected officials before any next steps are taken.”
Last night, some committee members said they were sick of private development. Cathy Dang, a board member and the Executive Director of CAAAV, asked if it was an option to leave the space alone. Warner replied that if there were viable proposals that worked with the community, the city would move forward.
“There are definitely other uses – besides what has been out it the media until now – that probably would benefit the community the most,” he said. “I hope the deck is not stacked against any other of the participants or applicants.”
The meeting ended with 10 board members voting for the RFEI to be rescinded for the time being, to allow the community board process to inform any future utilization of the space. One member abstained.