Wednesday, Jul. 11, 2012

Does Manhattan Need a Subterranean Park?

Architect James Ramsey has proposed a design for an underground park — officially known as the Delancey Underground, unofficially nicknamed LowLine Park in tribute to the High Line park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan's West Side. Ramsey's plan is to convert an abandoned Williamsburg trolley terminal on the Lower East Side into an underground park about an acre in size. "Remote skylights," a technology Ramsey invented, will allow natural sunlight to stream into the subterranean space. Ramsey and his co-founder, Dan Barasch, raised enough money through KickStarter to fund the creation of a mini version of the park, which they will open to the community in September.

TIME: Did you think of the idea of an underground park first and then find the space, or did the space inspire the idea?
JAMES RAMSEY: Around three years ago, I met a former MTA engineer who told me about the existence of all these crazy, lost sites underground. I was already working on the lighting technology, and so the thought certainly occurred to me that you could begin to use technology like this to actually bring sunlight into some of New York's lost spaces. This space in particular was right down the street from my office. It was certainly one of the largest and most interesting of these spaces, and because of many factors, including the history of the neighborhood and the lack of the neighborhood's access to green space, we focused on that specific site.

How did the Delancey Underground Project get the nickname LowLine park?
The name LowLine originally came from a friend of mine named Boykin Curry who just had the thought that this might be a catchy name. It's not something that we really broadcast, but what ended up happening is that as we started garnering press all sorts of people separately thought of this same nickname for our project. I guess it's one that stuck.

Can you explain, in layman's terms, how the "remote skylights" that will illuminate LowLine park work?
Basically, we treat light like a liquid. It's a system of optics that concentrates natural sunlight into a bead then channels it through tubes to where it needs to go and then redistributes it via a separate set of optics.

Why, during this economic crunch, should we invest in an underground park in New York City?
We're not asking for government money. This is something grass roots we are going to fund privately and philanthropically, in partnership with local organizations, to create a public space for an underserved historical community.

How do you plan to finance the project?
We've been looking at a number of revenue models. We're certainly indebted to the model that the High Line pursued. The High Line wrote the book on what it means to actually start a private organization and, for that matter, a not-for-profit organization, and use that to gather money to build a public space. I think what they did is an incredible achievement and something that we certainly look to for guidance.

Why do you think High Line park has been so successful, receiving 3 million annual visitors?
People are rediscovering our cities and thinking big about new ways to live. The idea that you could take remnant infrastructure and reclaim it for public good has certainly sparked a lot of people's imaginations. [High Line] invented real estate in a city that's pretty clogged. But at the same time, I think what they've done design-wise has been a huge part of their success.

Your website says you envision having exhibitions, farmers' markets, educational series, etc. at the park. How do you plan to attract these programs to your space?
I think that one of the things that we've started doing — and of course this is a multi-year, very involved process — is reaching out to local community organizations that already exist and coming up with partnerships and a schedule of events.

What has the community and government response to your project been like?
It has been overwhelmingly positive. We received an official endorsement from the Business Improvement District, from the local City Councilwoman, as well as the Community Board itself, very recently, so we are very well positioned right now. As we continue to establish ties and reach out to the community, I am hopeful that more support will come with that. What we're engaged in now is following through on all the economic and engineering studies that we need to do to flesh out our proposal for official consideration.