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July 13, 2015

Out of limbo: breathing new life into abandoned stations

TfL is looking for commercial partners to redevelop the disused Down Street Tube station, the first in a planned series of repurposing projects. With the potential for the programme to unlock billions in non-fare revenues for the operator, should cities be doing more to reclaim their forgotten underground assets, and what are the challenges involved in breathing new life into these secret spaces?

By Chris Lo

Down street

Unlike their surface counterparts, for underground metro stations, death is not the end. While above-ground railway stations and other buildings that have outlived their usefulness – usually due to a lack of users or the unacceptable expense of necessary upgrades, in the case of stations – are generally bulldozed to make space for something new, abandoned metro stations can haunt subway systems for decades in a state of perpetual limbo, often preserved in their original historic state.

The afterlives of abandoned stations

The inherent mystery of these ghost stations (a term dating back to the metro system of divided Berlin during the Cold War) has proved an irresistible lure for ‘urban explorers’ attempting to get a first-hand glimpse of stations of subway stations and tracks that might not have been used for generations, or at all, as in the case of the Cincinnati Subway, which was abandoned before completion in the 1920s as a result of spiralling costs and the rise of the personal automobile.

Authorities have approved sporadic access to some of these sites, whether for guided visits or as film sets or unique temporary venues. Toronto’s Lower Bay station, closed in 1966, is a popular destination for parties during the city’s world-renowned film festival, while the shuttered Myrtle Avenue station on the New York Subway plays host to video artist Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope mural, which comes to life when viewed from passing trains. During the Second World War, many closed Tube stations played a life-saving new role as makeshift air raid shelters. One of these bomb shelters near Clapham North Tube station has recently undergone a rather unlikely conversion into a hydroponic salad farm with the endorsement of celebrity chef Michel Roux Jr.

"The combination of space, history and location makes this a unique opportunity."

More recently, several cities with a legacy of subterranean ghost stations have been making a more concerted effort to redevelop these abandoned hubs into permanent commercial and cultural venues. As the world’s hub cities continue to cry out for more public spaces, these projects could provide a perfect solution.

London: developing Down Street

As host to the world’s oldest metro system, it should come as little surprise that London is also a global hotspot for abandoned underground stations, with more than 40 to the city’s name. Many of these disused stations still play a role in the London Underground’s operation today as access and exit points, while others have found some post-closure application; Aldwych Tube station and the branch line from Holborn, for example, have occasionally been used over the decades for the filming of film and TV projects.

Today, Transport for London (TfL) is in the early stages of a more conscious programme to make more profitable use of its abandoned assets. The transport operator hopes to start leasing out sections of some disused stations to "innovative businesses which could bring in additional revenue to be reinvested in the transport network", according to TfL’s director of commercial development Graeme Craig.

Indeed, by TfL’s estimates the potential profits on offer are considerable. Throughout the programme, which could reportedly involve redeveloping up to seven sites in total, the operator aims to unlock £3.4bn in non-fare revenue, which will go towards improving the parts of the network that are in operation.

In April, TfL announced that Mayfair’s historic Down Street Tube station, which was closed in 1932 because of its relatively low usage and close proximity to the larger Hyde Park Corner and Green Park stations, would be the first on the list of abandoned stations up for redevelopment. The station hosted the underground headquarters of the Railway Executive Committee during the Second World War, and is even said to have been used by wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill before the Cabinet War Rooms were completed in the basement of the New Public Offices near Parliament Square.

Recent statistics reveal that four of the top ten UK crime hot spots are major railway stations.

"The combination of space, history and location makes this a unique opportunity," said Craig. "We are looking for a partner with the imagination to see the potential here and the capability to deliver it."

The 400m² chunk of the station, which is located in one of central London’s most prestigious areas, includes a disused lift shaft, a passenger tunnel and another smaller tunnel. An initial feasibility study has already been carried out on the site by architecture studio Carmody Groarke, which has made suggestions on possible uses of the spaces up for lease within Down Street.

Options presented by the study include theatre, shop, restaurant and bar concepts that could fit into the lift shaft, as well as the possibility for a gallery or product launch space running down a subway tunnel. The bidding phase for commercial partners ended on 22 June, and TfL is now in the process of considering the bids made.

down street interior

Redevelopment challenges

However, it’s no simple matter to redevelop these transport spaces to host new commercial applications for which they weren’t designed. TfL has noted that parts of the station infrastructure are still in use by maintenance staff, so any potential commercial partners will need to consider the impact of sharing the space with important operational functions.

"Adjoining parts of the station are still required for running the Tube, but we will work with interested parties to ensure the commercial and operational activities can happily coexist," Craig said.

An example of the mix of commercial and operational uses, and one which any Down Street project developer would be wise to study, exists at the disused Valkyrie Plass subway station on the Oslo Metro in Norway. The former station building has now been converted into a fast food restaurant, while still maintaining the staircase to the old platform to provide emergency and maintenance access to metro workers.

At just 400m², the restricted size of the potential new Down Street development (and likely many other similar projects) also limits the range of businesses that might make a success of the space, as acknowledged in the TfL’s brochure for prospective commercial partners: "Given the restricted space available and our requirement to maximise commercial returns from the site, it is likely that low footfall / high revenue uses will be most successful in this location."

"It used to be an amazing place when it was derelict."

And then there are the potential objections of those who would rather see these ghosts of the past kept in their run-down state, both in terms of historical significance and maintaining the mysterious allure of these secret spaces. In an interview with Next City, academic and urban explorer Bradley Garrett picked out New York’s High Line, a disused elevated spur of the New York Central Railroad that has been converted into a public park, to highlight the risks of preservation projects and repurposing.

"It used to be an amazing place when it was derelict," Garrett said. "Now it’s ruined, in my perspective – too controlled, too sanitized. It’s often much better for the powers-that-be to simply stop spending money, turn a blind eye and let people do their thing. Then people build a sense of community and place on their own terms."

Nevertheless, the complexity and controversy of these redevelopment efforts hasn’t dissuaded other cities from considering similar projects. Most prominent among these is Paris, where there has been an ongoing debate on what (if anything) to do with the abandoned ‘Petite Ceinture’ inner city railway line.

During Paris’s 2014 municipal elections, mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet unveiled a set of eye-catching proposals for the redevelopment of disused Paris Métro stations, including concepts for a nightclub, subterranean garden, refectory-style restaurant or even a public swimming pool at the old Arsenal station. Kosciusko-Morizet lost out to her Socialist Party rival Anne Hidalgo in the election, diminishing the chances of any redevelopment projects in the immediate future, but the designs certainly attracted a great deal of attention. Paris may yet follow London in investigating new uses for its own ghost stations.

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