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City Approves Lowline, Admits Project was Only Pitch for Underground Site

 A rendering of the proposed Lowline subterranean park on the Lower East Side.
A rendering of the proposed Lowline subterranean park on the Lower East Side.
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Raad Studio c/o Lowline

LOWER EAST SIDE — The Lowline is officially on track to take over the old trolley terminal under Delancey Street after the city on Wednesday granted its conditional approval of the project, citing the application's innovative technology and community benefits as a gathering space. 

But the application was also the only pitch submitted in response to the city Economic Development Corporation's request for ideas to make-over the terminal, reps revealed a Community Board 3's Land Use Committee meeting on Wednesday night, leading to outrage from community members who say the city should have allowed more time for additional ideas to roll in — some of which may benefit the longtime community more than an underground park sure to attract outside visitors, the locals argued. 

"I'm really disappointed in the way the EDC is now coming here to say there was one applicant, and they're designating the Lowline...Not recognizing that perhaps you need to go back to the drawing board because there would be a million other uses for that space," said Damaris Reyes, executive director of neighborhood activist group Good Old Lower East Side.

The EDC in November of last year issued a request for expressions of interest (RFEI) for the Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal, encouraging "creative responses to activate" the underground space near Essex Street, saying the call would be "totally open" for the period of a month.

The Lowline — a concept already endorsed by the community board in a 2012 resolution — had for years been eyeing the location, and had already launched the Lowline Lab as a preview for the final product. 

When the EDC appeared before the community board again the following December, board members expressed concern that a month was not enough time for prospective innovators to pitch their ideas — in response, the corporation extended the deadline to Feb. 1. 

But no other applications ever rolled in, said EDC rep Charlie Gans, likely because the one-acre subterranean space — which has sat unused since 1948 — is an "incredibly challenging site," presenting "a lot of considerations about ventilation and egress."

Reyes said her group had raised concerns about the challenging aspects of the site when the corporation came before the board in December, and believes that even the extended deadline was not lenient enough to encourage alternate ideas that could have been more beneficial to the existing community.

And though project leaders have launched community engagement initiatives, and have partnered with local schools and organizations to create youth education and mentorship opportunities, some board members expressed concerns that the Lowline will ultimately prove to be predominantly an attraction for outsiders, detracting from struggling local businesses and possibly snatching public funds that may otherwise go towards revitalizing existing parks in the neighborhood.

"When we talk about benefits, we need to talk about who it actually benefits," said public board member Cathy Dang, director of neighborhood organization CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities.

With the city's initial stamp of approval — a "conditional designation" — the Lowline is on its way to becoming a reality, as long as it makes it through the city's checklist over the next year, including an extensive community engagement process, fundraising to ensure the project could raise the needed $10 million to build the park, and the development of a prospective design with the aid of an architect.

The Lowline will continue its community engagement meetings over the next year, at which founder Dan Barasch said the team will address community concerns and gather feedback. The next meeting, which is open to the public, will be on July 25 at 6 p.m. at the Lowline Lab, located at 140 Essex St.

Though board members also reiterated a suggestion that the MTA consider the space for transit purpose, arguing that the loss of L train service would put more pressure on the M and J lines as well as M14 and B3 — a pitch that reps at a meeting said they would "look at" — an MTA spokesman confirmed to DNAinfo New York that the authority is not considering the proposal. 

"The MTA has determined that the space is surplus property and offers no commercial value," said spokesman Kevin Ortiz.