High Line gets a-rolling

City, celebs kick off construction of new elevated park in Meatpacking District

by amy zimmer / metro new york

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APR 11, 2006

MEATPACKING DISTRICT — The ceremonial “rail lifting” here marked the first phase of construction to transform the 1.45-mile-long abandoned elevated High Line railway into a public park by spring 2008.

The effort was helped by actors Kevin Bacon and Edward Norton. (Photo: Bill Lyons/Metro)

While city leaders basked in the project’s initial impact — it has already spurred 27 new developments along and around the High Line’s expanse from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street — they also discussed how the idea was nearly derailed.

People thought it was in danger of collapsing, and “every hurdle, but one, had been cleared to have High Line demolished,” said Dan Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development. “A property owner came in dragging a luggage cart with a big chunk of concrete.”

It then took “seemingly hundreds of railroad lawyers,” “one of the most complex rezonings ever,” and “a uniquely successful public/private relationship” to save the structure, he said.

Private sector involvement was led by Robert Hammond and Joshua David, who founded Friends of the High Line in 1999. With help from actors Edward Norton and Kevin Bacon, they raised $60 million, including a $5 million gift announced yesterday from Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg.

Norton, who used to live in an apartment that had a view of the High Line and who would sneak onto the structure, became a cheerleader for the park project early on. “You couldn’t believe something like this would be left alone so long,” he said of the 1929 railway that hasn’t seen trains on it since 1980.

And while he lamented the loss of the Meatpacking District as a “quiet and secret” place, he was unequivocal about the park’s positive potential for bringing people together “to mix and mingle.”

“The natural reclamation of the wild grasses spurred the idea and paved the way for what this could be reimagined as,” Norton said. “I think [Hammond and David] will go down in history with the great citizen advocates like Jane Jacobs and Jackie O.”

Friends of the High Line won the city’s support in 2002, getting a boost from then-Speaker of the City Council Gifford Miller. With public funds, they now have a total of $130 million to begin building northward to 20th Street. They need $40 million more to complete the project, and funds for maintenance and operation.

“We’re trying to keep it very simple, very easy as a place to walk on and not to overwhelm it,” explained architect Ricardo Scofidio, from design team Diller Scofidio + Renfro. “We want it to be a park, but we don’t want it to be a typical city park with plantings and park benches.”

Unique park

• According to Parks Dept. Commissioner Adrian Benepe, park maintenance will cost $6 million a year. “The hope is that Friends of the High Line will raise a development fund of $20 million and some money will will come from concessions and events,” he said.

• There is only one other elevated park in the world: the 3-mile Promenade Plantee in Paris. Similar parks are underway in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago and Rotterdam.

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