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Neighborhood Boost Seen From the Lowline

Wall Street Journal
December 25, 2012
By Richard Morgan

In a familiar scene to many a New York City subway commuter, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey are being held momentarily by the MTA.

The duo, both 35 years old, are the chief architects and advocates of the Lowline, their proposed multiuse park space to fill the abandoned underground Essex Street Trolley Terminal on the Lower East Side that has lay dormant since 1948.

The pair is trying to make their exuberance for the Lowline infectious. Their logo for the Lowline is sleek (the newest iteration is two curved lowercase L’s), and their presentations explaining the project are unconventional (including a reference to the underground levels in the classic videogame Super Mario Bros.). Further, they want to break new ground by incorporating concepts in the park such as “redirected sunlight” from the surface using fiber-optic cable (Mr. Ramsey calls their vision “an acid dream of science fiction and archaeology”).

But the site where they hope to create the Lowline isn’t theirs for the tinkering; it is owned by the city and controlled by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which hasn’t yet decided whether the space should be made available for public use and, if so, what that use should be.

So Messrs. Barasch and Ramsey are embarked on a new strategy in an effort to generate more momentum for the Lowline idea. They are touting the economic benefits they say the Lowline could bring to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, that is being planned above ground near Delancey and Grand streets.

After years of debate and delay, the city in January is slated to receive proposals from developers wanting to build residential and commercial space as part of the SPURA project.

The Lowline backers hope that providing more financial information on their project will give it lift as discussion about economic development in the area gets higher visibility because of SPURA.

The challenge, said Mr. Ramsey, is in “abetting the natural emotional reaction of employing this space. How can we get people to examine the specifics of how and why this works?”

According to the draft of an economic-impact summary that Messrs. Barasch and Ramsey have been circulating among local officials and business people, creating the Lowline would boost land values of SPURA sites by between $10 million and $20 million and create between $5 million and $10 million in sales, hotel and real-estate taxes over 30 years based on a net-present-value basis.

The Lowline backers say in the summary that they will seek to raise $55 million, figuring the actual cost will be in a range between $44 million and $72 million, including donations and between $7 million and $14 million in tax credits.

With a projected annual operating cost of between $2 million and $4 million for the Lowline, the summary notes the goal of the park would be self-sufficiency, aided by revenue from programming festivals, performances, private events, public art and children’s programming. Commercial space is also planned.

“This is the panoply of things that make a space popular but that this neighborhood also needs,” said Mr. Barasch. The summary says the Lowline will be “a new living room for the community.”

To prepare the economic summary, Messrs. Barasch and Ramsey hired HR&A Advisors consultants, whose résumé includes helping to sell City Hall on the benefits that would come from the High Line elevated park in Chelsea.

In looking at potential models for the Lowline, HR&A considered the High Line and other sites such as the multipurpose David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center and Apple Inc.’s underground Fifth Avenue store across from the Plaza Hotel.

The consultants say they envision the Lowline as a way to buoy the Delancey Street neighborhood rather than balloon the area beyond residents’ grasp. “The way this city has been brought back is neighborhood by neighborhood,” said HR&A partner Jamie Torres Springer.

Pressed for revenue sources, the MTA is pushing to redevelop seven of its dormant sites, but so far the Lowline isn’t included among them.

In addition, the former Delancey Street depot has “serious operational constraints,” according to MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan, including a requirement that any use of the space not impede upon subway operations or vice versa.

Even so, that requirement shouldn’t pose a problem for the Lowline, says the summary prepared by HR&A. The document says that as many as 20,000 local residents a day could use a Clinton Street entrance for the Lowline and pass through the park, which would give expanded access to the F, M, J and Z lines.

But even supporters of the underground park such as Bob Zuckerman, executive director at the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, who was an opponent of Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, fret.

“There’s a schism,” he said, “between ‘Can it happen?’ and ‘Will it happen?'”

Mr. Ramsey, in response to such doubts, says, “If not now, when?” After a reporter noted the parallel with the Jewish scholar Hillel’s Three Questions, in a neighborhood still celebrated as the city’s old Jewish quarter, Mr. Ramsey cheered up.

“The neighborhood is so rich,” he said. “We’re just looking to add to all of that.”

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