Up On The High Line, Down Under The Hudson

Two projects that RPA backed or helped inspire had milestones this week, giving proof that the city and region are moving forward on multiple fronts, despite various money fears that continue to reverberate.

Let's look at the one above ground — actually above the street — first. The High Line opened Monday, and gave thousands of visitors a chance to experience its unique urban pleasures. One strolls along wooden planks high above the busy streets while wildflowers — at least they look like wildflowers — bloom beside you.

It is simply an amazing project. Who would have thunk it? When Rob Hammond and Josh David began conceiving and pushing for the project a decade ago, it was one of those ideas about which you instantly say, "Great idea, never going to happen." Too expensive; too many special interests will have to work together rather than separately; too much agility required of public and private bureaucracies; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

But lo and behold, it did happen, and relatively quickly.

"Designed by James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the first phase of the High Line, which opened on Tuesday, is a series of low scruffy gardens, punctuated by a fountain and a few quiet lounge areas, that unfold in a lyrical narrative and seem to float above the noise and congestion below," said the sometimes difficult to please Nicolai Ouroussoff for the Times. "It is one of the most thoughtful, sensitively designed public spaces built in New York in years."

It is an indicator of how far we have come, how much better we work together, that a project like this could proceed so fluidly and not get mangled in the process. It is part of a resurgence of the city and region on many fronts, including the care and management of streets. It's no accident that at the same time the High Line is being completed, New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is leading a revolution that is seeing the installation of bike lanes, new street plazas, and the release of a new Street Design Manual.

We here at RPA can claim a bit of credit for the High Line. Sometimes our role is connecting people with ideas and each other, and we seemed to have done that with the High Line. In addition, we helped alert the federal government to the line's existence, which helped avert a looming demolition. Here's how it happened.

In 1999, Jeff Zupan, RPA's longtime senior fellow for Transportation, gave a report at a Community Board meeting about what to do with the abandoned elevated freight line that stretched down the west side of Manhattan. The Giuliani administration was advocating tearing the line down as it was a drag on property values — boy, talk about creative thinking! — and the then owner of the line, CSX railroad, commissioned RPA to study the line and its potential uses. At the community board meeting, Zupan showcased the report's conclusion, which was that the line had no usable transportation purpose except as a high-amenity pedestrian promenade. Hammond and David, the High Line founders, were at the meeting, and it is there they began talking with each other and conceiving of the linear park that opened this week.

"I met Josh there," said Hammond, taking a break from a busy week to talk to me.

At the same time, this RPA study for CSX helped instigate the Federal Railroad Administration to prohibit the City from demolishing this abandoned rail line while its fate was decided.

Meanwhile this week below ground, another significant event close to RPA's heart happened on the same day as the High Line's opening: NJ TRANSIT and The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey held a groundbreaking for the second rail tunnel under the Hudson River. It was accompanied by an announcement that the federal government, under the Obama administration, is contributing $3 billion, which completes the funding for the $8.7 billion project.

Ninety-nine years after the Pennsylvania Railroad opened its historic tunnel into the new Penn Station, work is beginning to double the capacity of rail in the fastest growing commuting corridor in the region and perhaps the nation. This project will also will mean more direct and more frequent service to Penn Station, and possibly new services on lines that have been long abandoned. It sets up the possibility for an eventual extension to the East Side of Manhattan and Grand Central Station, something RPA recommended in a study last year. http://www.rpa.org/2008/03/-a-new-study-released.html

Getting the construction of such a tunnel has been a top priority of RPA's for many years, under its Access to the Region's Core (ARC) campaign. Seeing the ground breaking was a great moment.

Taken together though, the projects are evidence that we as a region are still vital and alive, whatever the troubles of the moment.