Chelsea Gets a Thicket

Chelsea Gets a Thicket

The designers of the High Line revealed a scheme for the park’s second section today that channels the wisdom of a certain pop song: Beauty is where you find it.

For a ten-block stretch from 20th to 30th streets, Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), and their collaborators have pictured beauty in the unlikeliest of places, seeding a lawn, turning a billboard into a viewing platform, and leaving a three-block run with only flowers as decor. They also designed a suspended catwalk with new sumac trees, an arrangement that protects the same kind of plants that once blew onto the idle trestle and grew there, according to Field Operations chief James Corner and DS+R partner Ricardo Scofidio. “The buildings that were there created microclimates,” Scofidio said at the plan’s presentation. “The intention was to keep that.”

Corner said the straight nature of this section, due to open late next year at a cost of $71 million, let designers preserve the “melancholic” mood of the abandoned trestle more aggressively than they could in the curving southern area that Parks officials plan to open by the end of this year. As Corner described the new segment’s five “episodes,” he stressed a desire to leave the High Line as mysterious as it was before the renovation.

A “thicket” up to 23rd Street carries pedestrians through clusters of plants that winnow the walkway. At 22nd Street, a wooden bleacher with a block-long lawn leads to an east-west vista and staircase with an elevator at 23rd (where the cantilever of Neil Denari’s HL23 skyscraper now appears only as a slightly bulging mass). At 26th Street, an empty billboard with a glass pane frames the seated public as they look straight up 10th Avenue. Then, between two bulky warehouses, the team proposes a “woodland flyover.” Replacing the tapered planks that define the rest of the walkway, this catwalk section stands on steel poles over a restored native grass patch. Finally, a “wildflower walk” guides pedestrians north toward the future Hudson Yards development.

Throughout, Friends of the High Line cofounder Robert Hammond stressed the design’s tranquil qualities. Plants will change color with the seasons; five relatively far-flung access points will make some floral passages a hassle to reach; and walkways as narrow as nine feet will discourage cut-through uses. “You have to think of it as a garden, not as a street,” said city planning director Amanda Burden at the presentation. “Once you think of it as a street, you’ve lost it.” 

Planners acknowledged that the park’s magic may fade if crowds cause pedestrian gridlock. Hammond suggested that opening in winter conferred an advantage here, as cold temperatures would allow for gradual acclimatization. “It really is a soft opening,” he said. The High Line thus blurs the boundary between public art and public garden, and does so with such mammoth costs that Friends of the High Line continues to raise money toward a $50 million goal; the total anticipated project cost is $170 million. (The group hosts a fundraiser tonight in the Gehry-designed IAC Building, with Ethan Hawke among the likely well-wishers.)

Burden cited the ambitious architecture going up along the Line as a payoff of the rezoning that made the park possible, but she reiterated that no Line-facing condo will get exclusive access to the park. “Design controls require five feet between the building and the Line,” she said. “It’s a moat.” Under carefully wrought provisions, developers must create public space within their buildings that buffers private use from the public park.

In answer to queries about the city’s legions of joggers, Corner pointed to the nearby Hudson River Park as a place for active exertion, while Scofidio called serenity the High Line’s native genius. “Once you get up there, you stop because it’s so magical,” he said.

Corner added that the High Line, far from becoming a Prozac park, supplies a necessary counterpoint for a world capital. “A great city is about the contrast between the bustle of the street and the escape of the garden,” he told AN. “Section two is much more melancholic, restrained, and romantic.”

Alec Appelbaum