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LOCAL NEWS

This train is bound for glory
Renovations set to begin on the High Line, the elevated rail line that towers over chelsea

By GERARD ROBINSON
Friday, December 16, 2005

After years of wrangling, the defunct elevated rail structure known as the High Line has finally received clearance to be converted into a public park.

It’s taken some time and many lawsuits, but Friends of High Line, the nonprofit group spearheading renovation efforts, has prevailed in its fight to make recreational use of the former railroad track. The structure runs for 1.5 miles through some of Manhattan’s trendiest neighborhoods, starting in the Meatpacking District and ending at 34th Street.

“Where else can you find such unused space in Manhattan?” says Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of High Line. “The park will bring tourists into the area and the neighborhoods around it — restaurants, art galleries, and design studios — will continue to thrive.”

Hammond, who lives in the Village, has been championing “Friends of High Line” since 1999 when he read about the proposed demolition of the tracks. His curiosity took him to a Community 2 Board Meeting, where he met Joshua Davis, who also had an interest in the project. They decided to start an organization to preserve the structure.

Under Rudy Guiliani, the High Line was on the verge of being torn down to make way for high-rise buildings, but three lawsuits forestalled an action.

“When we started this it was a real long shot,” Davis says. “They were well down the road to demolition. So I’m thrilled at our success, but I also want to say it goes to show you that a handful of people can make all the difference in the world when it comes to what gets done and what doesn’t.”

The High Line was originally constructed from 1929 to 1931 as an answer to congestion on the Westside. Traffic — rail, horses and pedestrian — on Tenth Avenue had become so treacherous, the street was dubbed “Death Avenue.” Trains using the elevated could berth at warehouses along its tracks.

The rail rises 18-30 feet off the ground, is 30 to 60 feet wide, occupies 6.7 acres of space and runs for 22 blocks. It remained in operation until 1980, when truck delivery largely made freight trains obsolete.

The Bloomberg Administration endorsed converting the High Line into a public space in 2002, requesting authorization to allow it to become a park from the Surface Transportation Board.

In November, the mayor’s office announced that CSX Transportation had donated the High Line to the city, clearing the way for its renovation. Construction on the first phase of the project will begin next year, with the first section opening to the public in 2008.

Once the renovation is complete, supporters say the High Line will be a monument to New York’s industrial history as well as a public space, with views of the Hudson River and the skyline. Plans call for a grand public promenade where people can go to see and be seen.

“You will be able to rise up through the streets and step into a place that is tranquil and green. You will see the Hudson River, the Manhattan skyline and secret gardens inside city blocks that you could never see before,” the group said in a statement.

What remains to be seen is how a renovated High Line will affect the neighborhoods it touches — most notably West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. Both areas have gone through unprecedented changes in recent years, as the warehouses and processing plants surrounding the High Line have been converted to shops, art galleries and nightclubs.

But the mood among community leaders and business owners appears to be upbeat and generally positive toward the new project.

“I was skeptical at first, but I was really amazed by what the city did with the piers,” says Andrea Rosen, owner of Andrea Rosen Gallery on West 24th Street. “I can see now that they city has a wonderful commitment to public spaces and they will do a good job with the High Line park.”

Florent Morellet, owner of the eponymous Florent restaurant on Gansevoort Street, calls the new project “incredible.”

“It can only be good,” he said. “It’s good for everyone in the neighborhood. More pedestrians, more diversity of activity. It’s bringing in fashion houses like Diane Von Furstenberg and Theory, and art institutions, creating balance. Not just liquor licenses clubs and bars.”

In October, Florent hosted a benefit for Friends of the High Line. The event was held at Roxy, a nightclub whose future could easily be affected by the renovation. John Blair, longtime promoter for Roxy, told the Blade in October that the presence of the High Line is one of the things keeping the building that houses the Roxy from being torn down. Only time will tell how the influx of activity from such a grand public project will affect the nightlife corridor that exists on the outside edges of Chelsea.

It’s also not very clear what a renovated High Line will actually look like in its completed form.

The Friends of the High Line previously hosted a design competition in which participants were urged to use their creativity in ways that didn’t have to be realistic. They received 720 entries from 36 countries and seven prizes were awarded — but none of those designs will be used.

In April, Mayor Bloomberg and Friends of the High Line announced the selection of a design team, led by landscape architecture firm Field Operations with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, to create the master plan for the space.

Tests have determined that the High Line is still structurally sound: After all, it was built to hold two loaded freight trains. Friends of the High Line currently hosts a gallery of proposed designs on its site, www.thehighline.org.

The renovation’s Gansevoort Street terminus is set to be anchored by the Dia Art Foundation’s new gallery, replacing an old meat processing plant that occupies the lot now.

“I think it will bring people to the area that are not intimidated by galleries,” Rosen says.

Billy Reece, co-owner of Billy’s Bakery on Ninth Avenue, puts his enthusiasm more succinctly.

“I think it will be remarkable,” he says. “It will bring a new kind of pedestrian to Chelsea. It’s been an ongoing thing and I’m glad to see it’s going to work out.”



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