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Higher and Higher

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Barry Munger
The Chelsea Thicket, which marks the beginning of the newly completed middle portion of the High Line, New York City, May 2011

Rarely do additions to works of architecture or engineering by the same designers who created the originals attract as much comment as the initial installments. Thus there was some question as to just how much excitement could be generated by the debut this June of the second segment of the High Line, the innovative park created atop the long-derelict New York Central Railroad freight trestle that runs along Manhattan’s far West Side between the Meatpacking District and Midtown.

Upon its inauguration, in 2009, the first portion of this landscaped thirty-foot-high promenade—which extends from Gansevoort to West 20th Streets, or roughly one third of the scheme’s entire projected length, with the second part now open between West 20th and West 30th Streets—was greeted with universal praise, and rightly so. Seldom in modern city planning has a single work of urban design brought together and synthesized so many current concerns, including historic preservation, adaptive reuse of obsolete infrastructure, green urbanism, and private-sector funding and stewardship of civic amenities.

Happily, the same elated reaction that greeted the first segment occurred again this summer, as the newly completed middle portion of the High Line revealed that rather than being simply more of the same, the park is evolving into a much more varied experience than many had anticipated. The second half-mile stretch feels different from the first in that its route is straighter and narrower (two tracks wide as opposed to four in the southernmost section). It makes fewer jogs and lacks the extravagantly sweeping arc of the northern end of the viaduct, which, if it is built, would bring the High Line to a dramatic culmination when the whole project is finished.

Because all the park’s components are being executed by the creative team comprised of two New York–based architectural and planning firms, James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio+Renfro, along with the Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf, the High Line feels wholly consistent and yet never repetitive throughout its mile-and-a-half length. For example, at West 26th Street, the design team has created the Viewing Spur, a bleacher-like observation perch that is a virtual cousin of Tenth Avenue Square, the much larger wooden amphitheater at the viaduct’s widest point on West 17th Street. But the Viewing Spur differs from the Tenth Avenue Square because of a huge, empty, oblong metal rectangle (the size of advertising billboards once mounted on the trestle’s parapet) that playfully frames the street below like the outline of a movie screen.

Once again, Oudolf’s selection of botanical material is superb. This summer it featured such flowering perennials as allium, catmint, coral bells, cranebill, rosemary, salvia, and yarrow, along with trees and shrubs including chokeberry, holly, magnolia, redbud, roses, sassafras, and shadblow. His random-looking (though deliberately composed) planting beds simultaneously pay homage to the wildness of the High Line in its gone-to-seed phase and seamlessly accommodate the many functional requirements of a heavily trafficked pedestrian concourse.

The new segment also remedies one of the few objections the first phase of the design raised among environmentalists: the use for the park’s benches and decking of ipê, a tropical wood whose use activists have deemed ecologically destructive and unsustainable. Since then, the designers have specified reclaimed teak, which possesses the same weather-resistant properties as the controversial earlier selection.

Particular areas of the High Line have been given evocative names reminiscent of the Romantic nomenclature that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux bestowed on Central Park’s Belvedere Castle, Harlem Meer, Mineral Springs Pavilion, the Ramble, and Sheep Meadow. Thus in the southernmost section of the High Line we find the Gansevoort Woodland and the Washington Grasslands, while in the newly opened center portion we now have the Chelsea Thicket, the Radial Bench, the Wildflower Field, and the Falcone Flyover—the latter a raised steel walkway that refers not to raptors on the wing but its donors (a high-flying hedge fund manager and his wife).

The High Line’s founders and prime movers, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, offer an absorbing account of their heroic undertaking’s genesis and implementation in High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky. The pair met in 1999 at a local community board meeting and there discovered their shared fascination with the disused elevated railway spur, which was constructed between 1929 and 1934 to bring raw materials and wholesale goods to the third-story receiving docks of warehouses, manufacturers, and food-processing plants near Manhattan’s Hudson shore.

The collaborators’ decade-long evolution from amateurs—David had been a magazine writer, Hammond a consultant to start-up companies—into seasoned urban planners is an uplifting coming-of-professional-age story in which two somewhat naive and comically inexperienced enthusiasts wise up and learn what it takes to get things done in the City That Never Sleeps. Throughout, these oft-thwarted civic crusaders remained cheerily undaunted as they confronted and overcame opposition from every quarter.

Not the least of the many impediments was an obstructionist neighborhood group, Chelsea Property Owners, which for a decade and a half had been trying to have the High Line torn down as a nuisance and an eyesore. With a prescience akin to those who laughed when Edison recorded sound, the Chelsea Property Owners bombarded members of the newly formed Friends of the High Line with mailings that inveighed against the trestle for, among other infractions, being too narrow to accommodate regulation jungle gym equipment.

