High Line visionaries, architects, developers and city planners gathered for a panel discussion at Columbia Business School on October 13 to discuss New York’s newest public park: the 75-year-old elevated railroad that reinvigorated West Chelsea. The event was sponsored by the Paul Milstein Center and the MsRED Program and panelists included Robert Hammond, cofounder and president, Friends of the High Line; John H. Alschuler Jr., chairman, HR&A Advisors; and architects Jared Della Valle and Andrew Bernheimer. The discussion was moderated by Professor Lynne Sagalyn. Watch a video of the panel presentation.

 
 

The shot that saved the High Line: a view of the elevated tracks before restoration.

Robert Hammond, vagabond artist and High Line visionary, begins with a photo: a grass-covered railway, 30 feet above the fray, careens up the west side and disappears into the cityscape, like a strip of Central Park cutting through Gotham. The picture matters because this whole elevated-railway-turned-public-park idea was difficult to visualize back in 2001, but the photo offers a glimpse. Hammond calls it “the shot that saved the High Line.”

Next up is John Alschuler, adjunct professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and chairman of Friends of the High Line. The High Line, Alschuler explains, is one and a half miles of elevated railway that extends from the city’s Meatpacking District to Hell’s Kitchen, a corridor whose proximity to river and railyards made it America’s most important manufacturing hub in the mid-1900s. All goods coming to or leaving New York eventually found their way onto the line, so to say that the High Line facilitated New York’s rise to industrial superpower is not hyperbole.

So there’s that. And there’s the photo. The combination of the two made for a compelling case to save the High Line. “We saw the chance to create a world-class urban amenity,” Hammond explains. “one that would appeal to a New Yorker’s sense of history and design and reinvigorate this historically rich but blighted edge of the island.”

Eight years of fundraising, planning and politicking later, that vision has been realized. The High Line, now beautified by glass and grass and public art, has become the unique park promenade that Hammond envisioned back in 2001. Per the plan, a new West Chelsea has taken shape around it.

 
 

Robert Hammond shows the route of the High Line in an aerial view.

The transfer of air rights, a city planning mechanism that helped persuade naysayers and NIMBYs by increasing property values, allowed the neighborhood around the High Line to go vertical. This planning change coincided with the development boom of 2005, and the combined effect has been sudden and striking. The Standard Hotel, Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters and countless other design-in-mind projects (one resembles plume of locomotive smoke) now stand as symbols of the new West Chelsea — no longer a dodgy enclave of abandoned warehouses, but the preferred address of athletes and actors, Nike and Google.

Of course there is criticism — too expensive, too narrow, too modern. And sure, in the wake the real estate collapse, appreciating these expensive (and mostly empty) towers requires a little suspension of disbelief. But walking the line for the first time on a late summer Saturday, it’s evident that something positive has happened here. While the critics are busy being critical, the rest of New York is enjoying their new park: a family walks their dog, a couple watches the sunset over the Hudson, a singer strums “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Let’s remember: five years ago this was an abandoned, blighted eyesore.

Hammond’s hope for the High Line is simple: he wants it to be a place New Yorkers — not tourists — go to and enjoy. He may get his wish: It certainly won’t photograph as well as Times Square, it won’t inspire people like Top of the Rock or offer the solace of Central Park. But it will be a great place to stroll on a Saturday, to appreciate New York’s past and present and enjoy sunsets and Bob Dylan covers — a great park, 30 feet above the fray.

Photo credits: Joel Sternfeld and Kirill Babikov