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
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.
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
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.
Photo of Dupont Underground trolley tunnel courtesy of Mika Altskan.
Concept drawing of Delancy Underground courtesy of Delancy Underground