Impacts of the Privatized High Line | Plus NYU Discussion October 24th

Before the High Line was built into what exists today, people walked around with petitions, “Save the High Line!”, in an attempt to preserve its tracks and surroundings which had been unattended for close to 20 years. The efforts were very grassroots, and it seemed like it would never happen. And then one day, the course reversed and word came The High Line would be preserved into a public park.

If you asked people who signed those early petitions – which were addressed to then City Council Member Christine Quinn (the High Line was in her district) – I doubt anyone envisioned it would be the tourist-laden, glitzy, commercialized place it is today, except, maybe, the founders of Friends of the High Line. Media mogul Barry Diller and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg gave significant money towards the creation of the High Line. Was it once it became so privately funded that it also changed in direction, and then gained the political support, or did it go the other way? Diller’s controversial proposed “Pier 55” aka “Diller Island” is now no more but you can imagine more of the same if that had come to be.

There is now reflection (literally) on the High Line and whether what is there was indeed the best outcome, as all the shiny glass buildings have been build up around it, and many of the smaller businesses that survived for years in the area have been pushed out, no longer able to afford the rents.

High Line co-founder Robert Hammond stated earlier this year that the founders “failed” in making the High Line “for the neighborhood” and its surrounding community. There is a new book, “”Deconstructing the High Line: Post-industrial Urbanism and the Rise of the Elevated Park,” by co-editors Christoph Lindner and Brian Rosa who will appear at a panel discussion on the topic at NYU on Tuesday, October 24th 6:30-8 p.m.

Brian Rosa was interviewed by Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York recently. An excerpt:

VNY: What do you think made the High Line so resistant to critique?

Rosa: I think the High Line eluded critique at first because it was not yet apparent the impact that its creation—and the rezoning that was integral to the city’s support of the project—would have on the surrounding areas of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and the area which is now becoming Hudson Yards.

A particular concern of mine is how the High Line fits within the broader framework of rising economic inequality in New York City. Anyone reading the policy documents, along with Mayor Bloomberg’s and Amanda Burden’s support for the project, could have predicted that the High Line would stimulate property values, loosen height restrictions for luxury development, and cause widespread commercial displacement and residential gentrification. It is possible to have underestimated these impacts, but I think claims that the High Line had “unintended consequences” are at best naïve and at worst disingenuous.

One only needs to look at the economic justifications that undergirded the strategic documents that made the High Line possible to see that this was a project focused on priming the pump for further luxury development and the revalorizing of a district that had already gained attention and aesthetic prestige through its art galleries and adaptive reuse of industrial structures.

However, I do not think it was until the point that new buildings started going up, the experience of walking through a low-rise industrial landscape was diminished, and it became (as you called it) a tourist-clogged catwalk, that the backlash started finding a vocal presence in public discourse.

In addition, Rosa said:

“There is actually starting to be some real pushback against ‘vanity parks,’ particularly those perceived to be driven by the personal ambitions of the wealthy: the Garden Bridge in London and ‘Diller Park’ in Manhattan are a few examples of new, semi-private parks that have been defeated in the past year.”

Vanishing New York asked about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent visit to the High Line, stating that he “seemed to refuse to give it any praise.” Rosa said that he felt this was due to Mayor De Blasio’s position “as a champion of neighborhood parks, particularly those in the outer boroughs which have been under-funded for decades.” But he also noted that “under his leadership,” Flushing Meadows-Corona Park “has been passed on to a parks conservancy, making the largest park in Queens less public and more commercialized.”

I think that that move to put Flushing Meadows-Corona Park under a private conservancy began under the Bloomberg Administration but, that being said, the De Blasio Administration has not been ready to tackle and acknowledge the very real issues, yes, commercialization, as well as corporate influence, over programming, lack of transparency and accountability, and less access to the public, that come with privatization of public space.

You can read the full piece at Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York.

From a piece I wrote in 2011 at WSP Blog as Phase 2 of the High Line was set to open that spring; I interviewed Robert Hammond via email:

Money and Maintaining the High Line; Its Former “Life”

It takes a lot of money to maintain the High Line. Hammond wrote [to me] that “virtually every employee you see on the High Line is employed thanks to private donations. Without this support, we would not be able to maintain and operate the park at the high level of care we all have come to expect.”

Yes, what about that “high level of care we all have come to expect?” Could we have expected a little less? After reading for years about efforts to get the High Line preserved, it all came together in 2002 after Hammond and others formed Friends of the High Line in 1999. The High Line tracks sat virtually unattended for close to 20 years. But FOHL’s vision for it was to take it so far from what it had becomepictures of that vacant time period illustrate its almost wild glory with remarkable, beautiful wild life in the form of plants and flowers that had taken over the tracks and surrounding area.

Phase 2 construction of the High Line cost $66.8 Million; $38.4 Million came from the City of New York. Phase 1 – cost $86 million – opened in June 2009, shortly after Washington Square Park Phase I opened. The park’s total construction costs are paid by a combination of city, state, federal and private sources. As Hammond stated, most of the money to keep the new park going comes from private sources.

Considering the great efforts needed to “maintain” the High Line, I’ve wondered if there ever was a proposal to do something a little … well, less grand? Keeping the park a little more “savage” as one commenter in favor of such wrote at the New York Times site in relation to a December piece about Phase 2.

I didn’t ask Hammond this so I don’t know the answer. Perhaps the group recognized Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe‘s love of “public-private partnerships” figuring this was the best way to get the project done.

“Developers love the High Line”

At one point during the CB2 meeting, Hammond stated “developers love the High Line.” Parks Commissioner Benepe told the New York Times that the High Line has “been a huge magnet for development.” In fact, because it is so expensive to maintain, there has been an effort, relatively unsuccessful thus far, to get residents in nearby buildings to contribute to its maintenance as part of living fees. This effort is considered controversial and unwelcome among those who want more public and less private.

* * *
Discussion at NYU October 24th: After-Effects of the High Line

To mark the publication of Deconstructing the High Line: Postindustrial Urbanism and the Rise of the Elevated Park (Rutgers University Press), the Urban Democracy Lab at NYU is hosting a panel discussion with the book’s co-editors, cultural theorist Christoph Lindner (University of Oregon) and urban geographer Brian Rosa (Queens College/CUNY Graduate Center), along with sociologist Julia Rothenberg (Queensborough Community College).

Exploring the after-effects of the High Line—both in New York City and beyond—these three urbanists will lead a discussion on the consequences, implications, reverberations, and distortions implicated in the contemporary fascination with infrastructural re-use. Exploring questions about the cultural, social, economic, and physical transformations that surround the High Line and other similar projects, the panelists will dissect the “High Line Effect.”

Tuesday, October 24th 6:30 – 8 p.m.
20 Cooper Square, 5th floor
NYU Gallatin
Full details and RSVP here.

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

The High Line Park and Refining Public Space, Questions Raised September 9, 2009

High Line Phase 2 to Open Late Spring; Restaurant in 2013; NYC Privatized Park Keeps Getting Grander – And More Expensive to Maintain April 19, 2011

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