City officials proved no less hostile. As Hammond recalls, “The property owners who opposed the High Line had hired Rudy Mastro, one of [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani’s former deputy mayors, and paid him a lot of money to lobby Giuliani, and that’s why Giuliani was opposed, in my view.” Joseph Rose, head of New York’s City Planning Commission during the Giuliani administration, called the decaying High Line “the Vietnam of old railroad structures” and declared, “It must come down.”

A turning point came in 2000–2001, when the photographer Joel Sternfeld took a striking series of images of the picturesquely decrepit train bed—a veritable urban prairie lush with nodding wildflowers and shimmering grasses—that are to the High Line what the muckraking photojournalist Jacob Riis’s depictions of New York City slum dwellings in the 1890s were to the cause of housing reform: strong artistic statements but also irresistible sales tools for agents of civic betterment.

In tracing the eight-decade history of the High Line, the authors resurrect a 1981 proposal by the architect Steven Holl, who would have turned the High Line into a postmodern Ponte Vecchio by stringing twee little toy-town structures down the length of the former right-of-way. This mercifully unexecuted scheme indicates how much we owe David and Hammond for insisting that new architectural interventions on the High Line agree with the bold industrial character of the existing structure.

The economic benefits New York City has reaped as a direct result of the High Line are significant. The first two of the project’s three segments have cost $153 million, $133.6 million of which has come from public funds, with the balance donated by private and corporate sponsors. In addition, the Diller–von Furstenberg Family Foundation has recently announced a contribution of $20 million, the largest single donation ever made to a New York City park. In a remarkable return on investment, the High Line has spurred some $2 billion in ancillary development, primarily housing adjacent to the park, about 2,500 apartments thus far. Those units have been selling for an average of $2,000 per square foot, nearly twice the Manhattan median of $1,028.

Prices in several of the new architect-designed apartment buildings near the High Line—which include designs by a roster of celebrated avant-garde figures including Neil Denari, Jean Nouvel, Lindy Roy, and Annabelle Selldorf—have lately rivaled the most expensive residential real estate transactions in any other part of the city. For example, the penthouse atop Shigeru Ban’s eleven-story Metal Shutter Houses condominium of 2008–2011 on West 19th Street sold this summer for somewhere in the range of $13 million.

In addition, about a half-million square feet of new office space (the finest being Frank Gehry’s iceberg-like IAC building of 2003–2007 on West 18th Street) and a thousand hotel rooms (the best of which are in the Mexican architect Enrique Norten’s Hotel Americano of 2008–2011) have been added to the surrounding neighborhood. The High Line thus far has drawn more than five million visitors (about half from the New York metropolitan region, the rest domestic and foreign tourists), greatly benefiting local restaurants and retail businesses, and creating 12,000 jobs since 2009, an impressive figure during a period of soaring unemployment nationwide.

The “park in the sky” has also had a salutary effect on the local crime rate, with not a single serious offense reported on the High Line since it opened. That is largely attributable to Parks Enforcement Patrol officers who issue one summons every other day on average, mainly for drinking, but also for bicycles and dogs, which are prohibited atop the structure.

Another, less quantifiable means of crime control on the High Line is what the influential urbanologist Jane Jacobs termed “eyes-on-the-street”: day-and-night pedestrian traffic and a healthy contingent of neighborhood busybodies lead to fewer opportunistic offenses, both minor and major. Because the transformed viaduct threads its way through such a densely populated district, with many apartments and hotel rooms overlooking the walkway, Jacobs’s principle of informal but effective civilian surveillance is confirmed yet again.

This phenomenon’s flip side has been experienced by nonplussed High Line visitors who have been treated to exhibitionistic displays by guests at Ennead Architects’ Standard Hotel of 2005–2008, which straddles the walkway near the park’s southern terminus. One assumes that some residents in the many new apartments that face directly onto the viaduct’s midsection will follow suit.

The immense and instantaneous popularity of the High Line was instrumental in convincing the Whitney Museum of American Art’s longtime principal benefactor, the cosmetic magnate Leonard Lauder (who had vigorously opposed a move from Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist landmark of 1963–1966 on the Upper East Side), to throw his support behind Renzo Piano’s proposed scheme for a site for the Whitney near the park’s starting point in the Meatpacking District. Lauder had been so insistent that the Whitney keep the Breuer building that in 2008 he made a $131 million gift to the museum contingent on that condition.

Piano’s initial design for the new site—a prow-shaped, stone-clad monolith—was among his finest in many years, a dynamic conception that showed how much more he is capable of than his flat-roofed colonnaded-pavilion formula. Initially considered a satellite of the uptown headquarters, the $680 million scheme was unveiled in 2008, a few months before the global market crash, but was set aside soon thereafter as far too expensive. Ultimately the museum decided that it could not afford both buildings and chose the downtown offshoot as its permanent home, a move propelled in large part by the High Line. (The Whitney recently agreed to lease its Breuer building to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a branch gallery for at least eight years.)

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