Whitney High Line branch is on track

By Albert Amateau

The Whitney Museum of American Art last week presented the design for a new Whitney branch to be built next year at the foot of the High Line in the Gansevoort Market District.

The long-awaited project, which will have nearly three times more floor space than the uptown Whitney, was hailed as an ideal anchor for the High Line park, the lower end of which is to open between Gansevoort and W. 20th Sts. by the end of this year.

“This is a return to our roots,” said Adam Weinberg, director of the museum, which was founded in 1918 as an artists’ club on MacDougal Alley in the Village by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

“I believe the High Line will become the greatest park in New York City and we’re fortunate to be the anchor at the base,” Weinberg told the April 30 presentation meeting convened by Community Board 2. “It will be a bridge between the High Line and the Hudson River Park to the west,” he added.

The new Whitney, designed by the prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano, will not be connected directly to the High Line. It will step down from six stories on the side facing the river to the street level just west of the Gansevoort St. beginning of the High Line.

The building heights will be 170 feet on the western side and about 50 feet on the side closest to the High Line. It will have a total of 185,000 square feet, with 50,000 square feet of gallery space compared to 32,000 square feet of gallery space in the uptown Whitney on Madison Ave. and 75th St.

The project will use only 55 percent of floor area available under current zoning, Weinberg said. In other words, the size of the project is significantly smaller than it could be if the museum took full advantage of the zoning.

To be built at the same time as the Whitney, a Department of Parks and Recreation maintenance and operation building for the High Line will be adjacent to the new museum and will connect with the High Line.

The maintenance building, with a total of 26,000 square feet, will have four levels aboveground and two belowground, but will only be about a third as tall as the top level of the museum, said Mike Bradley, High Line administrator for the Parks Department. In addition to maintenance and operation equipment and personnel, the building will have public toilets and community meeting space.

Rebecca Asser, vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said the downtown Whitney would complement the High Line park. E.D.C. has been working for the past year and a half to help the Whitney acquire the property adjacent to the foot of the railroad viaduct that is being transformed into a park.

The museum’s cantilevered main entrance on Gansevoort St. will shelter a public plaza and lead to an expanded lobby that would serve as a free public space and which could double as performance space.

The largest gallery on the third floor will be about 17,500 square feet without columns; it would be one of the largest free-span exhibition spaces in the city. The museum’s permanent collection will be on the fourth and fifth floors, and long-term projects on the top floor. The new Whitney, the first green museum in the city, will also have a 175-seat theater, a study center and space for the museum’s 35 education programs. The Whitney’s programs include a relationship with the Hudson Guild. The museum is committed to reaching out to Village and neighborhood schools and institutions.

The downtown Whitney will require four land use changes and permits, including to allow a museum in a manufacturing zone, and to allow the museum’s three setback terraces, which will provide 15,000 square feet of outdoor gallery and event space.

The nine-to-10-month review process, including anenvironmental assessment statement, is scheduled to begin May 5 when the Department of City Planning is expected to certify the proposal.

Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2, who conducted the meeting, said later that he was most pleased that the museum would reach out to neighborhood schools.

“It’ll be wonderful to walk to a world-class museum that complements the High Line park,” he said. “The Whitney, which used to be on W. Eighth St., was the home of so many great American artists who got their start in the Village.”