EMERALD EL - The High Line
By Meera Subramanian
Published in The New York Resident
Week of July 25, 2005
One wouldn't expect the slogan "Keep it simple, keep it slow, keep it quiet, keep it wild" to apply to any New York City development endeavor. But as the Chelsea High Line project continues to leap zoning and ownership hurdles, the words are becoming reality on the west side of Manhattan. Last month, a federal transportation board granted authorization to begin the official transfer of the abandoned elevated railway known as the High Line into a city-owned public park. A few weeks ago the area was rezoned to encourage a healthy blend of business, mixed-income housing and recreation along the 22 blocks that wind their way from the Meatpacking District to Midtown.
"Just six years ago, saving the High Line seemed like an impossible dream," said Robert Hammond, who along with Joshua David created the non-profit Friends of the High Line in 1999, "and now it's reality." The Surface Transportation Board's (STB) "certificate of interim trail use" overcame a formidable legal barrier, paving, or rather, greening the way to the world's second elevated park, following the example of the Promenade Plantee in Paris. Negotiations are now underway that would transfer control of the railway from the privately owned CSX Corporation to the city of New York in a process called railbanking, a method of creating trails and other public spaces from abandoned railways.
New York City has committed more than $50 million towards the High Line development, with further funding expected from the federal government as well as the state. Private donations provide another $3.5 million of the total cost, estimated to be between $65 and $100 million. Construction could begin by the end of the year.
The railway, which was used to transport goods into lower Manhattan from 1934 to 1980, runs between 10th and 11th Avenues, from West 34th Street south to Gansvoort Street, where its iron and concrete structure ends abruptly. Parts of it were demolished in 1963, but it wasn't completely shut down until 1980 when the last load of turkeys was delivered. Nature slowly reclaimed the abandoned mass as it blended silently into the structure of the city, an unnoticed fixture 30 feet overhead that went native with grasses and flowers.
When underlying property owners petitioned for the demolition of the obsolete line in order for development, Friends of the High Line formed to save the viaduct. While former Mayor Giuliani supported the dismantling of the High Line, the current Bloomberg administration has been supportive of the line's preservation, which could generate $262 million in new tax revenues over a 20-year period.
The Preliminary Design by Field Operations (landscape architecture) and Diller Scofidio + Renfro (architecture) is now on display at New York's Museum of Modern Art until October 31, featuring the first stage of development from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 15th Street. Design plans can also be seen at www.thehighline.org/design.
The design is rooted in the concept of "Agri-tecture," a combination of gathering spaces and living greenery. The park, which will cover a total of seven acres, is an "agri-tectural" sampler where visitors can stroll along boardwalks made of concrete planks that fade into landscapes of native plants. Ponds, sun decks and event spaces intermingle with small nooks and overlooks to the Hudson River and lower Manhattan. Joshua David says the design, "will maintain what is so magical about being up on the High Line today and celebrate the idea of nature springing to life on an industrial structure."
Making the High Line a "well-loved and well-populated area" is integral in making it safe, said David. Safety will also come from a strong staff presence, patrols and adjacent residential buildings that will provide "eyes on the park."
Rezoning was another crucial step achieved last month. City Planning Director Amanda M. Burden said, "It facilitates the transformation of the High Line into one of the world's most unique open spaces; and puts in place controls on building form to ensure light and air in and around the High Line." New zoning also allows underlying property owners to transfer their development rights to other nearby sites, addressing the original reason the owners wanted the line demolished.
Unlike the controversy that has clouded the Hudson Railyards development just to the north, the transformation of the High Line from an abandoned hulk of steel and concrete gone native into a ribbon of usable green space seems to have overwhelming support on all levels. It's well on its way to becoming West Manhattan's sinuous suspended anomaly: simple and slow, quiet and wild.