New High Lines Going Up, Down and…Nowhere

New Yorkers and tourists alike stroll the High Line on the West Side of Manhattan. To the surprise of pretty much everyone, including its founders, the High Line has become a huge economic engine since it opened in 2009. Flickr/Kwan Yee Cheng

When West Side residents Robert Hammond and Josh David proposed transforming the High Line, a defunct elevated freight-railway, into a public park back in 1999, they encountered resistance from developers, neighbors, local businesses and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Despite the opposition, the idea was so awesome that a huge coalition of supporters helped make High Line park a reality a decade later. And to pretty much everyone’s surprise, the High Line has  not only been wildly popular, it’s been lucrative for the city. As a result, other New Yorkers have begun to see their imaginative ideas for abandoned infrastructure less as quixotic dreams, and more as real possibilities.

What will New York’s next High Line look like? Here are some of the possibilities:

A rendering for the so-called "Low Line" in the abandoned Delancey Street trolley station. The plan has drawn excitement from the MTA and local community board, but many cost and safety issues have yet to be worked out. Photo courtesy of the Delancey Underground.

The Low Line

Structure: Below the still-functional Delancey Street-Essex Street subway station on the Lower East Side, there’s a 66,000-square-foot abandoned trolley station. The hub opened in 1908, and served to shuttle trolley passengers across the newly created Williamsburg Bridge. The city began phasing out the trolleys in 1930, and the station was permanently closed in 1948. The MTA simply sealed the doors, leaving the space in surprisingly good condition today, save for decades of dust and rat droppings.

The plan: After being inspired by the success of the High Line, former NASA engineer turned architect James Ramsey and Pop Tech Vice President Dan Barasch convinced the MTA to let them explore the abandoned station. In September, the duo, calling themselves the Delancey Underground, unveiled dramatic renderings for a project they’ve dubbed “the Low Line.” Their vision entails installing solar-powered optic devices to distribute light throughout the space, transforming it into a plant-filled, futuristic-looking public park suitable for retail establishments akin to the stores inhabiting  Grand Central Station. Solutions to the many issues involved in a subterranean project like this — vagrancy, mold, hurricane-related flooding, etc. — have yet to be fleshed out. However, Delancey Underground is holding a pair of aces.

First, they have the benefit of seeing what worked and didn’t work for Friends of the High Line, and they’ve already filed for nonprofit status, had multiple meetings with the local Community Board 3 committee, the Economic Development Corporation and the MTA. Second, the MTA is facing a massive budget deficit, and given the success of the High Line, appears to see dollar signs underneath Delancey Street. And given that the area above the trolley station has one of the lowest concentrations of green space per capita in New York City, the project has gained significant interest from many community members. Delancey Underground is currently trying to raise $450,000 for a feasibility study, which they hope to achieve by March.

Potential snags: The plan is still in its infancy, and though it has sparked interest, Community Board 3 members have expressed concern over how it will possibly be funded. The group also needs to solve the aforementioned mold, flooding, etc. issues.

The Tappan Zee Bridge spans the Hudson River, connecting Rockland and Westchester Counties. Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner wants to transform the crumbling bridge into a recreational pathway for pedestrians and cyclists. Flickr/jmd41280.

Tappan Zee High Line

Structure: The Tappan Zee Bridge, located 25 miles north of Manhattan, opened in 1955 and is showing signs of decay. The three-mile bridge is  still open to cars and trucks, but in 2008 state officials announced plans to build a replacement for the Tappan Zee just north of the current site. In October 2011, President Barack Obama announced plans to speed up the replacement project, and the fate of the existing Tappan Zee now swings in limbo.

The plan: Shortly after Obama made his announcement, Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner proposed turning the Tappan Zee into a recreational structure for pedestrians and cyclists. Feiner said the conversion would save hundreds of millions of dollars in demolition costs, promote tourism and make up for the lack of transportation alternatives expected on the new bridge.

Potential snags: The biggest problem is the likely demolition of the bridge. A spokesperson for the Westchester County Executive said that while county planning officials had considered recreational alternatives for the Tappan Zee, they will probably end up just getting rid of it. Also, bicycle advocates have expressed concern that the steep grade in the middle of the bridge would make it difficult to traverse.

A segment of the abandoned Rockaway Branch LIRR in Queens. Community activists are hoping to transform the tracks into a greenway, despite past resistance from Community Board 6. Flickr/LisaSez.

Queens High Line

Structure: The Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Railroad was opened in 1880, and once connected Rego Park to Ozone Park. After other transit options rendered the partially-elevated line virtually obsolete and a fire severely damaged the tracks, the three and a half mile Rockaway beach branch was abandoned in 1962.

The plan: Forest Hills resident Travis Terry began building support for recreational reuse of the elevated tracks in 2005, after doing some government work on the High Line project. The project was briefly derailed a couple of years later, but bolstered by the success of the High Line, Terry and Community Board 9 members reinvigorated the project last December. A coalition of supporters called the Rockaway Branch Greenway Committee are currently collecting signatures in the hopes that they can move the project forward.

Potential snags: While Community Board 9 supported the idea of installing bike lanes and a pedestrian path along the route in 2007, neighboring Community Board 6 killed the budding plan, fearing a 24-hour public space might increase crime in the area. That same problem may come back to haunt the project.

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