Envisioning a New Purpose for the Space Beneath NYC’s Elevated Structures

Space beneath the elevated train along Rockaway Freeway reimagined as a safe place for walking and bicycling. Image: Rockaway Waterfront Alliance

There are nearly 700 miles of elevated highways, rail lines, and bridges crisscrossing New York City. They tend to be dreary places, but they don’t have to be. A report released today by the Design Trust for Public Space and DOT, Under the Elevated, envisions new uses for the spaces beneath these elevated structures.

Already, land beneath elevated structures in HarlemDumboLong Island CitySunnysideNew Lots, and the Rockaways is being repurposed. To keep a good thing going, the report provides a toolkit the city can use to reinvigorate more of these spaces.

Map: Design Trust for Public Space
There are nearly 700 miles of elevated structures in New York. Rail lines are in red, and highways are in blue. Map: Design Trust for Public Space

There are approximately 7,000 miles of elevated structures in cities across the nation, mostly highways, according to dlandstudio principal Susannah C. Drake, who served as a fellow with the Design Trust. DOT and Design Trust staff said they aren’t aware of another city that had taken such a comprehensive look at the spaces beneath elevated structures.

“You can reclaim that space. You can do some beautiful things with it,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said at an event this afternoon announcing the report. “We’re really going to put some resources into improving these spaces.”

The possibilities include building greenways, adding retail, livening up spaces with events, and implementing permeable surfaces to absorb stormwater.

One of the report’s major recommendations is the “El-Space Program,” a DOT initiative that will focus specifically on under-the-elevated projects. DOT’s four-person urban design staff, led by Neil Gagliardi, will take the lead. “This is really a comprehensive approach, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time,” Gagliardi said.

DOT and the Design Trust have had a hand in two “pop-up” projects to test these concepts. On Division Street beneath the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown, DOT installed benches along with movable tables and chairs, based on feedback from passersby. In the Bronx, the Design Trust and the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation created the Boogie Down Booth, a music installation on a newly-installed curb extension beneath the elevated train along Southern Boulevard. A second Boogie Down Booth will be added this summer.

“The initial experiments we’ve done in the Bronx and in Chinatown have started to give us a toolkit of treatments we can do in these public spaces,” Trottenberg said. “We’re going to start with lighting, which is one of the number one things we hear all around the city.”

One of the first projects on the list: Livonia Avenue in Brownsville, where NYCHA residents and local elected officials brought poor lighting beneath the 3 train to the city’s attention. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development is also planning to build affordable housing next to the train, in a neighborhood that’s become one of the mayor’s focus areas. DOT has hired Tillett Lighting Design to come up with illumination plans for the street.

Another area in line for public space upgrades: Jerome Avenue, where the Department of City Planning is working on a rezoning along the elevated 4 train.

“We’ll be initiating pilot projects in coming months,” said Design Trust for Public Space Executive Director Susan Chin. “‘Under the Elevated’ paves the way for systemic change around our vast transportation infrastructure.”

  • Alexander Vucelic

    parsley around a pig

  • Mike

    We may have 700 miles of elevated structures, but we have nowhere near that much space in terms of elevated structures without other things already underneath them. For example, that map shows the elevated D train in Brooklyn, which goes above New Utrecht Ave. and then 86th Street. Both streets are major thoroughfares providing two of the very few ways to drive through the area without going on small side streets. They aren’t going anywhere.

    While I’m all for improved spaces under elevated structures where it’s feasible, the 700 miles number is just plain deceiving in terms of what we actually have to work with. Are there any numbers for the number of miles of elevated structures that pass over areas that can feasibly be repurposed given the unfortunate reality of cars on large arterial avenues?

  • Andres Dee

    “A park is not automatically anything”
    – Jane Jacobs

  • Joe R.

    Good idea in theory but how many of NYC’s elevated structures don’t already have roads underneath them? That said, I’ve long though hanging fairly lightweight structures off existing elevated highways or els or railways to serve either bikes or pedestrians is a great idea. It would cost far less than building such structures from scratch. Moreover, since the elevated structure already exists, you avoid the rejections on aesthetic or other grounds. If there’s room to hang them directly underneath but still have sufficient street clearance then you end up with a right-of-way protected from rain or snow. Overall in concept finding more uses for existing elevated structures is a great idea. I’m just wondering how much can really be done without spending serious sums of money. In most cases it won’t be as easy as in that picture where you just need to pave underneath.

