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Underground park to take root in abandoned trolley station in Lower East Side

James Ramsey, a creator of the Lowline Lab,

James Ramsey, a creator of the Lowline Lab, a collection of wooden terracing, metal canopy, and live plants, poses at the Lower East Side location in Manhattan on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

An abandoned trolley car station in the Lower East Side captured the imagination of architect James Ramsey, who envisioned a futuristic underground park of plants, trees and city dwellers basking in the sunshine.

"It is a taste of living matter -- plant life and light underneath a concrete surface," said Ramsey from inside the 100-year-old station on Essex Street, where thousands rode trolley cars into Brooklyn along the Williamsburg Bridge in the 1800s.

Ramsey's first glimpse of the abandoned station, which closed in 1948, revealed "a vast cavernous space. I saw all this crazy space under Delancey Street which wasn't being used," Ramsey said of the football-field-size area.

Ramsey's underground plan turns abandoned train tracks into an open space for overcrowded city neighborhoods. Inspired by Manhattan's famed Highline -- an abandoned elevated train track turned into a park that overlooks the Hudson River -- Ramsey's design will incorporate the trolley station's cobblestone surfaces and steel train tracks. It will occupy the same underground level as the existing J and M subway lines.

Called the Lowline Lab, Ramsey and co-founder Dan Barasch will open a five-month weekend exhibition, beginning Saturday, that explains and demonstrates how such an underground park can be built at 140 Essex St.

At the exhibition, the public will see a sampling of plant life that has been growing for several years inside the darkened trolley station. Fauna and flora -- pineapple plants, strawberry patches, mint and thyme herbs, exotic Amazonian ferns, and flowers accustomed to growing in shadowy jungles -- are flourishing.

The technology behind the underground park is a sun-collecting system that uses reflective mirrors and "parabolic collectors" that attracts sunlight and tunnels it to the underground plant life.

Sunlight is continuously being collected from the top of the trolley station roof and channeled onto the plant life, Barasch said. This is the first time, he said, that this solar technology is being used to grow plants in the United States.

Exhibition viewers also will see renderings of the futuristic park in which city dwellers and their families are seen lounging on grassy knolls surrounded by trees as sunlight streams through a reflector ceiling.

The $70 million proposal is five years away from completion, but has raised several hundred thousand dollars from individual donors and corporations with interests in solar energy technology, Barasch said.

Ramsey admits it's a visionary project that "is strangely optimistic . . . But it allows yourself to imagine wildly and then follow through to make it real."

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