High Line Founders Win Prize for Their “Impossible” Park

Earlier this week, the National Building Museum presented High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond with the Vincent Scully Prize. In introducing the pair, Vincent Scully Prize jury chair David Schwartz said it’s amazing how the High Line, a single structure in New York City, has “created a national conversation” about how to reuse the abandoned, industrial legacies of our cities. He added, “it’s remarkable that these two citizen-organizers made this happen. They are the Barack Obamas of urban re-development.”

Last year’s Scully Prize winner, Paul Goldberger, former architecture critic from The New York Times and The New Yorker and now a writer for Vanity Fair, lauded the High Line, calling it an “amazing story, because things don’t work out as they are expected to and this broke all the rules and actually did.” He said the High Line is really an “impossible” story because projects of this scale in New York City tend not to have a happy ending. He thinks the High Line worked out because David and Hammond were really ignorant of all they were up against. “Nothing qualified them as experts. They aren’t developers or designers. If they had been, they’d realized it was impossible.” Instead, they went on this “crazy mission, enabled by how little they knew.” The High Line, Goldberger said, was the result of “fresh outsider thinking, fierce intelligence, brilliant political instincts, and hard work.”

Today, the High Line can be considered “the most important new model for public space in our time. It redefines public space.” This is because the park enables visitors to “look at the city instead of escaping from it.” It’s so impressive, Goldberger said, that “no one thinks of its distant resemblance to Promenade Plantee in Paris, the original French railroad park; the High Line is far more urbane and contemporary.” The High Line is not just a tourist trap either. “It’s immediately become part of the DNA of New York City,” with more than 5 million visitors per year, mostly from other parts of the city.

The story of how the High Line came to be is a long and fascinating one, relayed by David and Hammond in their excellent book, The High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky. In their remarks, they went through key highlights in the park’s history, explaining how they created the non-profit group Friends of the High Line, created their cool “H” logo for the park, took some wonderful photography of the space to build support for it, and eventually sued Mayor Rudy Guiliani to prevent its destruction (which would have cost some $50 million alone). And that was just in the first few years. They launched an ideas competition that brought in hundreds of entries from around the world. They went on to win the backing of NYC Planning Chief Amanda Burden and then Mayor Michael Bloomberg along with countless other local politicians by creating a smart preservation, design, and economic case rooted in the realities of New York City’s real estate market. They then got an innovative zoning area created so that air rights above the High Line could be moved to spots neighboring the park, although one result of this has been all the new, tall buildings that changed the character of the area.

David explained how the High Line was the result of multiple sets of competing forces: “real estate, politics, and money” and then “community, preservation, and design.” He said the “friction between these forces really created this unique place.” And as Hammond noted, there was also a lot of friction between the two founders. While both are well-educated gay men, they have very different talents and personalities and often disagreed about fundamental direction of the project and design decisions. However, they eventually seemed to work through these conflicts, forge an even deeper partnership, raising hundreds of millions together to finance the work of design team they selected made up landscape architects James Corner Field Operations, planting designer Piet Oudolf, and architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.

All that money and design talent resulted in a marvel. David said the plank walkways were purposefully designed to mimic the original feel of the High Line, covered in native plants and weeds. Amid the planks, nature pops-up, infiltrating the man-made. “The wild landscape is still there,” just re-created by Oudolf. David and Hammond also convinced then-NYC parks department director Adrian Benepe to forgo the strict design guidelines the department uses for all its parks, enabling them to design benches and other elements from scratch. Benepe was said to say “this is more a work of art than a park.”

Now, with the first two sections of the High Line complete, fundraising continues for the final leg, part 3, which will wrap around Hudson Yards, what has been billed as the biggest urban redevelopment project in the U.S. right now. The project, which will cover six city blocks, includes 18 million square feet of mixed-use retail, office, and residential space. It will totally change the character of that part of Manhattan, much like the High Line has. As David noted in the beginning, the High Line then is a result of many forces and is really a “ballet.” He said “we didn’t choreograph this. No one group is totally in control of all of this.”

For the future, David and Hammond are really worried about maintenance. Each year, the High Line needs to raise $5 million to keep the park looking great. There are tons of operational challenges. “Keeping the garbage cans empty is a full-time job alone.” Hammond said “what keeps me up at night is how do we raise money for this year after year.” Their goal is to eventually get to a point where one-third of their budget is financed by fundraising, one-third is earned income, and one-third is from an endowment. Earned income may start coming from events and a new restaurant the High Line is opening. They want the endowment to reach $50 million by the end of the decade.

For all those communities who want to create their own High Line, Hammond said he and David couldn’t offer much advice, as the High Line came out of this particular community in Chelsea, with its unique history as a hub for gay culture, art galleries, and manufacturing. Each community has to come up with its own unique, abandoned, industrial asset worth saving, its essential project. “Focus on the particular problem you are trying to solve for.”

Image credit: The High Line

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