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High Time for the Lowline
An underground green space in Manhattan's Lower East Side may see the light.
A demonstration of the Lowline's skylight is prepared for display in a Manhattan warehouse.
Lizzy Zevallos / Lowline

Well aware that the areas of greatest density often have the least public space, James Ramsey, the principal of RAAD Studio, set out to tap into New York City’s infrastructure for an exciting alternative to the above ground park. Instead of looking skyward à la the High Line, Ramsey ventured down into what he calls “the historical bowels of the city.” On the site of a 1.5-acre abandoned trolley terminal that lies under Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, the Lowline is poised to be New York’s most radical park project yet.

Here, remote skylights will not only transmit enough sunlight underground to see by, but enough to grow a wide variety of plants. “It was almost a philosophy on how you could get light down into places that wouldn’t normally get it,” said Ramsey. “When you start thinking about that you realize how much potential there would be for something that could bring natural daylight into dark spaces.”

In March, Ramsey and the Lowline’s co-founder, Dan Barasch, launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised $155,000 to fund the development of the remote skylights and construct a fully functional life-size installation to show to the community and prove to the MTA that not only is their idea popular, but it’s feasible as well. On September 13th, Ramsey, Barasch, and R. Boykin Curry IV, the project’s first major donor, will present a “mini” Lowline, a 30-foot-by-30 foot-by-20-foot canopy and green space installed inside the Essex Street Market. The event will include Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Arts Society, Mark Wigley, dean of Columbia University’s GSAPP, Loren Angelo, general manager of brand marketing at Audi of America, and John Alschuler, the chairman of the High Line, who will be announcing the results of the project’s financial and engineering studies.

The prototype skylight ceiling is assembled (left) and lifted into place (right) for a demonstration exhibition.
Lizzy Zevallos / Lowline

Edward Jacobs, a former high-performance motorcycle designer at Confederate Motors, who Ramsey describes as “a visionary and pretty much the most talented guy I’ve ever met,” is overseeing the fabrication and installation of the canopy. In brief, Jacobs designed a system of 600 laser-cut hexagonal and triangular anodized aluminum panels that form a tessellated curve designed to reflect the light gathered by the remote skylights down into the underground space. Because the curved ceiling-scape is so specialized, no two panels are exactly alike. Each have slight differences in length or width that allow Jacobs to create a form that maximizes the reflectivity of the natural sunlight directed into the park—and he did it in less than two months.

The public will have its chance to swoon at the installation in the two weeks following its unveiling. Then the hard work really begins. Apart from creating a convincing proposal for the MTA that outlines all aspects of the project and addresses their needs and concerns, Ramsey and Barasch must focus on fundraising, a task made somewhat less daunting by the project’s widespread support as well as claims that the Lowline will require only a fraction of what the High Line cost to construct. State Senator Daniel Squadron, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez are all already singing the Lowline’s praises, and even Turkey has expressed interest in a Lowline of their own.

A rendering of the future Lowline running beneath Delancey Street.
Courtesy RAAD Studio

Unlike the High Line, the Lowline isn’t a long stretch of landscaped walkway, but a wide expanse the size of Gramercy Square Park. One of Ramsey’s goals is to encourage the sense of discovery and exploration he feels when he visits his favorite part of Central Park, the seemingly uncurated Ramble, which he calls “the beating heart of Central Park itself.”

“You can walk through there and actually forage for strange, wild edibles,” he gushed. “You get a little bit lost. You don’t know what’s around the corner or over the next hill. I think that it’s one of the more successful landscape designs not only in the city, but in the world.”

In tribute, Ramsey is designing a Ramble of his very own for the Lowline that will capitalize on the elements that drew him to subterranean Delancey Street in the first place. “We’ve got this found archeological space that no one knows about. There’s this component of mystery to it that New York still does have all these secrets you can explore that you can’t find on Yelp. Going down into [the Lowline] invokes that sense of discovery and mystery as well as this element of archeological adventure, like you’re exploring a ruin. I want to capture the idea that you can explore not just horizontally but vertically. It should be a jungle gym for adults where you can do a little Rambling,” said Ramsey, brimming with Olmstedian spirit. If everything goes according to plan, Ramsey estimates that the earliest possible date of completion is 2016. “That’s a really ambitious date, but this project is really ambitious, and look how far we’ve come in a year.”

Perrin Drumm