James Ramsey Tells Us About the ‘Low Line,’ His Proposed Subterranean Sci-Fi Green Space on the Lower East Side


James Ramsey, owner and founder of Raad Studio on the Lower East Side, has had a busy week. After New York Magazine unveiled his stunning renderings for The Delancey Underground (or, colloquially, “the Low Line,” the name that seems to be sticking) — an underground community green space proposed for an abandoned trolley terminal space beneath the Lower East Side — he’s been met with a whirlwind of interest in his idea. He presented last night to Community Board 3, and spoke to us today about his and partner (and third-generation Lower East Sider) Dan Barasch’s plan to create an underground green space using advanced solar technology.

The Low Line — New York Magazine coined that nickname, right?
I can’t say we didn’t consider that might be a name for it. We’re trying to tread carefully with the community, though, and not make such overt comparisons with the Highline. This is something for the Lower East Side.

How was the community board meeting last night?
It went great last night. It was one of the more crowded community board events. We gave our presentation to the board and the audience, most of whom I think were there for us. We know that it’s a pretty out-there idea, so rather than just going in and asking for endorsement, we thought it would be smarter to introduce the idea. I think they all got it very quickly. We want to initiate the conversation with the community about what exactly this is, what they would like to go into that space. We started off with a presentation, outlined the idea, opened it up to questions, and had a pretty frank conversation.

What are people concerned about?
All the usual negative associations that hover around subway stations, issues with security, darkness, dirtiness. We’re asking people to imagine what’s possible.

Tell me about the space. What does it look like now?
It’s very different than most subway stations. It’s an old trolley terminal, and it’s a historical space from the turn of the last century. The MTA gave us a tour in March. Several things struck us. It’s cavernous — it’s kind of like the scene in Lord of the Rings when they walk into the mountain and go into the dwarf cave, this large, spectacular space — and a little bit Indiana Jones-ish, too. We were immediately struck by also, this thing is covered in cobblestones, and the old tracks are in there, the vaulted ceilings. That historical quality is something I’d love to see carry through, but with an ultra modern almost sci-fi insertion of greenery running through.

Would you have Wifi? Cell phone capabilities?
You’re the first to ask that! We’ll think about that.

How big is the space?
The MTA archives have an original architectural drawing showing it as 600 feet long by 100 feet wide. The MTA Signal Department is occupying some of that space, but the main bulk remains untouched, uncluttered. That’s 60,000 square feet, two-thirds the size of Gramercy Park.

Was it scary down there?
I’m kind of a sucker for that sort of thing. In 1948 they turned off the trolleys, and it’s just been pretty much in the same state since. I didn’t see a single rat. I think it’s pretty clear that once upon a time, in the last 60 years, people had been sleeping there, which is expected. It was an adventure.

If you get the go-ahead and the project is completed, would you charge for admission?
I would prefer not to charge. But we’d like to have the community tell us themselves what they would want. My office is on the ground level, Raad Studio, our door is almost always sitting open. We’re very easy to get in touch with, and people should feel free to come and talk. The outpouring of support and volunteers and students writing dissertations, all since Sunday, has been very astounding and inspiring.

What’s next?
My partner and I want to host an event for an extensive Q&A so we can foster a community conversation. We are in talks with people to settle on the exact space. We’d like to do a full-scale mockup of the technology and concept, a few months down the road — in a warehouse or event space, we’d literally build a full-size version of this technology.

All that sounds expensive! What’s your funding plan?
We have several concepts and models for how to raise funds. At this stage, I’ve personally funded almost the entire thing; it’s kind of making me broke. We’re not counting on city funding in any way. We have our eyes on certain types of grants, private donors, and certain types of loans. Again, I would prefer to not charge for admission. Maybe there’s a greenmarket there in December…

Speaking of greenmarkets…what do you say to those who criticize this as the yuppie-fication of the Lower East Side? There’s no Standard Hotel nearby…
There’s no Boom Boom Underground! For one thing, the fact that we are engaging the community directly to figure out what exactly the community would like to see there would hopefully go to addressing issues like that. Maybe there’s a larger point to make. Who says the Lower East Side can’t have a landmark? What would be so terrible if the rest of the world looked to the Lower East Side and was envious? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a neighborhood that’s long been set aside.

The MTA owns the space now? Will they lease it to you?
The MTA holds the master lease; the space is owned by the city. They’re open to it. They’re legally bound to be open to every possibility. There have been a couple news stories recently citing the possibility of a big-box store there — the community board would probably vote that down, but the MTA has to consider it.

Does something like this exist in any other city?
I don’t personally know of anything like this in another city — I’ve been to the medieval catacombs in Paris, but those aren’t public gathering spaces. We’re proposing a public green space; imagine people lying on a subterranean lawn…

Would you let a Starbucks open there?
Starbucks? It would be my great preference for that not to be the case. But if that’s what people want, I would consider it.