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| December 22, 2002, Sunday
On West Side, Rail Plan Is Up And Walking
By DAVID W. DUNLAP (NYT) 989 wordsA once-quixotic proposal to turn an abandoned rail line on the far West Side of Manhattan into an elevated public promenade has been formally embraced by the Bloomberg administration, almost exactly a year after the Giuliani administration moved to demolish the hulking structure.
Now, rather than seeking to tear down the 1.45-mile railroad viaduct, known as the High Line, New York City has asked the federal Surface Transportation Board to grant a certificate of interim trail use, which would preserve the route as a distinctly urban stretch in the national rails-to-trails network.
''We think the High Line, ultimately converted into a park, will enhance the character of the entire far West Side,'' Daniel L. Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, said in an interview on Friday.
''The High Line will remain up,'' he said, ''and in conjunction with this we would seek to rezone portions of the areas surrounding the High Line in order to accommodate residential development. We think the High Line can be an important amenity.''
The City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, said, ''It's a huge step in the right direction.''
That is not easy to envision while standing in the dark shadow of the viaduct, which has all the charm of an el. But it becomes clearer on the deck, where trees, weeds and wildflowers among rusting tracks and switches create a verdant swath through Hell's Kitchen, Chelsea and the Gansevoort Meat Market.
As a practical matter, the CSX Corporation, which manages the High Line, is still under an order from the Surface Transportation Board to pursue demolition, an outcome sought by Chelsea Property Owners, which objects to the structure as a dismal, dangerous blight that cannot be rehabilitated feasibly, attractively or economically -- especially at a time of budget deficits.
Douglas Sarini, president of the group, which represents commercial owners along the High Line route, did not reply to requests for comment.
Earlier this year, however, the group said in one of its fliers: ''Money doesn't grow on trees. And the last time we checked, it wasn't growing in the weeds of the High Line, either.''
In fact, there is no money now to create a public space, nor even a plan to follow, although a private group called Friends of the High Line intends to sponsor a competition for ideas early next year.
What last week's filing does do is ally the city firmly with efforts to rehabilitate the 69-year old High Line, which runs about 30 feet above sidewalk level from Gansevoort to 34th Streets on a path that primarily parallels Tenth Avenue. The line, which in some places runs through or has spurs into buildings, linked the warehousing and industrial district along the Hudson River to the rest of the nation until 1980, and has been deteriorating since then.
''I understand that for property owners and many in the community that if you have to choose between the High Line as it currently is and no High Line, bringing it down makes sense,'' Mr. Miller, the Council speaker, said. ''But I believe -- and I think the administration has also seen -- that when you consider the possibilities for a preserved and reused High Line as a public space and a signature moment in the New York landscape, that the positives are almost limitless.''
Robert Hammond, co-founder of the Friends of the High Line, said the city's action was ''at the top of my Christmas list.'' Two years ago, his well-connected but fledgling group faced considerable skepticism when it suggested that the High Line might one day rank with the Promenade Plantée in Paris, an old railroad viaduct that has been turned into a landscaped walkway.
A year ago, the group was in court, along with the City Council and C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president, challenging the tentative demolition agreement reached on Dec. 20, 2001, in the last days of the Giuliani administration. The High Line's backers argued that because the agreement involved property easements along the route of the viaduct, it should have been subject to the city's uniform land-use review procedure, known as Ulurp.
In March, they won a ruling from Justice Diane S. Lebedeff of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, who wrote that the administration's ''determination to forego Ulurp review was undertaken without 'lawful procedure' and was an 'error of law.' '' The ruling is being appealed. What is also holding up demolition is that a final, signed agreement has yet to be reached. And in its filing with the Surface Transportation Board, the city expressed ''serious doubt'' that such an agreement could ever be attained.
Instead, Mr. Doctoroff said, the city now hopes to reach a new agreement with CSX in the next few months, permitting ''interim trail use,'' although he cautioned that this is a legal term; it does not mean that the viaduct would be open to strollers, skaters and bicyclists any time soon.
''A significant investment will have to be made,'' Mr. Doctoroff said.
In its filing, the city said that to establish an interim trail use, it would be willing to assume full responsibility for management of the right-of-way and any legal liability.
Without taking a
position, Laurie Izes, a consultant to CSX, who is overseeing the High
Line, said the company was ''interested in a responsible and
expeditious solution'' and would review the filing if the board granted
the city's request for interim trail use.
Chart/Map: ''Old Tracks, New Use''