News & Opinions
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The Public Option
Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson / ARCHITECT / May 6, 2013
Crowdfunding has arrived in architecture—and it extends well beyond Kickstarter. Architects are using innovative platforms and legislation to usher in a new era of creative financing.
The video opens with a question: “Where do you build new green space in a crowded city like New York?” After the camera zooms down from a digital image of the Manhattan skyline to the congested street level, an answer appears on the screen: “Why not underground?”
Cue a sales pitch for the Lowline, a proposal by architect James Ramsey to turn the decommissioned Williamsburg Trolley Terminal into New York’s first underground park. Ramsey, 35, the owner of Manhattan-based firm RAAD Studio, produced the video last year with several colleagues for a Kickstarter campaign. He had seen other architects bankroll personal ventures through online crowdfunding sites—a growing phenomenon that The New York Times has called a new patronage model “for a DIY generation.” Still, Ramsey was skeptical that he could raise enough money for his concept, a kind of subterranean version of the High Line. “What we were doing was much larger in scale than the other projects we saw getting funding,” he says—namely, revitalizing 1.5 acres under Delancey Street on the Lower East Side.
Ramsey discovered the space in 2008. Since then, he has spent years tinkering with a remote skylight design capable of delivering light underground through the use of fiber optics powerful enough to support plant photosynthesis. He partnered with Dan Barasch, a community outreach expert, to form the Lowline nonprofit organization in 2011, and they turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for an “Imagining the Lowline” exhibit that would help sell the idea and showcase a skylight prototype.