TAKING THE HIGH LINE
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
It is the great resurrection miracle of New York. At centre stage of the drama stands a rusting, elevated railroad pushing through down town, west side Manhattan. Thirty feet up in the air, cutting through the middle of blocks and even the centre of buildings, the High Line is one and a half miles long and passes through some of the most vibrant and up and coming parts of this fast changing city. Just a few years ago it was condemned to be demolished. But a grass roots campaign, led by two neighbourhood everymen, slowly began to convince city, state and senate that the High Line should be brought back from the dead.
With the backing of Hollywood celebrities like Edward Norton and Kevin Bacon, The Friends of the High Line – led by Joshua David and Robert Hammond – created a convincing case to resurrect the High Line as one of the most unique parks in America, if not the world. A combination of linear walkway, roof garden and viewing deck, the new High Line corridor is now under construction and promises to be, in Hammond's words, 'our generation's Central Park', though radically different and original. A floating garden in the sky, with a calm, slow pace, subtle planting and a sequence of viewing decks and sun spots for pedestrians and pleasure seekers, the greenery will form a striking juxtaposition to the city all around and the old industrial nature of the steel structure itself.
With a ground breaking design from a team led by English landscape architect James Corner, the parkway is already proving itself not just a hub of excitement and energy, but a catalyst for new development and regeneration. Developers and institutions have signed up a stellar list of architects to design new buildings alongside the High Line, within tight guidelines to prevent them overshadowing the Line itself. The list of new schemes now reads like a who's who of contemporary architecture: Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel, Richard Rogers, Frank Gehry, Steven Holl....
It was in late 1999 that the saga of the High Line started to come to a head with forces gradually drawing up their battle lines within a David and Goliath style struggle. On the one side were developers and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who wanted the High Line's destruction. On the other were neighbourhood watchmen and conservationists, arguing for the High Line's preservation as a unique relic of Manhattan's industrial past.
"One of the things I've always liked about the area is that industrial feel," says Robert Hammond, a business start-up consultant and painter. "A friend of mine describes the High Line as being something like the aquaducts of ancient Rome, with this quality of a ruin, only from the 19th century. But then I read an article in the paper saying they were going to tear it down. I assumed that somebody would be doing something to preserve it and that I could do something to help. But I found that nothing was really happening. I went to my first local community meeting and Joshua and I just happened to be sitting next to each other."
At first Hammond and David – a travel journalist who also lives in the area – tried to persuade one another to spearhead a campaign but neither wanted to head it alone. So they agreed to found the Friends of the High Line together in 1999, to argue as hard as they could for the preservation of the railroad and its reuse as an open public space.
The High Line itself runs through districts alongside the Hudson River that were primarily industrial and filled with urban grit and few homeowners. There was no need for things like parks when the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea were young. Originally street level railroad tracks shared space with people and automobiles, but countless accidents meant that 10th Avenue was rechristened Death Avenue. Eventually the elevated High Line was born in 1934, costing the equivalent of $2bn in today's money. At first it was 13 miles long and brought freight in and out of Manhattan mid-block, going right through factories along the way. An intricate mass of layered steel beams and an epic quantity of rivets, the two track structure wound its way through the west side, opening up periodically with the addition of sidings and goods yards.
But the High Line's glory days were short lived and even by the 1950s lorries were starting to take over from rail. In the 1960s the southern section of the Line was demolished and in 1980 the High Line saw its last train, carrying three wagons of frozen turkeys. And by the mid-1980s a loose consortium of land owners and property developers were campaigning hard to have the last sections of the High Line torn down to open up their sites for large scale developments.
"When I found out that the High Line was still unbroken for 22 blocks, that's when the idea triggered in my imagination of how amazing it would be to go up there, ' says David. 'And not just a single individual, but anyone. Why shouldn't we all be able to go up there and discover this wonderful hidden place?"
But first The Friends, resourceless and operating from kitchen tables and mobile phones, had to stop the High Line being torn down. "We had to sue the City, the state, the railroad," says Hammond. "Now that everybody's on board and it's such a popular project it's easy to forget that the first few years were daunting. Non-profit organisations are often loathed to hire lawyers, but if you look at how developers get things done, how they get things torn down, it's through having the best lawyers. It's fighting fire with fire and being up front with people and saying this is not going to happen at all unless we save the High Line in the first place."
