How the High Line Avoided Death

A few weeks ago, New York City experienced a new highlight in the running celebration that is the High Line. The park opened a new stretch, extending from 20th Street to 30th Street, which complements and expands on the southern portion, creating new spaces and vistas. It includes more intimate spaces, where the High Line contracts as it squeezes between buildings. It has more people-watching opportunities and windows over streets, and a fly-over spanning an urban arboretum. It also further unlocks the potential for the West Midtown neighborhood.

At RPA, we're looking forward to a day when the Hudson Yards are redeveloped into a mixed-use project on the waterfront, when a grand Moynihan Station welcomes visitors to New York City, when the Javits Convention Center is moved to a more practical location, and when a fully built High Line connects Midtown West to the Meatpacking District in an unbroken ribbon. Congratulations to the Friends of the High Line for an extraordinary achievement!

The general story behind the High Line is well known — how it was built as a freight railroad, abandoned for decades, and finally converted to a glorious space by the Friends of the High Line. At RPA, we're proud to have played a role in the project during the late '90s, when political and business interests lined up to tear down the railroad.

In 1999, CSX, the private freight railroad company and reluctant owner of the High Line, came to Regional Plan Association and asked us if we could find a transportation use for the hulking linear mass of metal looming over the Gansevoort and Chelsea neighborhoods. If no legitimate use for the structure could be found, they were facing an estimated $30 million removal cost. The Giuliani Administration was pushing them to raze it, eyeing the development opportunities that the vacated land could bring.

We convened a panel of experts, studied the usual transit options, and found them all lacking. Ridership would be low, costs would be high. Nothing seemed to fit. But RPA did not want to see the railroad torn down. Instead, our report suggested that "The use of the High Line for a high amenity transportation corridor .... should continue to receive strong consideration. Two related and overlapping land use concepts are included as part of the greenway. One is a "string of beads", emphasizing the value of the portions of the High Line extending over the cross streets. The other is a "street in the air", which would make use of the much of the length of the High Line, bolstered by zoning changes that encourage retail establishments to take hold on the High Line surface." The full report is now available online.

At the time, almost no one thought the obstacles to fixing up the abandoned tracks could be surmounted. RPA's report made the New York Times in July 1999, and included several negative reactions from the Giuliani Administration, which dismissed the idea as idle fantasy and said "that platform has no right to be there except for transportation, and that use is long gone.'' The City's Planning Director told reporters that his staff had examined the railroad for over a decade, and found no viable use for it. Since CSX was not offering to pay to turn the railroad into a park themselves, the delay in tearing it down, he said, had turned it into "the Vietnam of old railroad trestles.''

At about that time, two industrious private citizens, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, heard a presentation of the RPA report at a Community Board meeting. Intrigued by the concept of an urban park in the sky and undeterred by the enormity of it all, they took charge when it was clear that no one else would do it. The idea was embraced by Mayor Bloomberg and his top staff, most notably Amanda Burden at City Planning and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who pushed for early financial support to seed the project. Eventually private funds were raised and the new High Line was born. The rest, as they say, is history.