The Low-Down on the "Low Line": Architect James Ramsey Explains His Vision For an Underground LES Park

Rendering of The Delancey Underground "LowLine"
( Courtesy of Raad Studio)

NEW YORK — James Ramsey, a former NASA engineer and current principal of New York-based Ramsey Architecture and Design, came up with an interesting concept three years ago when the economic downturn's crunch on the architectural community afforded him a surplus of free time: to take an underground trolley station on the Lower East Side that’s remained derelict since 1948 and transform it into something unheard of — an underground park full of real live plants, pathways, and most surprisingly of all, sunlight, brought below grade using fiber-optic technology.

While it’s a far cry from Ramsey's bread and butter, high-end residential spaces, it falls into the same vein as his approach to his practice: a reverence for history that still incorporates futuristic elements (high tech gadgets made of raw materials, like a walnut soundsystem, for example). After presenting the idea in September in conjunction with Dan Barasch of innovative social network PopTech and money manager R. Boykin Curry IV, the media caught wind, and deemed the project, originally called the Delancey Underground, the Low Line, in reference to the elevated High Line park on the west side. Five days after the group launched its Kickstarter site, it's already more than halfway towards its $100,000 goal, indicating the level of excitement surrounding the project. That money will enable Ramsey and company to put together an official proposal for the park.

Between relocating offices from the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets (on the East Side) to a new office in the West Village, Ramsey talked to ARTINFO about those frequent, unfavorable comparisons of East to West, High Line to Low Line; the potential transformative properties a park underneath the ground could possibly have; and what else is hiding beneath our feet. 

East and West have been historic rivals, especially in New York City — East River Park’s major renovations over the past couple of years had people saying it's trying to attain the glory of its Hudson counterpart. How do you feel about people calling this project the Low Line, which is such an obvious comparison to the High Line? Does it bother you?

Not really. I think that the Lower East Side in particular has been historically and systematically ignored by the powers that be, and because of that it has very little nice public space. The High Line comparison is inevitable. A private partnership took a piece of remnant infrastructure and turned it into a public space, so it’s a spiritual predecessor to what we’re proposing. 

Are there a lot of these abandoned pockets under the city? It sounds like the stuff of urban legends.

Tons, from what an old MTA engineer told me. There a whole bunch of them that haven’t even been catalogued yet. To my knowledge, there are 13 acres of underground infrastructure space just in Manhattan. It highlights something really cool about New York City, which is that as forward-looking as we are, New York City is a city on top of a city on top of a city.  That’s an amazing thing, the fact that these unused spaces are really kind of peppering the New York City landscape. 

Can you describe for us lay folks the technology that goes into bringing sunlight into a subterranean park?

It’s three compononents: first of all, you gather sunlight with a system of optics, and you concentrate that light through pipes, or fiber optics, and then you deliver them at the final location. What we’re proposing is that the method of delivery is the inverse of how we gathered it, like a reflection, and so it’s a simulation of the sky. 

How does a website like Kickstarter help launch a project like this? 

I think there are a couple things going on here. At 4 days in yesterday, we were almost halfway done funding the entire thing, which is kind of crazy to me and kind of encouraging. It shows how much people are loving this idea. The money-raising aspect is only half of it. The other half is people having a sense of ownership and engagement. Kickstarter is allowing us to start a grassroots movement. This is a drop in the bucket, of course. This is all our primary work that lets us get to the point where we can actually start raising money for the actual construction of this thing. What we’re trying to do is a couple things. We want to build a scale version of this technology and concept of the park itself, almost like an art installation. That's going go happen in September at Essex Street Market. We need to do all the homework, like legal analysis, and structural engineering, and real estate analysis, et cetera, and use those to, firstly, put together a price tag on the overall thing, secondly, specify a business model, and finally, do so in such a way that’s convincing to the MTA itself because they own it.

The whole obsession with the High Line that everyone continues to harp on was its transformative effect on Manhattan's west side. Do you think the same thing is expected for this project, and even possible for a park that's going to sit below the ground?

I think there are a couple things to look at. This is the central nerve of the neighboord that’s been historically overlooked, one that doesn’t have much, if any, public space. This seems to me just a next generation way of filling that void and making an amenity the local community can actually use. Second of all, change is already certainly coming to that neighborhood. There's SPURA, a million-and-a-half-square-foot development, about to start immediately adjacent to the site. If one thing is for sure it’s that things always change. I think that’s some sort of Buddhist saying, right? Or maybe the 12 step program, I don’t remember. Change is coming, and the question to me seems more like, can we seize on the opportunity and control what the change is going to be? That it's suited to the community there rather than not playing a role in it? What we’re proposing is a landmark for one of the richest but most neglected cultural neighborhoods in America. 

Tell us a little bit about how you envision the space, and what exactly you plan on putting down there. 

The space itself was built in 1903, and it's so compelling just from an archaeological or historical standpoint. It would make me very happy to preserve as many inherent qualities of the space as possible and really make those shine. At the same time, the intervention we’re proposing is this liquid metal ceiling and greenery snaking through the space. It's very much my intention for there to be paths and trees down there as a year-round park. And I know it’s a little perverse. The repercusions and ramifications aren't clear because no one's ever done this before. I hope its not just cool as a phenomenon, but also to someone who lives nearby and can sit under a tree on a cold day in November. What actually is going to go into the space is very much in the air. That’s going to be deteremind by a bunch of factors, including the barebones economics of making this thing sustainable. We'd like it to be driven by the input fo the community itself, just sort of figuring out what the adjacent communities would really like.