What does it mean to be “green” 20 feet underground? This is the question being addressed by the Lowline, a proposal for 60,000 square feet of subterranean public space in an abandoned trolley terminal in New YorkCity’s Lower East Side. Situated at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge and beneath the city streets, the environment of the former Williamsburg Trolley Terminal consists of nearly 1.5 acres of crisscrossing railroad tracks, cobblestones, and a forest of steel columns supporting a vaulted concrete and asphalt ceiling. One would be hard-pressed to find anything green within the cavernous interior–not even a blade of grass. It is a forgotten relic of New York’s past, once a critical element in the city’s infrastructure and civic life now unseen and underutilized.
With the Lowline proposal, designer James Ramsey and director Dan Barasch seek to transform the former trolley terminal into an urban green space in the most traditional sense which is to say a park complete with grass, trees, walking paths, and recreation and leisure areas. While this may not be the most logical appropriation for an underground space, renderings from their proposal show children playing beside illuminated pools of water with lush trees receding into the distance. A grid of steel I-beams supports a vaulted ceiling which appears to emanate thin sheets of natural light to the environment below.
In order to provide natural light for the plants and trees underground, the designers have employed the use of remote skylight technology to collect sunlight from above and channel it below. While the concept is not new, the technology is novel in its use of advanced optical systems. Situated above ground are solar collection dishes and helio tubes which reflect and collect sunlight through their parabolic form and fiber optic cables. They are the only visible element of the park from street level. The dish employs a tracking mechanism which allows it to follow the path of the sun throughout the year. The light is then reflected and distributed through a mirrored dome into the space below.
This underground park would be the first of its kind. Its unique setting has dictated the process through which the proposal has been developed which is to say the primary issue with the Lowline is one of public perception from both a biological and cultural perspective. What would it feel like to be in an underground cavern filled with trees in a sunlit but skyless space? Is a park still green if it there is no sky?
Many questions about the proposal remain to be answered, but for now the Lowline team is busy trying to gain political, financial, and community support through a feasibility study and a full-scale mockup of the remote skylight. If the project does move forward, it would undoubtedly set a precedent and transform the definition altogether of what it means to be an urban green space.
Aaron Lim is a designer working at Feldman Architecture and is a frequent contributor to Green Architecture Notes.
This is the second in a series about different efforts to reclaim unused spaces in urban areas.. Contact us at email@example.com if you know of a project that you’d like to nominate for a future article.