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Old Posted Dec 25, 2006, 12:08 PM
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NY Times

On the High Line, Solitude Is Pretty Crowded

Rendering by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro/Courtesy the City of New York. Like moths to a flame, developers are being drawn to the yet-unbuilt High Line elevated garden.

Polshek Partnership’s project for a Standard Hotel.

A preliminary design for the garden, with one of its public stairways; above far right, Neil Denari’s cantilevered apartment house design.

December 24, 2006

WE New Yorkers have a morbid fascination with pinpointing the death of a neighborhood scene. You wonder, for example, exactly when the seeds were planted for SoHo’s grim destiny as an open-air mall. Was it 1971, when Leo Castelli opened his downtown gallery? The advent of Dean & Deluca’s overpriced cheeses? Victoria’s Secret underwear displays?

But the artists who bemoaned SoHo’s gradual reinvention as a tourist mecca in the 1980s would have been dumbstruck by the pace of gentrification wrought by the High Line, an abandoned stretch of elevated railway tracks that will be transformed into a garden walkway from the meatpacking district to Chelsea.

Even before local activists picked the project’s design team, Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, two years ago, developers had begun circling the site like vultures. Today, the High Line risks being devoured by a string of developments, including a dozen or more luxury towers, a new branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art and a Standard Hotel. Already the area is a mix of the fashionable and the tacky, with tourists tottering from boutiques to nightclubs across its cobblestone streets, even as they recoil from the occasional whiff of raw meat.

Not all of these are run-of-the-mill development projects: they include potential designs by renowned talents including Renzo Piano and the Polshek Partnership. And even more promising, a few younger, relatively unknown talents like Neil Denari and Work Architecture are getting the opportunity to design major projects.

But the frenzied activity surrounding the High Line shows how radically the development climate in Manhattan has accelerated. No longer content to allow gentrification to proceed at its own tentative pace, developers now view even the humblest civic undertaking as a potential gold mine. City planners who once had to coax developers to build in rundown neighborhoods are groping for strategies to keep them at bay. Pretty much everyone who has walked the length of the weed-choked High Line agrees that its magic arises largely from its isolation. Carving its way through the urban fabric two to three stories above ground, it is framed mostly by the backs of buildings and billboards, with occasional views opening out to the Hudson or across Manhattan.

The battle to preserve that ambience is being waged street corner by street corner, foot by foot. Last summer the city announced its final zoning regulations for the area, a document that is reassuring for its meticulousness. The guidelines require setbacks to protect some major view corridors; at other points, buildings are allowed to shoot straight up to maintain the sense of compression that is part of the High Line’s charm. The core of several blocks, meanwhile, will remain zoned for manufacturing in the hope of maintaining some of the area’s character.

In rare cases, the Department of City Planning has negotiated directly with developers and their architects on a particularly difficult site. In a design by Mr. Denari for a residential tower, city officials allowed him to cantilever his building several feet over the High Line to compensate for his site’s tiny footprint. In the rather dazzling result, the proposed tower gracefully bulges out over the elevated garden, a vertical tear appearing at its center as if the building were straining to squeeze into its allotted space. Views from the apartments would open up and down the length of the High Line. From below, the building would swell out over the garden walkway, adding a sense of vertigo.

But as long as they conform to the new zoning codes, the city will have little control over the form and appearance of most of the designs. And so far, few projects have risen to the standard of Mr. Denari’s. Even more crucial, perhaps, is the question of access. As Richard Scofidio, one of the architects of the High Line, put it: “We don’t want hotels putting wicker chairs and tables all over the garden. We want it to feel that it belongs to everybody.”

Striving to maintain that feel, the city has wisely limited the number of entry points. It will create four public stairways between Gansevoort and 20th Streets in the first phase.

Thankfully, the city has also limited the width of connections to the High Line from adjoining buildings to a maximum of five and a half feet. That way, any entry point from a specific building would function more as a bridge than an extension of the High Line.

With guidelines in place, it will now be up to the Parks Department to determine which of the new buildings will get direct access to the garden. Already, many of the residential developers have sought permission to build lobbies that would open onto the High Line. This would undo the spirit of the project, giving residents of a few luxury towers a connection to the site that others would not share. They should use the public stairs like the rest of us.

So far, there is no reason to doubt that the city will try to do the right thing. The partnership between city planners and High Line advocates has been one of the most sincere efforts in recent memory to protect the public interest from an onslaught of commercialization. And the Parks Department is working in partnership with Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit group that conceived the idea.

But no planner can reverse the social and economic changes that are reconfiguring the city’s identity. And the question next year will be what happens on the ground, as the neighborhood fills up with the usual cellphone stores, health clubs and Starbucks. What kind of sanctuary will the High Line be? Are we simply deluding ourselves into believing we can slow the pace of the inevitable?
NEW YORK heals.

“Office buildings are our factories – whether for tech, creative or traditional industries we must continue to grow our modern factories to create new jobs,” said United States Senator Chuck Schumer.
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