Group Asserts Ten-Year-Old Federal Ruling Is No Longer Valid And Must Be Reopened
Demolition Proponents Move to Gain Federal Approval of Unsigned Agreement
August 19, 2002 – On Friday, August 16, 2002, advocates for the preservation and reuse of the High Line, an historic elevated rail structure on the West Side of Manhattan, petitioned the Surface Transportation Board (STB) in Washington, DC, asserting that a 1992 ruling that opened the door to demolition proposals for the High Line is "outdated and invalid" and must be reconsidered.
"Ten years later, the fundamental arguments beneath the 1992 ruling no longer make any sense," said Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line (FHL), a non-profit, community-based group working to transform the out-of-use rail structure into an elevated walkway through the federally sanctioned rail-banking program. "Our current understanding of the High Line's historical significance and the real economic potential of reusing the structure were not accurately predicted 1992. New reviews are clearly demanded."
The urgency of Friends of the High Line's petition was underscored by a federal filing on August 14 by demolition proponents requesting STB approval of contested demolition plans. The petitioners were Chelsea Property Owners (CPO), a group of private landholders led by a New Jersey-based real estate company, Edison Properties. The proposal for which CPO requested approval is missing crucial signatures, was found to be "undertaken in violation of lawful procedure and was an error of law," by a New York State Supreme Court justice in March, 2002, and is still being contested at the appellate court level.
"To let a priceless resource like the High Line be destroyed on the basis of a clearly outdated ruling would be a travesty of justice," said Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a high-ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who represents the West Side neighborhood through which the High Line runs. "The High Line is part of an irreplaceable transportation corridor that has served our community for more than six generations. We cannot allow such a valuable and historic component of our national rail system to be dismantled–especially when the federal rail-banking program encourages the preservation and continued use of these corridors for the greater public good. Both the economy and the essence of the surrounding neighborhood have greatly changed in the past ten years."
A conditional abandonment order, which would permit demolition of the High Line if a specific set of financial and indemnity conditions are met, was issued in 1992 by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), a federal body that has since been replaced by the Surface Transportation Board (STB). The STB has the final authority to approve or reject any proposals regarding the future of the High Line, including future applications for Interim Trail Use, or rail-banking, for the structure.
Friends of the High Line's filing states that "changed circumstances and new evidence" require the STB to "start over" in evaluating the negative effects of potential demolition. It cites a changed understanding of the High Line's historic significance, which is now recognized by leading architectural historians as being eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It argues that there has been a major "economic and cultural revival" of the High Line neighborhood and "a massive shift in public opinion" towards support for preservation and reuse of the structure, and it contends that because viable reuse proposals now exist for the High Line, "demolition would pollute a vibrant community and deprive it of a precious resource and valuable opportunity." It concludes that the "ICC's assumptions lie in ruins" and that "the Board should and must reopen its 1992 Abandonment Decision…."
"The STB certainly must reexamine the historic value of the High Line, " said Scott Heyl, president of the Preservation League of New York State, which included the High Line in its 2002 "Seven to Save" list of the State's most important, threatened historic properties. "Today this unique industrial structure is widely acknowledged to be a rare, important, historic icon. To permit its demolition, and at the same time squander a singular chance to create new parkland, would be a tragic loss for the State and City."
Public support for reuse of the High Line as an elevated greenway has soared in recent months. The New York City Council unanimously voted its support for preserving and reusing the High Line in 2001, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg supported the concept in Reclaiming the High Line, a reuse study published in February 2002. In April 2002, Mayor Bloomberg announced a feasibility study for the walkway proposal. The study, which includes a structural analysis, cost estimates, and projections of public benefits to be derived from adaptive reuse, is expected to finish in mid-September.
New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, a leading supporter of the High Line walkway plan, said, "Friends of the High Line's filing is an essential step forward in one of the most innovative urban planning initiatives this city has ever seen. By dynamically linking historic preservation, open-space creation, and economic development, converting the High Line will serve our city for years to come. It's the kind of illustrious vision that the world expects from New York and that our residents deserve."
In April 2002, Honorable Justice Diane A. Lebedeff of the Supreme Court of the State of New York found that CPO's plan to demolish the High Line was undertaken in violation of lawful procedure and was an error of law." In her ruling, Justice Lebedeff affirmed the arguments of FHL, the New York City Council, the Manhattan Borough President, and six Chelsea residents and business owners, that demolition plans had unlawfully skirted ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), a City Charter-mandated public review process. The decision is currently on appeal, with court arguments expected this fall.
"This small group of self-interested speculators have repeatedly used back-room procedures in their attempt to rob New Yorkers of this resource," said Hammond. "They tried to sneak through a demolition agreement right before Christmas, and now, in the dog days of summer, they try to get a federal stamp of approval for the agreement, which was created in violation of lawful procedure and is missing essential signatures. As a community-based group deeply concerned with historic preservation, open-space creation, and the economic health of our neighborhood, it's FHL's duty to defend the public's right to reclaim a monumental structure its tax dollars helped build."
The High Line was erected in the 1930s as part of the $175 million West Side Improvement Project. Trains stopped running on it in 1980. It is currently 1.45 miles long and has 6.7 acres of open space atop its elevated rail bed. The National Trails Systems Act of 1983 permits its out-of-use rail easement to be converted to a public trail. Similar rails-to-trails initiatives have created over 11,000 miles of rail-trails nationwide.
Friends of the High Line formed in 1999 with the mission of converting the High Line to an elevated walkway. In February 2002, FHL released Reclaiming the High Line, the first reuse study for the structure, which was conducted with the Design Trust for Public Space and published by AOL Time Warner. The group is now conducting its part of the City-led feasibility study, due mid-September. In addition, they are preparing the launch of an international design competition, which will begin this winter.
In July 2002, FHL held its second annual summer benefit, which was chaired by Edward Norton and Martha Stewart and attended by Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Danny DeVito, Christopher Meloni, and numerous artists, architects, community members, and elected officials. Efforts to preserve and reuse the High Line as an elevated walkway are supported by, among others, New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, City Council Member Christine Quinn, Representative Jerrold Nadler, U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, State Senator Thomas Duane, State Senator Eric Schneiderman, State Assembly Member Deborah Glick, and State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried.
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