Jul 17, 2003 2:55 pm US/Eastern (1010 WINS)(NEW YORK)In a city where real estate is king, seven acres of open space is considered precious -- even if it's 18 feet off the ground.
The space is called the High Line, a 1.5-mile-long elevated steel railroad spur built 70 years ago to carry freight trains into the far west side of Manhattan. Last used in 1980, it is now covered with knee-high grass, wildflowers and rust -- and offers panoramic views of the city.
Some property owners underneath the High Line consider it a blight -- good only for the pigeons that roost on the underside -- and have sought for years to get it demolished.
But a number of residents, civic groups and politicians are pushing to have the High Line turned into parkland as part of the successful federal "Rails-to-Trails" program.
"It was built to move in eggs and butter to factories in New York City. Now it can be used to move people in and out of the galleries, restaurants, apartments and offices that those warehouses have become," said Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit group dedicated to its preservation and reuse.
As part of that effort, the group sponsored "Designing the High Line," a competition to gather ideas for the structure's future. It attracted 720 entries from 38 countries, and many of the proposals are on exhibit through July 26 at Grand Central Terminal's Vanderbilt Hall.
The entries range from the practical (a sculpture garden), to the unlikely (one very long lap pool), to the whimsical (an amusement park featuring a campground and the "Big Apple roller coaster").
Reed Kroloff, an adviser to the competition, said the number of designs the jury received shows how much interest the "idea of a park in the sky" generates.
"You can't quite see on the High Line when you're on it what's holding you up. You just know you're floating above this incredibly busy machine that is New York City. It's just constantly pulsing beneath you, swirling around, and you're on this airborne horizontal oasis," he said. "Talk about romantic."
Access to the High Line is now highly limited and difficult. "Walking the High Line," a book by photographer Joel Sternfeld, documents it through the seasons. In the midst of rusted buckets and other debris, the High Line has sprouted some delightful surprises such as white and yellow wildflowers and a mini oasis of daisies and sunflowers tended by a gardener from a third-floor apartment window reached by a plank.
The art deco viaduct -- a city, state and New York Central Railroad venture -- was built in 1929-34 to elevate dangerous and clogged railroad traffic above city streets, including Tenth Avenue -- nicknamed "Death Avenue" because of the accidents caused by the mix of rail traffic, cars and pedestrians.
The High Line was built to accommodate two trains side-by-side and was originally 13 miles long. The rise of trucking in the 1950s led to a drop in rail freight, and the southernmost portion was torn down in the 1960s, followed by a chunk in 1993.
The remaining section of the High Line begins in the railyards of 34th Street, skims the Hudson River, turns east for two blocks and then swoops south through the neighborhood of Chelsea, ending on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District of lower Manhattan.
The Friends of the High Line estimates it would cost $40 million to $60 million to renovate the structure, including the addition of stairs and other access points.
The High Line's future will be the subject of a hearing in New York on July 24 held by the Surface Transportation Board, a body of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The board's predecessor in 1992 made a decision that could eventually lead to the High Line's demolition, under certain conditions, but since then the city has expressed a desire to save it.
While Mayor Rudolph Giuliani supported demolishing the High Line, his successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in December requested from the board a "certificate of interim trail use," which would allow the city to negotiate an agreement with the railroad to allow it to be used as a public space.
The High Line is a "critical element" of the administration's plans to revitalize the far west side of Manhattan, said Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff.
That revitalization includes plans for a multi-use facility over the West Side railyards, which would require taking down the High Line from 34th to 30th streets, Doctoroff said. But a platform extending around the facility would connect to the portion at 30th Street, he said.
CSX, a rail and shipping company that acquired management of the High Line in 1999 when it and Norfolk Southern took over Conrail, is not taking a stance on the structure's future.
"The railroad is interested in a resolution, and it is neutral on what the outcome is as long as it is in keeping with the legal obligations and is responsible to shareholders and the community," said Laurie Izes, a consultant who serves as the railroad's project manager for the High Line.
A spokesperson for the Chelsea Property Owners, a group that has pushed since the 1980s for the entire structure to be demolished, did not return several calls for comment.
But Doctoroff said the city has been working with property owners to convince them that the zoning changes the city has in mind for the area around the High Line, including residential development, could make their property more valuable if the structure were given new use.
No one involved with the High Line expects the Surface Transportation Board to issue a quick decision, especially because the three-member board currently only has one member.
Hammond, the co-founder of Friends of the High Line, said he is patient.
"This is a long-term project," he said. "The important thing is to make sure the final experience is amazing. ... It can last hundreds of years, so there is no hurry to get it done in a few."