Beneath the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the abandoned underground Williamsburg Bridge Railway Terminal could become the next park phenomenon. At least that is the plan of three entrepreneurs stirring up public support to build Delancey Underground. Architect James Ramsey, principal at RAAD Studio, envisions a polished, undulating ceiling plane containing high-tech “remote skylights” pouring natural light into the cavernous 60,000 square-foot subterranean space. Ramsey is working with tech executive Dan Barash and investment banker R. Boykin Curry IV.
The terminal’s archaeological qualities hit Ramsey on his first visit. “It very much feels like underneath the grime, there’s a very cool turn-of-the-century space down there,” he said. He cited the lesson of the High Line and how it has changed the discussion about how urban resources can be used to advantage.
The issue for the designers of the Delancey Underground is technology. Fiber-optic “remote skylights” would be installed to transfer sunlight from street-level solar collectors to brightly illuminate the underground space, a technology dating to the 1970s in Japan where it has been used to light retail spaces with natural light. Hoping to dispel any notion of underground as grim and slimey, Ramsey said the technology transmits the same light wavelengths that plants need for photosynthesis allowing for a lush garden to grow underground. A hybrid-electric system would provide light at night and during cloudy days.
Community Board 3 got its first look at Delancey Underground in late September, praising the concept but maintaining a cautious skepticism. The neighborhood, after all, has been waiting decades to heal the wounds inflicted by Robert Moses in the 1960s. Beyer Blinder Belle is preparing a master plan for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), adjacent to Delancey Underground, that will add hundreds of new residents to a neighborhood already lacking green open spaces. “Robert Moses knocked down an entire neighborhood, but after 40 years, they’re building it back,” said Ramsey. “We want to fit seamlessly into that master plan.”
As it stands today, the Delancey Underground is only a concept, but that could change with community input. Ramsey and his team have shopped their proposal to stakeholders for nearly two years and want to build community consensus for the space. In the next month, Ramsey will hold a town hall session to further engage the community in conversation. Later, a mock-up of the park including the remote skylights will be built as an art installation.
Ramsey’s proposal must beat out other ideas likely to emerge for the vast abandoned terminal including space-hungry big box retailers. He is open to incorporating retail components to help activate the park such as a winter greenmarket tied to a new Essex Street Market, but doesn’t want the space to become an underground mall. The MTA will be awarding the sub-lease to the selected user of the city-owned property once a future plan for the aboveground park has been settled.
Ramsey insisted his project will not depend on city funding. He said the nonprofit Underground Development Foundation will oversee fundraising and conduct a feasibility study. “We have a lot of fundraising to do,” he said, bravely. “We understand this project is a little out there for some people. We have a fairly good understanding of how big this project will be.”