The Story Behind the High Line

Earlier last year, the third and final section of the High Line, an elevated park in New York City, opened to the public. Now visitors can ascend the stairs to the park and take an unhurried, uninterrupted stroll on immaculate and landscaped paths. This 1.45-mile long elevated park attracts millions of visitors every year garnering worldwide attention as an emblem of urban reinvention. Many partners in our network have expressed interest in learning more about how the High Line was developed. The following are some key highlights that we hope will inspire other communities to reimagine their own underutilized public spaces to design unique, health-promoting, and vibrant community assets.

Originating in transportation safety + efficiency. The elevated rails line that became the High Line were built in the early 1930’s to address the dangerous conditions created by freight and passenger trains traversing the City at street level. When it opened in 1934, the elevated track was heralded as “one of the greatest public improvements in the history of New York.”By the 1960’s, however, the railway was ceding power to the interstate highway system as the preferred means of moving freight, and the last train ran down the High Line in 1980. Beginning that year, the elevated track lay fallow, attracting only weeds and the occasional intrepid trespasser.

Imagining a new future. In 1999 ownership of the High Line passed into the hands of CSX Transportation Corporation.CSX commissioned a study by the Regional Plan Association (RPA), which recommended that the best use of the rails was to turn them into a park.The study was presented at a community board meeting, fortuitously attended by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, two citizens who eventually formed the Friends of the High Line. This organization initially began as a citizen interest group devoted to saving the structure from demolition, and eventually evolved to fund, maintain, and manage it.

Persevering, despite adversity. The Friends of the High Line (Friends) faced imposing challenges. A group of surrounding residents known as the “Chelsea Property Owners,” saw the elevated rail as a blight on the landscape and an impediment to their own development interests. Although Friends wanted to use the National Trail Systems Act to “railbank” the line, preserving it from demolition and maintaining it as pedestrian walkways or bike trails, a conditional abandonment order, filed by the National Surface Transportation Board, had already been issued that called for demolition.In December 2001, Friends filed a lawsuit claiming that the City was obliged to undergo a Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) before demolishing the easement.

Galvanizing multi-pronged support. Over time, Friends of the High Line built an impressive network of supporters committed to preserving the rail line as a park. Advocacy support came from many design organizations such as the Municipal Arts Society, American Institute of Architects, Architectural League, Alliance for the Arts, and American Planning Association. Meanwhile, local businesses and patrons contributed significant funds to the effort. Friends also conducted an economic feasibility study, concluding that the High Line would generate far more revenues to the City from property taxes than it would cost to build.

Securing public agency commitment. Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to office with grand visions for increasing and revitalizing public park space, which included the High Line. In 2002, the City filed with the National Surface Transportation Board to railbank the High Line. The City pledged funding commitments eventually reached $61 million,and secured significant federal and state appropriations.

Pursuing creative policy solutions. The only remaining opposition came from the Chelsea Property Owners. In the fall of 2003, the Department of City Planning began the process of rezoning for a new West Chelsea District between Sixteenth and Thirtieth Streets, which included the creation of a High Line Transfer Corridor (HLTC). Property owners within the HLTC gained the right to sell unused development rights above and adjacent to the High Line to designated receiving sites. The rezoning plan was fiercely negotiated across many interest groups, and as it neared completion the groundwork for the High Line fell into place: Chelsea Property Owners withdrew their objections; the High Line was railbanked by the Surface Transportation Board; and CSX donated the majority of the elevated rail line to the City.

Designing for excellence. After years of effort to secure the High Line as a public resource, outstanding design was imperative. In 2004, the design team of Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro was selected for the job.Working with Friends of the High Line and the City, the design team envisioned a promenade that paid homage to the rail history and natural overgrowth of the High Line’s past, while envisioning new public spaces for the future. Today magnificent landscaping, walking paths, seating areas, and gathering spaces celebrate a reinvigorated relationship between the High Line and its surrounding neighborhood.

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Sasha Khlyavich Hynes is a contributing author to the Center for Active Design. She is a former commercial litigator living and writing in Brooklyn, New York.
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