Oliver doesn’t envision selling, however—he’d rather partner with a gallerist or a restaurateur, do something “in the spirit of the High Line.” He recently spent $2 million to upgrade the building’s façade. Now he’d like to stick around to enjoy his good fortune. “These days around here, you see women in fur coats buying million-dollar paintings,” he says. “When I bought this place, the women in fur coats around here were usually men.” He was an early supporter of the Friends of the High Line, making what he describes as a “substantial” donation. “A lot of good’s come out of the High Line,” he says. “This is a gold mine. The landlords should be thanking them.”
In fact, even before the city announced, in June 2005, that it had approved the rezoning plan that would preserve the High Line and allow for new construction projects all along its length, savvy real-estate speculators had grasped the potential of a “High Line” neighborhood. The developer Alf Naman, who’d been circling the area since the mid-nineties, bought up about a half-dozen properties. “I saw what happened in Tribeca,” he says, “and I didn’t want to miss out here.” He’s now developing three properties, including a hotel that will look out directly on the High Line and a condo tower by architect Jean Nouvel at 100 Eleventh Avenue, with a bistro-style restaurant on the main floor. (Danny Meyer is rumored to be the eventual tenant.) André Balazs, the hotel impresario, who was also an early donor to Friends of the High Line, purchased two plots of land on either side of the track, near 14th Street, where he’s building a Standard Hotel. “We started construction before it was even clear who owned the High Line,” he says—a gamble that he says now is “looking brilliant.” His hotel will literally straddle the High Line, and in his ideal vision, Balazs will offer his guests direct access through a stairway from the hotel to the park—though the details of who can or can’t build entrances to the High Line, and what exactly those entrances might look like, and whether you can put patio chairs or café tables out on the High Line grounds, are all still being hashed out with the city. But Balazs is confident he’ll get his staircase. “This is going to happen,” he says.
Farther north, the architects Della Valle Bernheimer are building two new projects, one on 459 West 18th and one at 245 Tenth Avenue, and Jared Della Valle is still looking for other opportunities. “But there’s been a frenzy in the neighborhood,” he says, “to the point that properties are trading at a rate that doesn’t make any sense.” Some mid-block parcels are still coming on the market, as leases run out or reluctant sellers are swayed by the arrival of the money truck. “But the majority of the A locations”—meaning ones right on the High Line—“have already traded hands.” He mentions the one crown jewel that’s still available—a huge lot at 18th and Tenth Avenue, right next to Gehry’s building. “We put an offer on that,” he says, “but we dropped out when prices went through the roof.” Prices in the neighborhood have gone up 30 percent in the last year, and are now among the highest in the city, with some lots going for over $500 a developable square foot. I ask Della Valle how those numbers compare with other Manhattan neighborhoods. He pauses. “There’s not much out there. You’re talking Central Park West.” For developers, investing at those prices, he says, is “like Russian roulette, except there are four bullets in the gun instead of one.”
Of course, far West Chelsea, with its mix of low-income housing and hot-spot restaurants and galleries and supersize clubs, has long been a neighborhood in transition. But the arrival of the High Line—it’s a park! In the sky!—offers developers a glamorous, one-of-a-kind amenity to pitch to millionaire buyers. Balazs, for one, is confident he’ll recoup his investment, but he’s not so sure about those who got there after him. “There are parts of the High Line that have charm, and other parts where it’s really nothing more than a piece of steel running through a piece of property,” he says. “But the mere phrase High Line is now a buzzy phrase. So I think you’re going to find all sorts of worthless developments going up, where people will happily tag the name ‘High Line’ to their project, hoping to give an otherwise lackluster project some sizzle.”
There are three central ironies to the story of the High Line. The first is that, for twenty years, local property owners were the main opponents to the park-conversion plan. At the height of his battle with Friends of the High Line, Edison’s Gottesman launched a propaganda campaign. “They had one flyer that said, ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees, and last we checked, it isn’t growing in the weeds of the High Line,’ ” says Hammond. “Now the irony is, money is growing in the weeds of the High Line—for them, and they’re picking it.”