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New paths for walkers, dreamers
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Sunday, August 28, 2005

ON EACH SIDE of the Hudson River, plans are moving along for innovative walkways. They promise recreational opportunities for neighborhoods desperately short of them.

The plan for the New Jersey side is for a paved path along the waterfront from the George Washington Bridge south to the Bayonne Bridge, 18 miles as the crow flies but more than 40 miles as the shoreline turns and wiggles.

The concept, first advocated four decades ago by the Regional Plan Association, led to a 1980 state law requiring developers of riverfront property to build and maintain a public walkway. That meant that on private land the path would be built only when development occurred. So, no construction, no path.

As a result, the path has been built in fits and starts. Less than half has been completed, but these sections are getting heavy use by walkers and joggers, by cyclists and dog owners, and by visitors admiring the stupendous Manhattan skyline, a mile away.

Just beyond the far shore is a relic of the Industrial Age, the High Line. This was a freight railroad built on a viaduct stretching a mile and a half through the Lower West Side, from 34th Street south to Gansevoort, in the meatpacking district. Disused since the Sixties, the viaduct and the tracks are rusty and thick on top with vegetation, including some full-sized trees, their roots 30 feet above ground.

A decade ago owners of property along the right of way sought to demolish the viaduct and develop the land. They were supported by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But neighborhood residents organized as Friends of the High Line, and they persuaded Giuliani's successor, Michael Bloomberg, that it deserved to be saved as an elevated park.

I think they, and he, are right. It is going to be a quirky but endearing attraction. There is only one other like it in the world, in Paris, the Promenade Plantée, also devised from an abandoned railroad viaduct, according to The New York Times. Sketches of what the new High Line might be like show a leafy walkway, lined on either side with railings to keep kids from tumbling off. The High Line crosses over 22 streets. At each crossing, strollers will be treated to western views of the river and the New Jersey shore.

The railings, or some other enclosure, will have to be high enough to prevent miscreants from throwing things down at cars and people below. This is doable, at no great esthetic sacrifice. It has been done with two bridges that pedestrians use to reach Riverbank State Park, four miles north. Built atop a city sewage-treatment plant in the Hudson between 145th and 137th streets, the park is linked to Riverside Drive by bridges over the Henry Hudson Parkway and the Metro North railroad, and, when kept free of graffiti, they are quite classy.

Access to the new High Line will have to be provided for disabled people, which could involve a couple of elevators. To prevent vandalism, they might have to be manually operated, not automatic. That, too, should be doable. I expect neighbors will take pride in the elevated park and protect it.

As for the walkway on the New Jersey side, a recent comprehensive account in The Record by reporter Adrienne Lu likened it to a string of Morse code, with dots and dashes marking completed stretches of pavement. One of the longest dashes is a mile-long stretch at the edge of Liberty State Park in Jersey City, offering bracing views across New York Harbor of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan.

Seven of the nine towns traversed by the path are in Hudson County. The county Board of Freeholders resolved this year to complete the six miles between North Bergen and Exchange Place in Jersey City in five years. The goal is laudable. Much of it can be achieved, particularly in the sections receiving intensive development, the so-called Gold Coast.

Farther north, in Edgewater in Bergen County, where the Hess oil terminal predated the 1980 statute, nothing will happen unless the owner decides to rebuild or expand. Gaps in the path may persist for decades, but users can be directed around them, via local streets and sidewalks.

Legal challenges brought by waterfront property owners have been resolved, with judges upholding the concept of a path, open to all, built on tide-flowed land and adjacent shores. Under precedents dating back to ancient Rome, these are held by the state in public trust.

The trend is clear. As with the High Line, a wonderful new recreation resource is in prospect. One thing the New Jersey path does need is a catchy name, on par with High Line. Any suggestions?

James Ahearn is a contributing editor and former managing editor of The Record. Send comments about this column to opedpage@gmail.com.


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