Working in the evenings and stolen moments, The Friends began to push as hard as they could to raise funds for the battle. They were helped by the strong creative community that was already establishing itself in the area, particularly in West Chelsea which is now home to around 250 art galleries. Coming into the area from SoHo and other parts of the City, they were setting up shop in the old factories and warehouses and appreciated the neighbourhood's industrial character – including the High Line. The Friends also launched an annual fund raising gala, held every summer, which has now become a pivotal point on the Manhattan social scene. Last summer's event at Cipriani Wall Street was attended by major donors and supporters such as fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and Moby, the thoughtful musical impresario. Other prominent supporters include Sandra Bernhard, Christo, Glenn Close, Edie Falco, Bette Midler, Todd Oldham and Cindy Sherman.
The Friends were also supported by designers, architects and photographers. Pentagram stepped in to design a logo and work on the design of the literature and mail shots. Crucially, photographer Joel Sternfeld got access to the Line and produced an evocative set of images of an environment that most people had never seen. To most, the High Line – given that access is still forbidden – was something always seen from street level and so a mass of flaking steel. Sternfeld's pictures revealed an extraordinary hidden landscape, with wild grasses and flowers rooted in the thin layer of gravel and ballast of the line, even small trees forcing their way up where they were sheltered from the elements by nearby buildings. It also revealed a unique perspective on the city itself from this platform thirty feet up.
The Sternfeld photographs, once exhibited and published in magazines, newspapers and a Pentagram designed booklet, grabbed the wider public's imagination and a groundswell began to form to save the High Line. High profile supporters like actors Edward Norton and Kevin Bacon threw their weight behind The Friends, lobbying for their rusting railroad. "I first heard about the High Line in 2000, when I opened a piece of mail and saw this beautiful forest running above the street in Manhattan," says Bacon, whose father used to work as an urban planner. "I went to The Friends' first event and got involved. I use a city park every day and feel that urban spaces are crucial to our survival and mental health. I hope that the High Line becomes another great destination...."
"It's easier to raise money to draw up plans, to plan beautiful gardens", Hammond says. "We were lucky that we had these visionary supporters and donors who saw the importance of first funding our legal fight. Giuliani had already signed the demolition agreement [in December 2001, one of his last acts as Mayor] so we still had to get that changed even as Mayor Bloomberg was coming into office."
But with the arrival of the Bloomberg administration at the beginning of 2002 the High Line now had real hope. Bloomberg was a supporter of the scheme even while running for office and had shown that he regarded parks as key parts of the City makeup. Amanda Burden, who became Director of the Department of City Planning, was also an enthusiast for the High Line, as were other key individuals in the administration.
'One of the cases we made to Mayor Bloomberg was the economic benefits of the new park,' says Hammond. 'Early on, he said "don't show me the pretty pictures, show me the numbers". And it was easy to make the business case because a park creates value for the city. Buildings next to a park are worth more and this was a neighbourhood with very few parks.'
Mayor Bloomberg's administration also focussed on joined up government, insisting that myriad departments start working together on key initiatives like creating new parks and improving tree cover across the City. Amanda Burden began working on a number of new ideas that would convince developers who owned sites along the High Line to back the new scheme and remove the opposition. A re-zoning initiative for the area around the High Line created a special development bubble, where greater and higher residential development would be allowed along the avenues while the blocks between them were retained as manufacturing zones, which would also allow the galleries and retail businesses to prosper without being crippled by higher rents.
"The City couldn't get ownership of the High Line unless the property owners who owned the sites underneath the High Line signed on," says Burden. "So the question was how do you give them the value of their property? So we used the zoning tool and said that anyone who owned land under or next to the High Line could sell their development rights to anyone who owned land on 10th or 11th Avenue. There are usually height controls on the avenues but if you can buy these development rights then you can go higher. So we incentivised the market for these air rights and one by one the property owners said, "that's good".
"And developers are offered a bonus if they develop under the High Line itself and we believe that there will be retail, galleries and sometimes things that will be totally unexpected. We don't want it to feel sanitised. It was always my premiss and the premiss of The Friends that the park wasn't something that would devalue property but actually increase the value. By having the High Line as the central organising principle and attraction it has captivated the real estate market and, miraculously, the developers realised that they could market this even more if they engaged innovative architects. That's been almost unheard of in New York."