    Also, as the maps shows not all that many of these elevated structures are continuous for a long enough length to serve a useful transportation purpose. Sure, they still might be useful to, say, elevate a bike path over a busy intersection but quite of few of those elevated structures really just can’t be made to serve any useful purpose at all other than the purpose they’re already serving.

  • Maggie

    The garden center under the Park Ave tracks at 116th Street is pretty great for this.

  • Ari_F_S

    I’ve been involved in one of these projects, and that’s exactly what I suggested.

    There are many types of business that can’t afford regular retail rents but can be successful in marginal locations. Garden centers, construction supply stores, storage locations, and car rental agencies come to mind.

    Let the city make some income from some of the spaces to subsidize the cool stuff in other locations.

  • JamesR

    I like this in theory. However, many of these spaces are actually toxic to spend any extended amount of time in due to noise and air pollution. PM2, brake dust, the deafening screech of heavy rail, etc. I’m interested to see how they propose solving these elements.

  • Bolwerk

    So this is feasible, but reopening shuttered subway entrances is bad because, uh, rape?

    Almost any elevated structure that is not already a rail line or bridge should probably either be appropriated as a dedicated transit route or be torn down, at least in heavily urban areas.

    But, by all means, throw a segment of the BQE to the QueensWay people to satisfy their parkboner in a way that doesn’t destroy a potentially useful transit asset.

  • Richard Garey

    If you visit Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, drug addicts and homeless perpetually hang out and create encampments around the elevated Burnside Avenue Station. The underside of elevated subway stations are dark because they are completely solid as opposed to the tracks which function more like a screen. North of the Cross-Bronx where the Burnside Avenue Station is located is particularly dark because the entire west side rises steeply with the topography. City planning has this grand idea to locate 6+ story affordable housing along the el train falling in line with their transit-oriented development mantra. They claim that there is “modern technology” to make living adjacent to els simply delightful. However, they fail to take into that low-income individuals who will inevitably be the ones residing in these apartments typically leave their windows upen because PTAC’s are expensive to run. With the proposed rezoning, city planning will essentially be blocking out light under els throughout the city thereby creating the perfect shaded environment for drug addicts and homeless to congregate.

    You will notice in the beautiful renderings published that there are no highrise buildings adjacent to the els blocking out the natural light. Therefore, vegetation can grow, etc. However, with highrises adjacent to the els, it will be fairly difficult to find plants that are hearty in such a low-light environments. The areas are likely going to require 24/7 artificial lighting. Burnside Avenue Station really should have 24/7 artificial lighting under it. Of course, it does not because it is a low-income area and artificial lighting costs money.

    In terms of urban environment, the best use of space adjacent to els in the Bronx is parkland. Mullaly Park and St James Park are adjacent to the 4 train and the areas are beautiful. We have requested more parkland in the Jerome Avenue Study Area especially north of the Cross Bronx where open spaces are few and far between until you get north of Fordham Road. Unfortunately, it looks like we are just going to get low-income high-rises adjacent to the el. Most likely we’ll see even more drug addicts and homeless congregating under the el. It’s unfortunate that city planners are proactively creating dark dingy spaces throughout the city.

  • Richard Garey

    Did anyone notice that the old lady in the rendering is pushing her grocery cart on crushed stone? It’s a lot easier to generate pretty renderings than it is to design an environment that is truly functional.

  • Jonathan R

    There are 6,000 miles of streets in New York City, not all of which are Fifth Avenue alongside Central Park. Many city streets are dank and dreary, lined with unwelcoming facades and surfaced in cracks, bumps, and potholes. The current practice of warehousing obsolete, half-working, and semiabandoned motor vehicles where people could stroll and kids could play clarifies just how poorly New Yorkers have been coerced into treating their streets. Perhaps these forlorn spaces in general can be improved along the lines shown in the picture so that all New Yorkers, not just those who live near els, can reap the benefits of these underused transportation arteries.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    And here is the route you mentioned:

  • Mike

    Also of note: the various bridges that seem to count towards this total of 700 miles. Are we planning on floating parks anchored underneath the Verrazano?

  • John

    I was just about to comment on that. I wouldn’t have got away with that in an urban design class.


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