Subterranean Dreams: Exploring a New Frontier in Rail-Trails

Posted 03/06/12 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Building Trails

Photo of Dupont Underground trolley tunnel © Mika Altskan

What does the typical rail-trail look like? Well, really, there's no such thing.

We've seen them long and straight through farmland, steep and winding through mountain ranges, hugging a handsome coastline and cutting across a wintery plain. They're in cities, in national parks, in country towns and in the untamed wilderness. They're long, short, smooth, rough, high above cities, underground...

Wait. Underground?

That's right. In a number of big cities across America, several underground transit stations--the long-dormant enclaves of intrepid urban explorers--are being reimagined as creative gathering places, retail hubs, galleries and performance venues. These projects represent some of the most innovative rail-trail plans we have seen in many years.

Just up the street from our Washington, D.C., headquarters, a nonprofit group called the Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground (ACDU) has taken on the ambitious task of making a viable development opportunity out of 75,000 square feet of abandoned space beneath Dupont Circle (above). This coalition of artists, designers, businesspeople and community leaders sees enormous potential in reclaiming this ideally sited piece of subterranean infrastructure, which served as a station during D.C.'s trolley network heyday following the Second World War.

In the decades since the last trolley passed under Dupont Circle in the 1960s, the underground space was padlocked and largely forgotten. While an attempt to turn the space into a thriving food court fizzled in the 1990s, the effort did ensure the unique space was part of the consciousness of the D.C. urban design community.

In July 2010, ACDU was charged by D.C.'s office of planning and economic development with coming up with an innovative, and commercially sustainable, use for the historical location. In the past year or so, they have opened the Dupont Underground up for regular public tours and are building relationships with developers, entrepreneurs, event planners and community groups, including Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, in an attempt to come up with a proposal that satisfies the commercial requirements of operating the space while also retaining free and accessible community uses.

Concept drawing of Delancy Underground © Delancy Underground

In an interview with Salon last year, ACDU Managing Director Braulio Agnese said there was a feeling that circumstances for urban development were very different now compared with those of the failed venture in the 1990s. He pointed to downtown D.C.'s improved crime and safety environment, but also a "renewed interest in reclaiming underused urban spaces."

This renewed interest is also building behind a similar underground trolley station renewal project in New York. Nicknamed "The Low Line," a nod to the popular High Line which proponents list as a direct inspiration, the Delancey Underground project (above) aims to convert an unused trolley terminal beneath Delancey Street into a subterranean public park.

The former Williamsburg Trolley Terminal closed in 1948 when streetcar service was discontinued and has not been used ever since. But despite six decades of neglect, the space retains the remnant cobblestones, crisscrossing rail tracks and vaulted ceilings that highlight the space's tremendous potential, aesthetically and architecturally, but also as an innovative means of forging public spaces in an area straining under private development pressures.

A feature of the Delancy Underground blueprint is its use of solar technology. Innovative fiber optics would reflect light underground, saving electricity and reducing carbon emissions, and generating the capacity for plants, trees and grasses to thrive indoors.

In Philadelphia, the VIADUCTgreene project is seeking to restore activity to both above- and below-ground sections of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. The disused and neglected corridor runs high above Callowhill Street befor dropping below ground at Broad Street. This remarkable urban space passes into the ground floor of the landmark Inquirer Building, emerging beneath 16th Street in an open subway just north of the Barnes Museum site and adjoining the Rodin Museum.

Like their colleagues in New York, the team behind VIADUCTgreene is, in a very positive sense, letting their imaginations run away with them, conscious that this new generation of rail-trail projects represents a unique opportunity to blaze fresh territory.

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