Picture a typical park: grassy lawns, groves of trees, and plenty of benches for people-watching. Then imagine that scene as subterranean. James Ramsey, principal of New York’s RAAD, and Daniel Barasch, an experienced nonprofit manager and marketer, are bringing that vision to life. The duo currently is generating public interest and raising funds to build a park beneath Delancey Street, part of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The setting for the 60,000-square-foot (1.5-acre) proposed park is a former trolley terminal, built in 1903 and abandoned since 1948. Many historic architectural details of the terminal remain, such as cobblestones and 20-foot-tall vaulted ceilings. Ramsey and Barasch plan to preserve these features as part of the Delancey Underground, which has also been dubbed the “LowLine”—the world’s first underground park, they claim. While it might seem like a far-out concept, the transformation of the High Line—an elevated-railway-turned-park along Manhattan’s West Side—proved that unconventional places can become successful public spaces, particularly in cramped urban environments.
An underground park provides one major advantage over its aboveground counterparts: year-round use, even during cold and rainy weather. Ramsey and Barasch envision programming beyond the typical parkgoing activities, including collaborations with local businesses and organizations to establish retail components, art displays, a farmers market, and events for children. First, however, they must overcome a few obstacles of building below ground—most prominent, the lack of sunlight.
Ramsey, a former satellite engineer for NASA, used existing solar technology to create a prototype for a remote skylight that features fiber-optic cables that gather sunlight above ground, concentrate it, and transfer it below to solar distributor dishes embedded in the park’s vaulted ceiling. His calculations suggest that these devices will provide enough sunlight to support photosynthesis while blocking harmful UV rays, so that sunglasses are optional (though still likely in this hip ’hood). The sunlight must be supplemented with artificial lighting, but, to avoid the indoor-mall effect, Ramsey plans to cluster fixtures to form “hot spots” that create contrast and drama. The designers are partnering with the engineering firm Arup to address other challenges, including ventilation and moisture control, and they are exploring sustainable features such as groundwater reuse.
Ramsey and Barasch have presented the LowLine plans to the local community board and to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The duo also launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000 to build a detailed mock-up of the remote skylight. If the rate at which donations are pouring in is any indication (it raised more than $155,000 via the Kickstarter campaign, which closed in early April), the underground park could become reality in a few short years, pending MTA and city approvals.