High Line park achieves liftoff with a rail lifting


By Albert Amateau

A rail lifting rather than the traditional spades-in-the-ground ceremony attracted hundreds of guests to the official beginning on Monday of construction that will transform the High Line into a 1.5-mile elevated park.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg along with top city officials, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer and Congressmember Jerrold Nadler joined Friends of the High Line, the community-based group organized six years ago to preserve the derelict rail viaduct, at the event.

The ceremonial lifting of a length of rail on the elevated steel and concrete structure above 14th St. began the first construction phase on the southern segment of the High Line park between Gansevoort and W. 20th Sts., where the public will stroll in the spring of 2008 if all goes according to plan.

The lifted rails will be stored and at least some of them will be replaced after the structure is restored and drainage repaired in the first construction phase. In the second construction phase, the rail bed will be rebuilt, and new plantings, paths, lighting and access stairs and elevators will be installed.

Construction on the northern segment between 20th and 33rd Sts. is planned to begin when the southern half of the High Line is complete.

Wearing ceremonial light-green hardhats, hundreds of High Line park supporters gathered atop the old elevated train track at the ceremony.

About 300 guests wearing green souvenir hardhats made their way onto the viaduct from the access building on 14th St. were Friends of the High Line has its office to witness the 11:30 a.m. April 10 event.

Beginning at noon, a High Line party at street level on Little W. 12th and Washington Sts., with music by a 33-piece brass band from the Lab School in Chelsea and free food furnished by the Cleaver Co., a Chelsea Market food firm, drew several hundred people. The actors Kevin Bacon and Ed Norton, active as High Line friends, spoke at the street party.

At the rail-lifting ceremony, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff acted as master of ceremonies.

“This remarkable day was unimaginable four years ago,” he said, recalling that a delegation from Chelsea Property Owners, a group of owners along the High Line right of way, came to City Hall then with a suitcase full of concrete they said had fallen from the High Line and nearly killed a passerby.

“They urged us to tear it down as soon as possible,” said Doctoroff, noting, “We were one court decision away from demolition.

“Today, the city owns the High Line, 27 major property owners are able to transfer their development rights and we have a complex rezoning that saved the High Line and created the opportunity for 20,000 units of new housing, a quarter of it affordable. We even managed to reduce the density [of new development] a little,” said Doctoroff.

Bloomberg, who as a mayoral candidate embraced the proposal for a High Line park two stories above street level, said the project is part of the renewal of New York City’s growth and an example of what the partnership of the private and public sectors can achieve.

Barry Diller, media magnate, and Diane von Furstenberg, the fashion designer, who joined to make a $5 million donation for the project, were also on hand to sing the praises of the one-of-a-kind elevated park.

Speaker Quinn, an early supporter of Friends of the High Line, called on former Council Speaker Gifford Miller to take a bow. Quinn recalled how she had converted Miller into a true believer of the project. She also paid tribute to Community Board 4, recalling its early support of a project — by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, founders of Friends of the High Line — that had been derided in 1999 as a “romantic” proposal. Borough President Scott Stringer noted that he has pledged $2 million to the project.

Senator Schumer called the High Line part of the “smart growth and evolution of the city.” Senator Clinton paid tribute to David and Hammond.

The city has committed $60 million for the High Line conversion. Schumer, Clinton and Congressmember Nadler secured more than $18 million for the project and the private sector has brought the total funding to $130 million.

Nadler congratulated Friends of the High Line and its founders for their remarkable victory, but he recalled that the High Line story began in 1979 when the Javits Convention Center was on the drawing boards. At the time, the plan was to sever the High Line, which descended below the surface at that point to connect with what is now the Amtrak right of way that goes north along the Hudson.

“A couple of us said, ‘Wait a minute. You have to maintain the connection.’ That’s why you see a new section of the High Line,” he said, explaining that the structure had to be able to be returned to transportation use for the federal Rails to Trails program to be implemented. Nadler also praised the role of the late Peter Obletz, a railroad enthusiast and member of Community Board 4 who at one point controlled the High Line by paying Conrail, then the owner, $10 a year.

Parks Commssioner Adrian Benepe said the High Line was a crucial addition to open space in a neighborhood with the least amount of parks in the city and where residential population is burgeoning.

CSX, the railroad that acquired the High Line from Conrail, donated the line to the city last year after the West Chelsea rezoning was implemented and after the federal Surface Transportation Board approved park use of the derelict rail line. Stephen Crosby, a vice president of CSX, said he was pleased that the railroad was able to be a part of the project.

Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro are designing the High Line Park, and Piet Oudolf, a horticulturist from Holland who designed the plantings at Battery Park, is directing the plantings that will resemble the wild flowers and grasses that have been wind sewn on the High Line since 1980 when the rails last brought three carloads of frozen turkeys to the Gansevoort Market.

In the 1960s the southern end of the High Line between Bank St. and the St. John’s Terminal was demolished. More than 10 years ago, the section between Bank and Gansevoort Sts. was demolished.

The High Line was built by New York Central Railroad and completed in 1934 from 35th St. to the St. John’s Terminal at Spring St. in order to raise the railroad tracks that ran at street level along the West Side. At street level, trains had to be preceded by a man on horseback — West Siders dubbed him the “10th Avenue Cowboy.”

At the street-level celebration on Monday, the plan was to have a man on horseback as a reminder of the old days, but the horse, from Claremont Stables on the Upper West Side, was tired from his long walk Downtown, so his rider walked him around instead of riding.