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The Planter Box in the Sky

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How innovation, collaboration and civic engagement spawned the creation of the High Line – New York City’s 1.5-mile-long park built on an abandoned rail track above the West Side – was the subject an illustrated lecture on Sept. 28 at the Mahaney Center for the Arts.

Adrian Benepe ’78, former commissioner of NYC parks, and architect Peter Mullan, vice president for planning and design of the High Line, presented the talk in connection with 2012 Clifford Symposium at Middlebury College.

The High Line stretches from Gansevoort Street in the West Village to the rail yards at West 30th Street, and it affords grand views to the east and west as it juts through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea. Never wider than 60 feet and more often just 30 feet from side to side, the High Line opened in 2009 and has quickly become one of the leading tourist attractions in the city.

So how did the High Line come to fruition? “It’s a story of collaboration and creativity,” Benepe said, and over the course of an hour he and Mullan took the audience on an excursion through its evolution.

After the last freight train ran on the High Line in 1980, the property lay dormant for nearly two decades until 1999 when two residents of the West Side, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, began an intensive lobbying effort for its preservation and use as a public open space. They formed a non-profit organization called Friends of the High Line, which was instrumental in garnering the civic, commercial, governmental, and financial support necessary for the project.

Adrian Benepe ’78

Benepe and Mullan pointed to three key developments that propelled the project forward during the first decade of the 21st century.

First, whereas former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani opposed the project, his successor in City Hall, Michael Bloomberg, ran on a platform in 2001 that favored conversion of the High Line into a city park. “I thought it was an insane idea,” the former parks commissioner told the gathering. “How would we get water 30 feet above ground?” he asked. “How would we get things to grow?” But the new mayor believed in the High Line’s ability to connect neighborhoods and bring people together.

Second, the proponents of the High Line could point to another world capital, Paris, where its Promenade plantée is an elevated green beltway built on a former railway line. The popularity of the Prominade plantée “proved that the idea of an elevated park could work,” Mullan said, which turned out to be a crucial factor in proving to people that the High Line project had merit.

Third, the Friends of the High Line worked with land-use planners to build an economic rationale for the High Line. They showed that if the city invested $100 million to build a public space on the High Line, the city would gain $262 million in increased property taxes to adjacent lands over a defined period of time, and the estimate has proven to be low because the High Line has had a “ripple effect” on the value of properties in the entire area.

Peter Mullan

The economic argument proved to be a powerful factor, Mullan said, because “as cities and municipalities are increasingly strapped for cash, they need to make investments in their public infrastructure that are going to be cost effective, and parks in general will do that if they are well designed.”

The High Line allows no bicycles, dogs, jogging, or ball-playing of any kind, and yet it has become wildly popular for city residents and visitors. The High Line attracts nearly four million people a year, Benepe said, which places it between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Statue of Liberty in terms of attendance.

Its lush greenery and never-before-seen views of the Hudson River, its preservation of the rails and variety of environments, and its chaises and benches that seem to pop up out of the rail bed – inspire “a contemplative mood of awe and gratefulness that such a delightful oddity could be dedicated to public space,” the Wall Street Journal wrote just days after the first section of the High Line opened. (Photos of the High Line abound on the Internet; for a sample, click here.)

Built with brick, steel, concrete, soil, and wood, the High Line “is essentially a shallow planter box in the sky,” said Benepe, who is currently senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land and a trustee of Middlebury College.

The guest speakers closed the presentation by stressing that “public-private partnerships like the High Line work when they represent the local community,” and that preservation and the use of public space can be drivers of economic development. Moreover, they said people are inspired by innovation even when their natural reaction is to resist change.