Playing the links

Playing the links

As developmenttand property valueearound the High Line heats up, planners and advocates try to ensure that the new elevated park isn’t annexed as a city-maintained backyard for new condos. Alec Appelbaum looks at how the city’s most interesting new park is balancing public accessibility with private development.

high line renderings courtesy city of new york; building images courtesy respective firms

As a freight line, the High Line was designed to bring trains right up to the loading docks of the buildings it served; as a public park, it will bring people up to and even through those same buildings.

Much of the High Line’s strange beauty stems from its stark contrasts: It is a massive steel industrial relic that shelters an improbably delicate and accidental landscape. For many years, the old railroad trestle running above and through the buildings along Tenth Avenue seemed to be hidden in plain sight, its obsolescence rendering its bulk almost invisible. But since work began to transform it into New York’s most anticipated new public space, the High Line has come into sharp focus, especially for developers and architects who want to build near this new amenity.

There was not always consensus on the High Line’s future, of courseeas recently as 2002, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ordered its demolitionnbut after the Department of City Planning (DCP) rezoned the surrounding area last year to allow condominium and hotel uses and the transfer of air rights within the new district, opposition faded. More than a dozen new residential projects are in the works, and others are sure to be announced as more parcels change hands. This mini-building boom has led to the latest of the High Line’s contradictions: How can a public park seem open and accessible to all when it touches and even passes through privately held property? Everyone involved with the projecttits designers, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and landscape architecture firm Field Operations, champions Josh David and Robert Hammond of Friends of the High Line (FoHL), and not least of all, the DCPPis adamant that access is paramount. Another priority is to keep the High Line from feeling like a patio extension of adjacent buildings, which would destroy its appeal. To keep that from happening, the Parks Department has just released a set of guidelines to keep public and private in balance.

The standards, which augment bulk requirements embodied in the 2005 rezoning, enforce three main ideas: Connections from new developments should appear distinct (taking the form, for example, of bridges or vestibules); they must be usable by the public; and their materials must not distract from the High Line itself. David stresses how harmonious the new private access guidelines are with FoHL’s initial vision. The fact that the High Line weaves through the center of city blocks and connects to buildings is integral to its identity,, he said. It’s not a street, yet we want this to be well-used and well-loved at all times of day by all kinds of people.. Philosophically, David suggests, it’s more vital to keep the High Line merging with buildings the way it did when it carried trains than it is to pretty up those buildings.

James Corner of Field Operations says the planners who wrote the guidelines share his reverence for the High Line’s unique blend of industrial underpinnings and wild plants. Their co-presence is what makes the thing so powerful,, said Corner. And like David, City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, Corner guards against letting doors, awnings, and logos blunt the landscape’s impact. The last thing we want is an elevated street with plazas,, he said. We want to avoid any permeable curtain wall that immediately joins the High Line; we want to retain the autonomous character of the High Line..

Part of what protects that character is its lack of access. Officials won’t divulge any rules for spacing or capping connections, but they all stress plans to keep the links strategic,, in Corner’s term. Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed staircases and lifts for the public every two blocks. Buildings will face strict scrutiny if they want to add a link on the path. We have to focus on how few access points can we get away with,, said Burden. Keeping [the original spacing of] 5.5 feet between the [vertical posts of the] rail fencing is essential,, she continued, and private space, caff or retail, has to be set back 15 feet.. Yet the flow into the park must feel active, Burden said. The worst thing would be blank doors..

This is a delicate balance in a hot real estate market. Since 2001, according to Jonathan Miller of appraisal firm Miller Samuel, property values in Chelsea have started catching up to the borough-wide average. The Meatpacking District’s menagerie of restaurants and hotels has conditioned developers to amp up the glitz just south of the High Line’s terminus at Gansevoort Street. How can you expect discretion once they get to the park?

More easily than you might think. Miller guesses that proximity to the High Line alone makes buildings more valuable. You don’t have to be an architecture enthusiast to appreciate that it’s something different,, said Miller.

