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Gardens in the Air Where the Rail Once Ran

A rendering of the proposed design for the High Line looking south from 22nd Street and 10th Avenue.
Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro
A rendering of the proposed design for the High Line looking south from 22nd Street and 10th Avenue.

By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF

Published: August 12, 2004

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Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro
A rendering of the proposed design for the High Line shows the view at 23rd Street and 10th Avenue.

A team of New York-based architects led by Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro has been selected to design a master plan that would transform an abandoned section of elevated freight track into a public park that would weave its way north from the meatpacking district to Hell's Kitchen, two stories above the city.

The city and Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit group that has been overseeing the development of the High Line elevated track, have yet to officially announce the selection, which was made last week. City officials and members of the architectural team still have to work out the details of a design contract that could eventually encompass a series of public gardens, a swimming pool, an outdoor theater and food halls, a project running for more than 20 city blocks from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street.

Nonetheless, the selection marks a critical step in one of the most compelling urban planning initiatives in the city's recent history. The preliminary design succeeds in preserving the High Line's tough industrial character without sentimentalizing it. Instead, it creates a seamless blend of new and old, one rooted in the themes of decay and renewal that have long captivated the imagination of urban thinkers.

Perhaps more important, the design confirms that even in a real estate climate dominated by big development teams and celebrity architects, thoughtful, creative planning ideas - initiated at the grass-roots level - can lead to startlingly original results. As the process continues, the issue will be whether the project's advocates can maintain such standards in the face of increasing commercial pressures.

Architects have fantasized about the High Line since at least the early 1980's, when Steven Holl first completed a theoretical proposal to build a "bridge of houses" that straddled the elevated tracks. Property owners considered the line an urban blight, and only a few years ago they were lobbying for its demolition. Friends of the High Line defeated that effort, in part by convincing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and city planning officials that a revamped High Line could act as a spur to urban renewal. Eventually, the site was conceived as a public promenade, one that could be used to bind together the communities that lie beneath it.

The city planning office, meanwhile, devised a plan that would allow property owners below the High Line to transfer their development rights to other sites within the district. Friends of the High Line has also raised $3.5 million in private money for the project. The city has committed another $15.75 million over the next four years.

The strength of the Field Operations design is its ability to reflect a sense of communal mission without wiping away the site's historical character. These competing interests are balanced with exquisite delicacy.

The architects begin by creating a system of concrete planks that taper slightly at either end. The planks will be laid out along the High Line's deck in parallel bands, creating a pedestrian walkway that meanders back and forth as it traces the path of the elevated tracks, occasionally fading away to make room for a series of colorful gardens.

The gardens embody competing forces - some wild, others carefully cultivated. At various points along the deck, for example, the existing landscape of meadow grass, wildflowers, weeds and gravel will be preserved. At other points, that landscape will be replaced by an explosion of vividly colored fields and birch trees.

The idea is to create a virtually seamless flow between past and future realities, a blend of urban grit and cosmopolitan sophistication. But it is also to slow the process of change, to focus the eye on the colliding forces - both natural and man-made - that give cities their particular beauty. That vision has a more subversive, social dimension: to offer a more measured alternative to the often brutal pace of gentrification.

There are few better vantage points for observing the city's evolution than the High Line. From the gardens, for example, various views would open up to the surrounding cityscape. Framed by the surrounding buildings, they would offer visual relief from the isolated world above. At the same time, they would set up a rhythm as one strolls along the concrete deck, between spectacular urban vistas and the more contemplative world of the gardens.

The tranquility of that experience would be interrupted by a series of carefully calibrated public events. In some places, for example, the concrete path is to dip below the level of the gardens, allowing pedestrians to observe street life below. Above 23rd Street, another section of the deck would peel up to create an informal outdoor amphitheater. Just beyond the stage, a section of the deck would be cut away, creating a stunning view of cars streaming by below. The opening is to be framed by a perfectly manicured lawn - a nod, perhaps, to the more conventionally suburban vision of park planning that extends a few blocks away along the Hudson River.

Further to the north, a public swimming pool would be embedded into the deck's concrete surface. Like much of the design, the pool is only a sketch - the beginning of an idea - but it is an intriguing one nonetheless. A large concrete panel lifts up at one end of the pool to support a faux urban beach. Concrete piers extend out into the water like giant fingers.

The power of such gestures lies in their simplicity. As architectural objects, they are relatively mundane. Their meaning arises from their relationship to the immediate context.

The design's greatest weakness, in fact, occurs when the architecture gets more elaborate. Currently, the High Line ends abruptly at Gansevoort Street, its steel beams and concrete deck protruding above the roof of a warehouse like a severed limb. This would eventually become one of the project's main gateways. The architects have proposed a grand stair that leads up to the gardens, flanked by a gallery space and rooftop market. Just above the market, the large, glass-enclosed form of a bar would jut out over the stair.

The idea is to tap into the meatpacking district's vibrant social life in order to energize the High Line's public gardens. But the architecture is bland. And the impulse is at odds with the lightness of touch that characterizes the rest of the design. Worse, it comes perilously close to conventional development formulas: a high-end mall for downtown sophisticates. What one longs for here is a more gentle entry, one that would allow the public to slip into the gardens virtually unnoticed.

Such issues can easily be corrected as the design process unfolds. But they point to what may ultimately be the greatest threat to the project's success: regulating access to the site. The High Line has already begun to spark the interest of developers, who understand its potential as an agent for raising real estate values. The developer Marshall Rose is working with Frank Gehry on a proposal for a mixed-use development that would straddle the High Line near 18th Street. The hotelier André Balazs, meanwhile, is negotiating to purchase a site that adjoins the High Line just below 13th Street, a lot that was once slated for a project by the celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel.

In an effort to take advantage of that interest, city planners have envisioned a series of incentives that would reward developers who include public access to the High Line in their plans. The scheme would also allow developers to connect commercial ventures directly to the gardens, which could radically alter the nature of the project. At the same time, allowing those who own properties below the High Line to relocate creates the possibility of freeing portions of the High Line from the surrounding density.

In their competition entry, the Field Operations architects' only link to outside development is depicted as a drawbridge. They are right to be ambivalent. As the High Line project continues to develop, the issue of access will have to be handled with particular care. If not, the High Line could one day become nothing more than Manhattan's belated answer to the historic theme park - a grotesque urban mall on stilts.

But this is not the time for skepticism. So far, both Friends of the High Line and the City Planning Department have proved remarkably adept at negotiatingpolitical hurdles. They have refused to pander to commercial interests. Nor have they ignored them. In selecting the design, they continue to show a genuine sensitivity to the High Line's value to the public realm. After the flawed, often cynical planning efforts that have marked development at ground zero, the thoughtful development of the High Line should be welcomed by New Yorkers who believe decent planning and imaginative architecture have a role in the city's future.

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