The developers who own land around the High Line were able to benefit twice over, trading their air rights for good profits and then seeing the value of sites under and around the High Line – which they once saw as a barrier to full scale redevelopment – climbing in value and potential. At the same time a series of strict planning controls were put in place close to the old railroad itself to retain that key sense of separation between the High Line and the City, crucial to the retention of its character and its role as both a serene sky garden and epic viewing deck.
Burden and the parks department were now working closely with The Friends, who were growing in significance. David and Hammond, meanwhile, had moved to full time working with the organisation. The City set in motion a process to acquire the High Line from the railroad company using a process called 'rail banking', where the line is 'banked' and preserved for possible future transportation use but can be used as a trail and public amenity. At the same time The Friends and the City began fund raising for the project itself and calling in design proposals, with an open ideas competition in 2003 drawing in 720 entries from 36 countries, exhibited at a show at Grand Central Station.
A second competition in 2004 then led to the appointment of a team led by Field Operations in collaboration with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Dutch planting designer Piet Oudolf. Field Operations, led by director James Corner – who was born in Preston but has made New York his home for the past 25 years – is well known for public landscape projects – including another new park, 4 square miles in total, at Staten Island's old Fresh Kills landfill site. Diller Scofidio + Renfro caught major international attention with their Blur Building at the Swiss Expo in 2002 and are currently completing a new home for the Boston Institute of Contemporary Arts.
"I think we were successful in the competition because we got the temperature of it right," says Corner. "We didn't overshoot with transformation and we didn't undershoot and just say preserve it as it is. To any landscape architect or architect this is a trophy project – it's so important and in one of world's most fantastic cities, a found object with a certain charm and mythology. Our approach is to look at what aspects a site already has and make it unique and to amplify and capitalise on them while making it into a publicly accessible landscape.
"This is a new form of public space quite unlike anything else. It's not quite a park, not quite a promenade or esplanade, not quite an urban square. It's totally unique and raises many challenges and hopes."
Key to the design teams' strategy is a joint mantra emphasising simplicity and toughness. The park will attempt to edit the clutter seen in most parks by limiting the number of design elements – all the more important given the limited width of the High Line which is mostly two rail tracks wide. Lighting, for instance, will be built into the restored handrails bordering the line, creating continuous strips of light that will also emphasise the presence of the High Line.
They have also come up with a system of tapered concrete flooring planks for the hard surfaces of the park which will partially imitate the old coating of sleepers and gravel. These concrete planks will allow plants and grasses to grow between them, while forming a primary path wide enough for wheelchairs to pass on another, as well as offshoots that take you into denser areas of planting and other elements, such as sun decks. The planks will also peel up from the surface to form a good supply of benches and seating. The linear nature of the park makes it unique and quite unlike the wide open spaces of London. But besides planting and seductive spots for contemplation there will also be room for potential 'event lounges', food markets, lawned areas and even water features along the course of the green mile – and a half – dotted with periodic meadows. The experience, then, will change as you navigate both park and city, with new vistas opening up and maximised.
"We are trying to avoid the usual site litter of benches and chairs," says Ricardo Scofidio. "Rather than bringing in other elements it's about keeping it simple and using a few key elements to achieve a great feeling. And if you walk the High Line there are a number of areas where things change spatially and visually and we are trying to take advantage of them and amplify them. For example, we will have a square over 10th Avenue where you will be able to peer down and watch the cars appear under your feet and disappear up the Avenue."
The park will be a stark contrast to the world's other great elevated parkway, the Promenade Plantee in Paris, also created on a disused rail line. The Promenade is essentially a long series of formal parks, with high hedges blocking out the city. The High Line will make the most of its open relationship to Manhattan while planting from Piet Oudolf will mirror and echo some of the wild grasses and flowers seen in Sternfeld's mesmeric pictures.
"We are trying to bring back what you could see in nature on the High Line – the feelings, the emotions," says Oudolf. "But once you take it away you can never get it back so we have to guide it. We are trying to bring back the outward forms by using a lot of native plants and grasses – perhaps 70% – in a design that will give the idea of mirroring the planting that was there before.
"It's about creating an atmosphere that resembles the old High Line, but more sophisticated and designed, some places more wild than others. It's one and a half miles long so to have just one idea about the length of it would be boring. A park should excite people along the way but also through the seasons. Designing with plants is about creating images that change through the seasons, bringing people into a certain atmosphere – in spring you expect a lot of texture, in summer you need flowers and colour in the autumn. It's about the whole process through the seasons and also trying to attract birds and insects as well as people."
