After High Line’s Success, Other Cities Look Up
New York Times 7/14/2010
By KATE TAYLOR
Phone calls and visitors and, yes, dreams from around the world are pouring into the small offices of the Friends of the High Line on West 20th Street in Manhattan these days.
Detroit is thinking big about an abandoned train station. Jersey City and Philadelphia have defunct railroad beds, and Chicago has old train tracks that don’t look like much now, but maybe they too…
The High Line’s success as an elevated park, its improbable evolution from old trestle into glittering urban amenity, has motivated a whole host of public officials and city planners to consider or revisit efforts to convert relics from their own industrial pasts into potential economic engines.
In many of these places there had already been some talk and visions of what might be, but now New York’s accomplishment is providing ammunition for boosters while giving skeptics much-needed evidence of the potential for success. The High Line has become, like bagels and CompStat, another kind of New York export.
“There’s a nice healthy competition between big American cities,” said Ben Helphand, who is pushing to create a park on a defunct rail line in Chicago. “That this has been done in New York puts the onus on us to do it ourselves and to give it a Chicago stamp.”
The High Line, an elevated freight spur that runs along the West Side of Manhattan and overlooks the Hudson River, was also nothing more than a crumbling eyesore 10 years ago. But since it opened as a park last year, its plantings and vistas, tasteful design and intricate weave through the redbrick bastions of New York’s meatpacking past and contemporary buildings by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel have been a hit. Though the High Line is not fully completed — plans have it potentially extending as far north as West 34th Street — more than two million people have already visited.
Developers from Rotterdam and Hong Kong have come looking for ideas. Officials from Jerusalem are hoping to visit. Recently a team from Singapore (Is there really anything old and rusty in Singapore?) spent time on the landscaped walkways that stretch from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street.
“We could have a full-time job if we wanted to just do tours,” said Lisa Tziona Switkin of James Corner Field Operations, the lead designer on the project. She has walked the park with people from Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago and elsewhere. Many of these visitors are interested in the potential for using outmoded infrastructure to add green space and transportation options as well as to promote cultural and commercial revitalization. Part of the fascination with the High Line, which is operated by the city and the nonprofit Friends group, is that it is more than just a pretty place. The neighborhoods it runs through — the meatpacking district and Chelsea — were already glamorous with many restaurants, bars and art galleries. But the opening of the High Line has made those areas even more of a destination and encouraged the Whitney Museum of American Art to build a museum there.
In the early days the founders of the Friends of the High Line, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, drew their own inspiration from the development of the Promenade Plantée in Paris, an elevated park built beginning in 1988 on an abandoned railroad viaduct.
Now their success is encouraging others. In Philadelphia the idea is to turn the Reading Viaduct, which is 60 feet wide, into an elevated park and bike path.
“Our viaduct is much wider, which gives us more opportunity in some way,” said Paul R. Levy, the president of a business improvement group that is exploring the plan there.
The proposal is the brainchild of John Struble, a furniture maker, and Sarah McEneaney, an artist, who live near the viaduct and who met Mr. David in 2003 when he walked the span with them.
“He totally inspired us,” Ms. McEneaney said. “We got a lot of advice early on.” Still, she said, the project had little momentum until the High Line opened. “That sparked a lot more interest from the city administration,” she said.
Now the business-improvement quarter, known as the Center City District, is conducting a feasibility study focused in part on whether building the park would bring new development to the neighborhood, where many buildings are vacant.
“I was a nonbeliever until I actually walked on the High Line,” Mr. Levy said. “It was a complete turnaround for me.”
Alan Greenberger, the deputy mayor for economic development in Philadelphia, expressed caution about whether what was done in New York could be reproduced elsewhere. “People do look at the economic success and say that’s inspiring,” he said. “Can you replicate it? That’s another story.”
In Chicago, Mr. Helphand is president of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a group modeled after the organization that Mr. Hammond and Mr. David direct. He acknowledged that Chicago does not have the army of private philanthropists that New York does, but said there was still lots of enthusiasm.
“We don’t have Diane von Furstenberg,” he said, referring to a prominent supporter of the High Line, “though we do have a celebrity chef.” (The first two sections of the High Line cost $152 million, $44 million of which was raised by Friends of the High Line.)
Recently, Chicago commissioned a design master plan from a team that includes a firm that was a runner-up in the competition to design the High Line.
Not everyone in Chicago, or other cities for that matter, embraces the notion that all good ideas start in New York. Janet Attarian, a project director for the Chicago Transportation Department, said that the plan for the Bloomingdale Trail has been around since the late 1990s. “It is something that we have been cogitating for a while,” she said.
The Bloomingdale Trail is almost three miles long, twice the length of the High Line, and is wide enough to accommodate bike traffic, which will give it a certain functionality that the High Line lacks.
“In the mornings there will be a rush hour of bicycles,” Mr. Helphand predicted. “It’s the east-west nonmotorized transportation route that we don’t have.”
Jersey City officials, who can practically see the High Line across the Hudson River, want to turn a downtown railroad embankment into an elevated park and transportation corridor. The effort is complicated by a legal battle with a developer that is now in mediation. The City Council on Wednesday voted to raise funds to acquire the embankment should the city win the fight.
Maureen Crowley, a coordinator for the Embankment Preservation Coalition, said that Mr. David and Mr. Hammond have advised the group, and that Mr. Hammond recently joined its advisory board.
The coalition organized a tour of the High Line last year for Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy and several other Jersey City officials, who were impressed, Ms. Crowley said.
Other recent participants in a High Line tour were from Paris, a group of officials from La Défense, that city’s business district. They sought ideas for shaping development in their own neighborhood. The group’s leader, Philippe Chaix, had been involved in developing the Promenade Plantée, the High Line’s muse a decade ago.
“When we were beginning to take the High Line around,” Mr. David recalled, “being able to point to the Promenade Plantée was huge to us. It’s exciting that the High Line can act in the same way — be something that other projects can point to and say, ‘This may sound unusual, but look, they’ve done it here, and look how successful it is.’ ”