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The High Line: It Brings Good Things to Life

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The High Line and the new Frank-Gehry building (at far right), as seen in the reflection of the windows at La Lunchonette on Tenth Avenue.  

“They totally got it wrong,” says Hammond.

“But it was instant branding,” says David. “Just by luck, we were celebrity darlings.”

Gottesman, by the way, never did get to build that FedEx depot. That parcel is now destined to house a 35-to-40-story complex, developed by Edison Properties and to be designed, at last report, by Robert A.M. Stern.

Nearly everyone involved in the Save the High Line effort—from Gifford Miller to Amanda Burden to Edward Norton to Diane Von Furstenberg—will tell you about their hallelujah moment. The idea of a park on a railbed in the sky can be a little hard to get your head around, especially if your only vantage point is looking up from street level at its rusted, pigeon-shit-scarred underbelly. “But the moment Robert got me up there, I fell in love with it,” says Miller. “You’re in the clouds, as it were—on the level of the Jetsons.”

I first truly understood this phenomenon when I ducked through a hobbit-size door in the backside of a Tenth Avenue warehouse—and stepped directly out onto the High Line, between 25th and 26th Streets. Here, the railbed stretches off in both directions, resembling a lush, weedy boulevard unspooling over the city streets. I was accompanied at the time by Douglas Oliver, who owns the Williams Warehouse, along with a silent partner. A trim man in his early sixties, with curly, salt-and-pepper hair, Oliver was wearing a collarless black peacoat and a black-and-white ascot. Currently, his warehouse is used to store sets for soap operas; as we walked among the stashed sofas and upended, ornate lamps, he shouted to his superintendent, “Hey, Felix, where’s my favorite coffin?”

Then we all stooped through the door he punched in his back wall three years ago, and boom, there we were, on the High Line—a moment that felt like stepping through the back of the wardrobe, out into Narnia.

The High Line has always been closed to the public, so from the beginning, Hammond and David understood that—fancy brochures and professionally produced videos aside—they had to find a way to bottle and sell this hallelujah moment. A friend recommended they contact the photographer Joel Sternfeld, who had shot ruins in Rome. They invited him up for a visit. Sternfeld remembers his own High Line epiphany. “Suddenly, it’s green! It’s a railroad! It’s rural! Where am I?” he says. As he stood out on the railbed, mouth agape, Hammond whispered to him, “Joel, we need the money shot.”

Sternfeld worked on the project for a full year. “I could go up there anytime I wanted,” he says. “That was one of the greatest gifts of my life. I had my own private park.” On one afternoon, in 2001, he invited The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik to tag along, and Gopnik subsequently rhapsodized about the structure in a florid essay. “The High Line does not offer a God’s-eye view of the city, exactly,” he wrote, “but something rarer, the view of a lesser angel: of a Cupid in a Renaissance painting, of the putti looking down on the Nativity manger.”

As it happens, Edward Norton, the actor, whose grandfather was a visionary developer who helped save Boston’s Faneuil Hall, read Gopnik’s paean, and decided he should lend his name and support to the Friends of the High Line effort. He phoned them up and, later, became a public face for the group, appearing on Charlie Rose and speaking at events. “He’d say, ‘Look, there are a lot of people who want your money,’ ” Hammond recalls. “ ‘There are a lot of causes out there doing more important things—saving lives or educating kids.’ Then he summed it up in a way I always liked: ‘This is about optimism. This is about New York reinventing itself.’ ”

Now, standing on the landing of Oliver’s bricked-over loading bays six years later, you can hear the construction crews ten blocks south—that familiar sound of New York reinventing itself. The initial phase of the new park stops at 20th Street; Phase 2, from 20th to 30th Streets, likely won’t be done until 2009. Still, for Oliver, it’s not hard to envision the future. “I’m seeing a restaurant, maybe a gallery,” he says, then, gesturing to the loading bays, “All this could become glass.” He and his partner bought the building in 1978, for $75,000 cash down. Now he fields constant calls about selling. He’s been offered well over $100 million, but figures it’s probably worth more. He’s heard the building at Tenth and 15th that houses Craftsteak and Del Posto just sold for $150 million. Faith Hope Consolo, a retail specialist for Douglas Elliman, foresees a 12 to 15 percent rise in prices all across the neighborhood: retail, commercial, residential. Even modest properties are benefiting. A nearby space on West 21st, nestled literally right under the High Line, is currently up for rent. The broker also imagines a restaurant, a gallery. “It’s a really unique space,” he says. Ten years ago, he leased it to the auto-body shop for $20,000 a month. Now he’s asking $70,000 a month.


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