Morris Adjmi is designing a hotel for developers Charles Blaichman and Andrr Balazs at 450 West 14th Street, which bears the rare distinction of straddling the trestle. A diagonal moves through the building and we have two triangular spaces beside that,, said Adjmi. The idea is to feel like it’s a seamless transition and the High Line informs the environment.. The plan involves a cube of glass over the structure to expose the park’s changing colors. Later, Adjmi will decide whether a ramp or a staircase should reach the park. What’s key, he says, is to make guests feel they have a head start on reaching a public destination. The High Line is such a unique space and [its] design taken to such a high level that accessibility to it will be like having a house on the beach..

The Caledonia, a condominium at 450 West 17th Street designed by Handel Architects (top), and a hotel at 450 West 14th Street designed by Morris Adjmi Architects (middle) for hoteliers Charles Blaichman and Andrr Balazs have direct access to the elevated trestle. Meanwhile, Deborah Berke and her client Marianne Boesky chose not to connect her new gallery at 509 West 24th Street to the structure (bottom).

Roger Duffy, a partner at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, is designing another key building: the new continued on page 20 playing the links continued from page 19 Dia Center for the Arts at the park’s Gansevoort Street beginning. He aims to celebrate the High Line’s role on the skyline rather than to offer users some exclusive vantage. His plan places a sculpture by Dan Grahammoriginally installed at the Dia’s 22nd Street locationnon the center’s roof so that it appears to float beside the park when you approach it from the Meatpacking District. Let’s say you come up the slow stair. At that moment you turn left and there’s an entrance there with a piece of great art hovering; it is inviting and welcoming but doesn’t overwhelm the High Line.. His grammar for the roof also defers to the iron trestle borders. On the roof we have clerestory lights clad in metal. We thought the metal could come down to the horizontal datum of the High Line..

Laura Raicovich, the deputy director of Dia, describes the museum’s connection as a transition point from the multi-input experience of walking the High Line to the contemplative experience of looking at art. She, like Corner, stresses practicality and quiet. The High Line is the facade of the building,, she said. You can design an ego-less buildinggif one existsshere because simplicity is very important.. She says key inspiration came from Dia: Beacon, where the founding architect had shown the kind of practicality Corner admires. A lot of the key design cues come from what we feel has been successful at Dia Beacon,, she said.

Robert A. M. Stern, who is designing a building with a connection point at 10th Avenue and 17th Street for Edison Properties, won’t talk about his plans but does admit to a fondness for simplicity. He cited the former West Side Highway, which became an impromptu urban beach before it was demolished. Just being up above the city is wonderful,, said Stern. For him, the ideal connection would be restrained and the experience akin to the moment when a train emerges from Grand Central Terminallan awakening to daylight and industrial infrastructure, not a privileged view.

But deciding how to manage connections involves controlling traffic as well as providing views, and the city will review proposals on a case-by-case basis. Said Corner, whose firm is preparing principles to supplement the Parks Department’s guidelines, The High Line was built by engineers who were only concerned with logistics. We’ve tried to stay true to that, toooto avoid anything too aestheticized and try to keep things tough and real. I would advocate the same thing for these sorts of connections..

Parks Commissioner Benepe oversees these connections because the Mayor’s Office designated the High Line as a city park in order to gain site control. And Benepe approaches the access design as a practical concern in attracting users to a park unlike any other. We want it to be a place where you can go on a cloudy day and be alone or go on a summer day and be there with thousands of people. Our hope is that it will feel like a festival, minus the sausage vendors and tube socks..

Fortunately for Benepe, developers seem inclined to tie the value of connections to the High Line’s foot traffic. The excitement of the High Line is that it’s not managed,, said Michael Field, executive vice president of Edison Properties. Public spaces are always better when there are more people in them..

Negotiations over access from privately held property will remain trickyyCorner says he’s seen some drawings that get a little too intimate for his comfort. Each developer must submit plans to the Art Commission. These negotiations, while sensitive, seem likely to remain as mysterious as the landscape they affect. One of the elements of keeping this process positive is not hashing out the day-to-day details,, said David. So it’s not an area I’m going to go into.. David may not have that much cause for worry. Adjmi says his clients are considering a park-level screening room that would host public events. And Field is hardly alone in surmising that a popular High Line will feel much more special than a gated one. It seems the design guidelines for access resonate with architects who understand that a link to the High Line is a link to the beauty the city has when we enjoy it equally.

Alec Appelbaum writes about the urban environment.