Bottom-up Urbanism

Bottom-up Urbanism

When James Ramsey and Dan Barasch set out to turn a defunct trolley terminal underneath Manhattan’s Lower East Side into an open, airy park, they launched a Kickstarter. It was 2012 and they needed $100,000 to build a full-scale mockup of Ramsey’s “remote skylights” which would collect natural sunlight at the surface and funnel it into the 60,000-square-foot site through fiber optic tubes. If it worked, there would be enough light to sustain photosynthesis.

The team met its goal in six days, and ultimately exceeded it by more than $55,000. The installation was created that fall and, for the most part, the tessellated, aluminum light canopy, with its 600 individual panels, worked.


But in the year-and-a-half since, the Lowline’s 15 minutes have come and gone. The project has been eclipsed by other Kickstarter campaigns, including ones for a floating pool, a floating beach, a floating party island, solar paneled streets, and so on and so forth. The Lowline, however, is not dead; the non-profit behind the project has a full-time staff that believes the park could be a reality by 2018. “The past year, and going forward at least another half year, we have been primarily focused on advocacy politically, and refining our technology and design process,” Ramsey recently told AN in his Tribeca office.

The 2012 installation was an integral piece in getting the Lowline to where it is today; it raised the project’s profile and proved that the technology was actually viable: an underground park could be filled with natural light.

“We learned a lot about the way the light actually behaves—physically and psychologically,” said Ramsey. “In order to actually have some sort of bearing or reference to how the natural sky works, it was important to strike a balance between directed parallel collimated light and ambient diffuse light.” He explained that he wants the light to create an inviting, timeless quality in the park.

This technology is still being refined and Ramsey was headed to South Korea to “suss out” an optics manufacturer the day after AN visited his office. But making the Lowline a reality will take more than technology—it will take cash, approximately $50 million.

Ramsey and Barasch are not planning another Kickstarter. Instead, they are pursuing corporate support, public grants, and said they have received “several seven-figure pledges” for the project. That money, though, is contingent on whether the Lowline gets access to the 1.5-acre site, which is controlled by the MTA.

Ramsey and Barasch said they are making progress on securing the space, but a spokesperson for the MTA told AN “there is nothing currently happening with regard to this former trolley location.”

But that could change as the proposed site of the Lowline is directly adjacent to Essex Crossing, a 1.9-million-square-foot development designed by SHoP that is expected to break ground in March. While Ramsey and Barasch said Essex Crossing and the Lowline can exist autonomously, the projects could connect through the mega-development’s “Market Line”—a retail corridor similar to Chelsea Market. Doing so, they say, would significantly boost public space at Essex Crossing.

“The Market Line is going to absorb a lot of the commercial activity and the Lowline will have its own design autonomy," said Vishaan Chakrabarti, a principal at SHoP.

Since its inception, the Lowline has been racking up political and community support, but ultimately needs City Hall’s blessing to move forward. Ramsey has not landed a meeting with the mayor just yet. “Understandably, the new mayor has been really busy,” he said.

For the time being, Ramsey and Barasch are pulling together all of the Lowline’s disparate pieces so that if—or when—they get the go-ahead, the project can be executed quickly and efficiently. “This is not like the mayor issues an RFP and it trickles down,” said Ramsey. “This is completely bottom-up urbanism.”