Towers & Tenements
by J.A. Lobbia
One Track Mind
Chelsea Group Works to Save an Abandoned Rail Line
December 27 - January 2, 2001
The High Line as it bends around 14th Street and heads north, from the meatpacking district to Chelsea
(photo: Sylvia Plachy)
njoyed lunch on the Gowanus Canal lately? Schussed down ski slopes in Pelham Bay Park? Made a quick exit through the Holland Tunnel via the Cross-Manhattan Expressway?
Well, neither has anyone else in this town. All those projects were just dreams—some might say delusions—advanced by New Yorkers over the years. But while none have yet come to pass, they show a creativity and desire to enhance the city, to tinker with possibilities, and even to turn obstacles into assets. These are exactly the goals of a year-old group that wants to revitalize an abandoned West Side elevated freight line and make it a public promenade under the federal Rails-to-Trails program.
The track, called the High Line, is the mile-and-a-half-long remnant of what once was a 13-mile railroad that stretched from Spuyten Duyvil to Spring Street, delivering goods to West Side warehouses and meat markets. But from the time the High Line delivered its last cargo in 1980, it seems that the stout iron panels along its trestle have served mainly as a magnet for dreamers with visions as varied as light-rail systems, trash-hauling schemes, and now, a parklike mall that would line the Chelsea art gallery district, two stories up.
"You have to realize the great sweep of this structure," says Joshua David, a cofounder of Friends of the High Line. Running from 34th Street near the Jacob Javitz Convention Center to Gansevoort Street in the West Village, with an elevation of 14 feet and a generous double track bed (to accommodate two trains, one running north, one south), the High Line darts into buildings, curves east and west, and shows itself only in occasional crosstown peeks. "Piece by piece, you can't figure it out; it seems dark . . . but once you get the sense of the whole thing, you realize how wonderful it is."
Unfortunately, piece by piece is how the property owners with businesses under the High Line see it. "We're living every day with the problem of this thing just standing there, occasionally shedding concrete or steel," says Doug Sarini, vice president of Edison Properties, which owns several parking lots under the High Line. Sarini is a member of the Chelsea Property Owners, which represents about two dozen businesses—mostly parking lots, machine shops, warehouses, and the trendy Chelsea Market—under the elevated tracks. "It's dangerous, and we feel the only thing to do with it is demolish it."
Indeed, while last year the city's buildings department listed 63 violations, including rusted rails and loose concrete, Mario Palumbo, who is on the board of advisers to the Friends of the High Line, says a private consulting engineering firm has concluded that the line is safe. He says that the fact that a gas station recently opened up directly under the tracks' curve at Tenth Avenue and 14th Street casts doubt on claims that the High Line is unsafe. Arguments of that ilk, he says, cloak a different interest of property owners. "If the High Line comes down," says Palumbo, "its a one-time bonanza for all of them."
Indeed, as the city ponders local rezoning, owners of property under the tracks could command sky-high prices from developers eager to tap into the meat district and West Chelsea boom. Robert Hammond, a cofounder of the Friends of the High Line, says the group does not oppose development. "The point is that a public reuse of the High Line could work along with development; it could actually increase property values."
The line itself is owned by CSX Corporation, which in 1999 bought all the old Conrail lines east of the Hudson River. CSX refused to comment for this story, but both friends and foes of the High Line say CSX is working with them to keep its options open. Passed from one bankrupt railroad (New York Central) to another (Conrail) and tied up in years of litigation, much of the High Line's future depends on legalities. In 1992, the Interstate Commerce Commission granted a permit to allow demolition so long as property owners under the line pay for costs over $7 million. Sarini says the owners and CSX are negotiating.
At the same time, the Friends of the High Line are hoping the elevated will win Rails-to-Trails designation. Hammond says half the City Council and a handful of other pols support the plan, not including Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who, like his predecessor, wants the High Line razed. Architect Robert A.M. Stern and celebs like designer Todd Oldham and entertainer Sandra Bernhard have joined the cause. Federal transportation dollars may be available to help develop a reinvented High Line. Hammond estimates the project would take up to seven years and cost up to $43 million.
Friends of the High Line presented its plan at a public meeting on December 7, opening with a slide show. Lush, hip-high brush and foliage sprouting in the bed of the industrial ruin pose a stark contrast of vibrancy alongside decrepitude. "The place is full of botanical treasures," said neighborhood resident Susan Sands. "There are species up there that don't grow anywhere else in New York City." But to others, they were just weeds.
"The pictures are the best arguments for taking it down," said longtime Chelsea resident Dorothea Macalduff, who recalled that hundreds of homes (640, plus one church and two schools) were torn down to build the High Line. Opinions ranged widely. The High Line was variously an "interesting and important window to the city's industrial past" and "a one-of-a-kind monument to the city's railroad history," or an "eyesore" that makes neighbors feel "like we're standing behind a prison bar." Mark Kingsley, who once lived at 95 Horatio Street, where in 1991 developer Rockrose Realty tore the southernmost legs off the High Line to build what he called "cookie-cutter crap" housing, praised the old railroad. "Blight," he said, "is a point of reference that is personal to everyone."
The High Line was built in the 1930s as part of the West Side Improvement, an epic New York City endeavor that included the West Side Highway. Uptown, the tracks were covered over and became part of Riverside Park. Downtown, an elevated portion replaced street-level freights that barreled up Eleventh and down Tenth avenues—a traffic nightmare that earned each street the name Death Avenue. On Tenth, horse-mounted riders with lanterns would precede trains, shouting warning to pedestrians. One of the last Tenth Avenue Cowboys to make the trip, in advance of a train hauling a load of oranges, was George Hayde on his horse Cyclone in the late 1930s.
The debate over the High Line's future is long-standing. It is regularly presented to architecture students as a problem to solve. A slide show and lecture on "The Fight to Save Manhattan's Forgotten Railroad" was held in 1984 by the now defunct West Side Rail Line Development Foundation; earlier this month, a cocktail-and-caviar fundraiser was held for the same cause, this time by Friends of the High Line. Dreams for the abandoned track—including both its demolition and resurrection—have been around so long, they too, are tinged with history.
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