Turning the High Line Elevated Railroad into an Unconventional Park

by Anne Schwartz, Nov 24, 2004

In one of his last acts in office, Mayor Rudy Giuliani approved the demolition of the High Line, an abandoned elevated freight railroad running through Chelsea and the West Village. The owners of property shadowed by the hulking structure wanted it torn down. The idea of reinventing the tracks as a public open space, proposed by a grassroots group called Friends of the High Line, was a fantasy that few people gave any chance of success.

Fast forward three years. This October, the city announced the selection of a design team to make the track a public promenade, as well as the dedication of $43 million to the project, which has an estimated total cost of between $60 and $100 million. The State of New York and CSX Transportation, the railroad that owns the line, joined the city in petitioning the federal Surface Transportation Board to rail-bankthe line, which would transfer the easement to the city and allow its use as public space. If all goes as planned, construction will begin next fall. Against all odds, a crazy and impractical-seeming idea is rapidly becoming a reality.

The High Line was built in the 1930s to serve the refrigerated meat and dairy warehouses of the West Side, taking dangerous freight traffic off Tenth Avenue. Part of the line was torn down in the 1960s, and the remaining segment, from Gansevoort to 34th Street, was taken out of service in 1980. It was mostly forgotten, except by architects, preservationists and adjacent property owners.

The few people who discovered the rusting track, overtaken by weeds and wildflowers, were captivated by its solitude and mystery. Some likened it to a magic carpet ride -- a tapestry that changed with the seasons, floating two stories high through industrial precincts, just above the streets but open to the sky and river and cityscape.

In 1999, West Side residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded Friends of the High Lineto save the line and take advantage of a rare opportunity to create open space in an area that desperately needed it. To their surprise, they quickly gained the support of local residents, civic organizations, and businesspeople, including the owners of art galleries in West Chelsea. "The power behind the project was that it was a dream, a dream-like vision, we were making a reality," recalled David. "It seemed like something wonderful and impossible. And as soon as people got the sense that this wonderful, seemingly impossible thing was possible, it created incredible excitement."

Elected officials started coming on board, including City Councilmember Christine Quinn, who represents the area, and Council Speaker Gifford Miller. A turning point came with the election of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who quickly reversed the city’s course and began the rail-banking process early in his term.

Mayor Bloomberg and Department of City Planning Director Amanda Burden envision the line tying together three areas that are the focus of city revitalization efforts: the Gansevoort Historic District, West Chelsea, and the far West Side between the 30s and 42nd Street, including the site of the controversial proposed stadium complex. Mayor Bloomberg called the High Line "a beautiful new amenity that will serve as the spine of vibrant new neighborhoods on Manhattan’s Far West Side and create new economic benefits in the years to come."

A Completely Different Kind of Park

In making their case to preserve the tracks, Friends of the High Line frequently cited the example of the Promenade Plantée, a landscaped walkway on a rail viaduct crossing the 12th Arrondissement in Paris. Reflecting the classic beauty of the city it overlooks, the promenade is a linear formal garden, a path bordered and interrupted by neatly edged beds of flowers, shrubs, and trees. The first park ever built on an elevated line, it has been a huge success, attracting many more visitors than expected and spurring the construction of apartment and commercial buildings in the surrounding area.

Although the concept of the High Line as a landscaped pedestrian walkway was inspired by its French predecessor, the design is shaping up to be something different altogether — unlike any other park and unique to New York.

"People are looking for a design that refers to the special qualities that are up there now," said David. The goal is to capture the disused track’s wildness, its grittiness, its evocation of the city’s industrial past, and especially its sense of serenity. Yet the park will need to accommodate large numbers of people, a variety of public uses, and the commercial activities that will inevitably arise in the adjacent spaces.

After narrowing down 70 proposals to four finalists, a selection committee representing five city agencies and Friends of the High named a design team led by the landscape architecture firm Field Operations and architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro to create the master plan.

The team’s provocative preliminary concept looks more like a work of modern sculpture than a traditional park. It is based on parallel concrete planks that fade in and out of a landscape ranging from gravel and grasses to a more cultivated type of garden. In some sections, the volunteer vegetation and rusting metal of the existing line would remain intact. The architects envision the line as a slow, meandering path that at times dips below or curves above the tracks, with places for both quiet reflection and public activities and events.

In October, more than a hundred people came to a community input forum to view a presentation of the preliminary concept and offer their ideas, concerns, and hopes.

Most of those attending agreed that the park should be a "slow lane," a place to meander, meditate, and enjoy the views. They noted that there is already a well-used route for bicyclists and skaters just a few blocks away at the Hudson River Park. Other community concerns were safety, enough seating, connections to the river, and guarding against the encroachment of commercial activities. The design team will return to the community with an update on December 2, at the Chelsea Recreation Center.

Open Space as a Catalyst for Change

Unlike the typical development approach that throws in a park or two as a sweetener to make large new construction projects more palatable to the public, the effort to reuse the High Line starts with the premise that open space can be at the heart of neighborhood revitalization.

And in contrast to the city’s top-down plan to build a stadium and redevelop the area just to the north, which has generated tremendous neighborhood opposition, the High Line project is a model of local planning. It began at the grassroots and included the input of local residents and businesses as it evolved. According to Joshua David, there has been a remarkable and productive collaboration among Friends of the High Line and numerous city agencies, including parks, city planning, transportation, and economic development.

The Department of City Planning has put together a proposalthat weaves the High Line into a larger plan for rezoning West Chelsea. The plan aims to encourage the construction of more housing in the area, yet retain the area’s manufacturing and protect the thriving art gallery district that has emerged between 10th and 11th Avenues.

To keep light and air around the High Line, the plan would restrict the heights of adjacent buildings, while allowing their owners to sell development rights that could be used in other parts of the district. It also offers incentives for providing access to the line. The public review process for the zoning change is expected to begin in December.

Developers are starting to take interest in the area, as planners had hoped. But along with new development comes the risk of increased commercialization. The challenge going ahead is to make the High Line a true public space – not just a mall in the sky – that captures the excitement of the original vision.