By Barry Benepe
In a gracious retreat from a misguided proposal to build a 20-foot high concrete wall enclosing a parking garage over the railway tracks against the High Line alongside the Western Yards below 33rd Street, Related Companies has returned to their earlier proposal to grade the lawn down to the edge of the highway under the High Line. This too is a hazardous solution, placing thousands of pedestrians, seniors, mothers with strollers and others with a dangerous crossing of a roaring, speeding highway. The only acceptable solution is to join the Western Open Space of Hudson Yards above the rail yard with the High Line, which is virtually at the same level. Then we could bring a park ribbon over the highway down to the park. There are many good examples of such landscaped bridges. One is a proposed bridge over the Thames River in London, designed by Heatherwyck Studios, designers of Pier 55. Another is at Sherburne Falls, Massachusetts. A design for such a landscaped “seamless” connection was part of the group submissions exhibited at the beginnings of Friends of the High Line.
There are only two logical places to link the High Line Park to the Hudson River Park. One is here where the High Line swings to the west before turning east again to join 33rd Street at grade. The other is at its southern terminus at Gansevoort Street where the Whitney Museum failed to make a connection either to the High Line or the park. Renzo Piano, the designer of the museum, actually made a delightful watercolor sketch of a suspension pedestrian bridge leading over West Street to a sculpture park on the Hudson River. The Whitney gave it short shrift.
The basic problem is one of diverse actors with no one in charge of an overall vision. The Hudson River Park Trust has a role as a manager only west of West Street and the Route 9A Highway. New York City and New York State actually own the park. NYC DOT and NYS DOT have sole control over what is legally a city street. The High Line, while still an operating railroad, was purchased for a dollar by Peter Obletz, a local neighbor, who wanted, with Congressman Jerry Nadler’s support, to restore it and the rail yards to a working rail freight line. They did not realize that rail-dependent industries on the West Side were being replaced by people wanting to live near the river. Also, regional producers became more dispersed to areas not served by rail. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to sell it to Edison Parking, which owned the land underneath it and wanted to tear it down and develop it. Mayor Mike Bloomberg saved it by purchasing it for park land, and Friends of the High Line was formed by Joshua David and Robert Hammond in 2002 with a seed money grant of a million dollars (a long way from Peter Obletz’s dollar) from Diane Von Furstenberg to begin and implement the design of what has become one of the great parks of the world, as revolutionary as Central Park was in the 19th Century.
What we lack today is an overall vision for the Hudson River waterfront and an agency to carry it out. There are many individual actors named above, but no agency to coordinate them. The Planning Commission has not produced a waterfront plan. Even if it did, how would it be implemented? One model might be the Battery Park City Authority, which controls housing, offices, park, road and waterfront development in a coordinated fashion. We could do this by extending the authority of the Hudson River Park Trust with strong community involvement. It is time now to articulate the challenges and begin to address them.