Living The High Line: Elevated Park Brings Big Business, But What’s Next?
By David Freedlander
Robert Hammond, a former dot-commer and amateur artist who became an urban folk hero for his decade-long fight to save the High Line, keeps a card from an anonymous commenter above his desk.
“The High Line is beautiful and should be preserved,” it reads. “No doubt you will ruin it. So it goes.”
Whether the High Line’s pristine restoration has ruined its allure as one of the city’s last wild escapes remains a matter of some dispute. But as the city opened the second section this week, the celebrated rail trellis has come to be seen by some critics as a symbol of the new New York for the Bloomberg era, a place that privileges high-end enchantments and requires steady dollops of fashion, celebrity and financial philanthropy for anything to move the municipal bureaucracy.
“The biggest blockbuster opening of the summer isn’t The Hangover Part II—it is the High Line Part 2,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a ceremonial groundbreaking this week, where he announced a $5 million gift to the park from the Tiffany Foundation and a matching gift from the philanthropists Donald Pels and Wendy Keys. “And when I say blockbuster I mean every block from 20th to 30th Street!”
“All the High Line really proves is that wealthy, connected people simply have better access to government and are able to do this kind of thing,” said Geoffrey Croft, executive director of New York City Park Advocates. “I give everyone a lot of credit for seeing this through, but let’s be honest—I’ve been working for years and years to get a tiny piece of park land out in Maspeth, and these guys are able to get a $100 million in a very short period of time.”
The story of the saving of the High Line has been about how two regular guys—Mr. Hammond and his West Side neighbor Joshua David—teamed up to sell New York on their dream, over the objections of Big Real Estate and City Hall. The truth is slightly more complicated. Mr. Hammond, who now serves as executive director of Friends of the High Line, was a college roommate of former City Council speaker Gifford Miller (who was singled out for praise at the groundbreaking) and the group recruited backers from the downtown glitterati—like actor Ed Norton and fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg. Only when a rezoning insured that high-end development would accompany preservation of the park did a deal finally go through to save the abandoned track.
“To be a little selfish, I thought it would be good for me as a landlord in the future,” said Douglas Oliver, an early supporter of the project who owns a building along the High Line that he recently rented to the satellite campus of an elite global private school for the net price of $30 a square foot. “All the landlords thought it would be detriment to the area. Now they have property worth a lot more than it was before.”
Mr. Oliver was right in the end. In a preview walk-through with reporters last week, Mr. Bloomberg touted the returns on the city’s $115 million dollar investment in the High Line: $2 billion in private investment, mostly through the glass-clad towers that have grown up around the trestle, like so much of the native flora carefully laid amid the old railway ties.
There is some disagreement over how much the High Line (and the public outlays that came with it) was needed to actually spur growth in West Chelsea—the project was approved as the neighborhood underwent a massive rezoning, and just as Hudson River Park opened the waterfront to New Yorkers for the first time.
“This neighborhood was changing dramatically before the High Line, too,” Mr. Hammond told The Observer. “Sometimes people credit it with everything, with the only reason the neighborhood has gentrified. It was changing before us.”
The High Line has stoked fears in some preservation and planning circles that it will set a new precedent for urban development in the city, one in which new public spaces get created only if the promise of gaudy new buildings suggests they will turn the city a handsome profit.
“I think it is a cautionary tale. You have to be careful about crediting it as a model,” said Jerilyn Perine, a former housing commissioner under Mr. Bloomberg. “If you are going to be making those kinds of arguments you run the danger of never developing public spaces that will have that spike in real estate value.”
The long-term concern is the High Line might be the first step in a new, two-tiered system of public spaces in the city, one where projects that can entice Lisa Marie Falcone to stand up suddenly at a gala and pledge $10 million for a catwalk to be called “The Falcone Flyover” and those that don’t, well, don’t.
“I think all neighborhoods should have great parks,” responded Mr. Hammond. “I think they have added 20,000 acres of new parks in the city, and the High Line is what, three acres of that? So I think there have been great parks built all over the city.”
But calling the High Line a park isn’t quite right. One gallerist in the area told The Observer that it was basically like having Yankee Stadium on the West Side, with visitors stepping off the train and taking a quick stroll before heading back the other way.
“It’s not a recreational park, as we’ve understood it,” said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “It’s a place where you re-create yourself, which is the root word, where you re-create yourself in nature … Even in a tiny, narrow, glorified alleyway on the busy West Side, nature is taking place.”
Park advocates across the city are watching nervously to see what happens long after the second section opens, once the Von Furstenbergs and Falcones of the world find other amusements. When it ceases to be one of the hippest playgrounds around, who will pay for the High Line’s upkeep?
Friends of the High Line thought they had a solution when they proposed a “Park Improvement District,” a first-of-its-kind tax on residents and businesses around the park to pay for upkeep. Neighbors were up in arms at the proposal, and it was eventually dropped.
Earlier this year, Friends of the High Line secured a unique deal with the city to open a number of cafes on the site and to keep most of the money generated from those concessions, even though the city charter states that all concession money must go back into the city’s general fund.
“That money is being stolen from taxpayers to go to that park,” said Mr. Croft, the parks advocate, noting that the High Line has 54 employees for less than three acres, while most public spaces have none. “Talk about a disparity. This is a poster child for what is wrong with the park system.”
Standing underneath a web of scaffolding, in the shadow of another new building going up on the High Line, Mr. Benepe said that arrangement was not uncommon for parks that operated as public/private partnerships and said it was necessary because Friends of the High Line, and not the city, was responsible for most of the park’s upkeep.
“It is a way for the Friends of the High Line to provide the high level of maintenance this park requires,” he said. “It’s really difficult raising maintenance money … Keep in mind this park has really become an economic development magnet. The city’s investment of about $112 million is dwarfed by the private sector in the buildings around it.”
Those glass towers tunneling over the High Line might do more than increase property values or keep the Chelsea economy humming through the recession; they could help provide the park with a built-in wealthy constituency who will ensure that the High Line stays beautiful in perpetuity, much as the old-money co-ops that line Central Park look after its upkeep.
In the meantime, a thousand ships have launched from the example of Mr. Hammond and Mr. David, as dreamers around the country look to turn every bridge left lying around into their city’s next great public space, and even a few developers have talked of constructing something like the High Line out of whole cloth. But they may want to make sure they have their Falcones and their Von Furstenburgs lined up first.
Standing on the second section, looking resplendent in a sheer bright purple dress and orange top, Ms. Von Furstenburg greeted well-wishers and peered over dark sunglasses at what her $10 million gift two years ago has wrought.
“Dreams can come true. That is the story of the High Line,” she said. “It’s great. “It’s wonderful. It’s what New York should be about.”