High Line

In 1999, the city prepared to sign off on the demolition of a disused elevated freight line that ran from Gansevoort Street north to the 34 th Street rail yards through the Chelsea and West Village neighborhoods. Area residents had another idea. Determined to save the massive section of urban infrastructure, then owned by rail giant CSX Transportation Inc., neighborhood residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond stepped up. The politically connected and media savvy preservationists established Friends of the High Line as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

They worked to save the elevated railroad and eventually led the effort to convert it to a linear park. This would mean halting demolition, transferring the property from CSX to the city, “rail banking” the tracks under a federal program that allowed rails-to-trails conversions, and changing neighborhood zoning from primarily manufacturing to mixed use, including commercial and residential. In many ways, the duo was ideally suited to the task. West Village resident Hammond counted fellow San Antonio, Texas native, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, as a family friend.

Central Park Conservancy managers advised the two that they would need to plan not only for construction of a new park, but for its future operations and maintenance. John Alschuler , chairman of real estate consultancy HR&A Advisors, echoed this advice when David and Hammond in 2002 asked how best to make their case to city officials. Alschuler was former city manager of Santa Monica, California, and his firm specialized in urban development and public/private partnerships. HR&A’s analysis showed that increased revenue from property, sales and income taxes from a conversion would exceed the city’s costs to preserve the viaduct. As he recalls:

Our firm did a very rigorous, very careful study and we argued, absolutely correctly, as it turned out, to the government, that an investment in park and open space will return more cash value back to the government in terms of increased property tax revenue, increased sales tax revenue, increased income tax revenue, that would pay three, four times what the cost of the park was. [13]

Alschuler served as chairman of the board of Friends of the High Line for five years, and advised the group for seven years. He was able to articulate a larger civic purpose for the venture and for public/private partnerships in general. He says:

The idea of a public, private partnership, the notion of private investment working with the government to lay out the tracks of a great city, it’s what we’ve done since the beginning of our country and since all great cities were founded. The New York City subway system was originally built with private capital. The railroads that service this region, originally built with private capital. The notion that government plays a role, working in collaboration with a private investment, is as old as the republic and inherent in the pattern of city building.

Bloomberg support. When Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, prospects for the High Line improved. Unlike his predecessor Mayor Giuliani, Bloomberg saw the project as integral to lower Manhattan’s recovery from the September 2001 terror attacks and as a complement to economic development plans for the area near the former World Trade Center. The mayor’s office decided to pursue the idea of an overhead park.

The High Line Park

In 2003, Friends of the High Line spurred community interest in the potential of the viaduct by sponsoring a competition for whimsical design ideas. The winning submission was a 1.7-mile lap pool, the runner up a roller coaster. A serious design competition followed in 2004. The winners were landscape architects and urban designers James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio+Renfro architects. James Corner became project lead and the landscape architect.

There were few precedents for an overhead park. The design team visited one, the Promenade Plantee in Paris, a 1980s conversion of an elevated rail line into a park. True, the Parisian rail line was a vaulted masonry structure, as opposed to the High Line’s lighter steel construction. Moreover, a neighborhood/urban development corporation carried out the French operation. It involved less private property. But, recalls Lisa Switkin , principal at James Corner, the French project demonstrated what was possible.

The ideas competition was a great sort of brief that basically challenged people to come up with an idea for the High Line that was as unique as the structure itself…The idea was really to just get people’s imaginations going and make them think out of the box about what the potential of this could be in the City, and the exhibition was done in Grand Central. [14]

Special district . Meanwhile, the city took steps to make the park possible. In 2005, it rezoned the area to create the Special West Chelsea district. This area on the lower West Side, from 16 th Street to 30 th Street between 10th and 11 th Avenues, had been zoned mostly for light industry and commercial use. [15] The West Chelsea rezoning permitted a mix of residential, commercial and some manufacturing (for art galleries). The scheme hinged on a provision for the transfer of development rights from properties located directly under or flanking the High Line’s easement to parcels along 10th and 11 th Avenues. The transfer meant that the mostly private owners under the viaduct, who previously favored demolition so they could build on their property, could now benefit by selling their development rights to developers on 10 th and 11 th who wanted to build higher than originally permitted.

The rezoning included a bonus: property owners developing lots adjacent to the High Line between West 16 th and West 19 th streets could, for a fee, build higher than the zoning allowed. [16] The additional monies would go to a High Line Improvement Fund for amenities such as elevators, stairways and public restrooms. The fee, at $50 per square foot, was well below the market rate in the neighborhood, which could reach hundreds of dollars per square foot. [17] Developers took advantage to expand. Chelsea Market, for example, controversially even persuaded authorities to shift the district’s border south and east to include their property so that it could leverage the bonus incentive to enlarge. [18] The City Planning Commission approved the expansion on the condition that Chelsea Market direct roughly a third of the $19 million in bonus fees to an affordable housing fund and educational programs in nearby public housing. [19]

Together, these measures opened the way for development that all hoped would generate sufficient additional tax revenue to offset the city’s cost to renovate the elevated freight line.

[13] Stepan’s interview with John Alschuler on March 20, 2014 in New York City. All further quotes from Alschuler, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[14] Authors’ interview with Lisa Switkin on February 28, 2014, at James Corner Field Operations in New York City. All further quotes from Switkin, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[15] The section of the proposed park running from 16 th Street to Gansevoort Street would be adjacent to the Meatpacking District, an historic meat and produce wholesale area designated in 2003 the Gansevoort Market Historic District.  Also zoned for light industry and commercial uses, it was home to a mix of galleries, high-end restaurants, and hotels.

[16] City of New York Zoning Resolution, Article IX: Special Purpose Districts, Chapter 8: Special West Chelsea District, amended Oct. 9, 2013. See: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/zone/art09c08.pdf .

[17] Manhattan Borough President recommendation on ULURP application Nos. N 120142 ZRM and C 120143 ZMM Chelsea market expansion, by Jamestown Premier Chelsea Market, LP, July 18, 2012. See: http://www.gvshp.org/_gvshp/preservation/chelsea_market/doc/chelsea-market-ulurp.pdf . Also Felix Salmon,“Why privately-financed public parks are a bad idea,” Reuters , November 21, 2013.

[18] The Chelsea Market adjustment affected the block bounded by West 15 th and West 16 th streets and Ninth and Tenth Avenues.

[19] Matt Chaban, “Good News and Bad News for the High Line as Chelsea Market Expansion Approved by City Planning,” New York Observer , September 5, 2012.