Access will be provided by at least five major access points, with both stairways and elevators, and a number of secondary entrances. Given that there is also another new park nearby, Hudson River Park, which will allow bikes and roller bladers – the High Line will be in a slower, more contemplative experience and not so much a thoroughfare as an open sky garden for sanctuary and strolling . That mood will be partly set by the access stairways, which will lead you slowly through the structure. There will be no bicyles or roller blades to spoil the serenity.
"You will be able to sit and relax or take a leisurely stroll on the High Line," says Scofidio. "So the access points not only take you up to the High Line but become a transitional space that takes you from the speed of the City to this slower tempo. We want to extend that journey onto the High Line so that we bring them up to a landing where they can walk 30 or 40 feet under the structure itself and at that point you will be amazed by the obsessive number of rivets and the delicacy of detailing. So it's a change of pace, an introduction, a shaking of hands with the High Line before you emerge onto the surface itself."
"Something like the High Line is an unparalleled opportunity," says New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, whose department is now leading the project, in collaboration with the planners and The Friends. "It's a unique opportunity to offer an open space amenity at relatively high cost, but my belief is that no-one will look back in a hundred years and say why did they waste all that money, but weren't they smart to grab that and do it while they could."
Together with Fresh Kills and Hudson River Park, the High Line is part of a massive $1.4bn investment in public open space within an expansion of parkland unheard of since the 1930s. The Parks department is gearing up to open the first section of the High Line in spring 2008, with a second and final section to follow in 2009.
"There was a sense that after the attacks of 9/11 that we needed to do something to encourage people to stay in New York and one of those things was making sure there were decent parks," says Benepe. "We are not just building frippery here, it's something that is meaningful to people and what's gratifying is that parks are now seen as part of the equation at the highest levels. It's a good time to be a parks commissioner, although there were many years when that wasn't so."
Total cost for the both phases of the High Line is estimated at around $170m, much of which will be spent on making good and restoring the structure itself. Around $103m has already been committed in city, state and federal funds, including $18m in federal funds secured by Senator Hilary Clinton, who who also been a long term supporter of the High Line, describing it as 'a great feat of imagination and advocacy and persuasion and persistence'. The Friends have raised an additional $30m and are continuing to fundraise, with key developers also expected to contribute.
The cause has been helped by some high profile donations from private donors, led by Diane von Furstenberg and her husband Barry Diller who recently donated $5m to the project. Von Furstenberg, who knows the area well and has long had her headquarters nearby, is building a new flagship almost in the shadow of the High Line on 14th street, just across the street from other big fashion names like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney.
"It is the hippest neighbourhood in town and an incredible energy to the area," says von Furstenberg. "I loved the idea that The Friends made this dream happen and that we are really going to have this incredible green ribbon running through the neighbourhood. We got involved in the campaign well before this and it's a joy to be able to give and we hope that by donating we will encourage others to do the same."
And it's not just the fashion houses like Comme des Garcons and galleries who are bringing new blood into the neighbourhood.The list of projects now underway alongside the HIgh Line is now extraordinary, from a proposed building for the Dia Arts Foundation (one of the leading non profit contemporary arts institutions in America) at the southern end of the Line, by Robert Duffy, Skidmore Owings Merrill to Richard Rogers reinvention of the Javits Convention Centre at the northern end, the range is spell binding. There is a new Tadao Ando restaurant for Masaharu Morimoto, an Andre Balazs hotel by the Polshek Partnership, galleries, office and residential buildings.
And for The Friends? They remain involved at every level, gradually morphing from advocacy group into a conservancy, concentrating especially on raising funds for the ongoing maintenance and care of the park, including regular security and maintenance patrols, partly using special electric buggies.
"Because it was such a big and ambitious project we tried not to project into the future too much at the beginning," says David. "But to look at it objectively we would have known that if it did go forward it would be all consuming. I don't think either of us were looking for something to take over our lives."
"When I think we'll feel successful," adds Hammond, "is when it's a well loved place, that people want to come back to again and again. But I also hope it encourages others, whatever the cause. You don't have to be experts – we had no background in this. It was just starting it up and other people coming in behind to get things done. The big question has always been how you keep what you love and what's unique and also make something new. There's a quote in Lampedusa's The Leopard where the Prince of Salina says "for everything to stay the same everything has to change. That was exactly it."