As for the rest of the view, you can expect a veritable Disneyland of starchitecture, with ten new buildings currently rising and roughly fifteen more in development—some with access right to the High Line, some simply hugging its edge; some scaled humbly to the surrounding historical blocks, some potentially as high as 40 stories, and some that are new buildings built on top of existing buildings, like crumpled crystal top hats. One of the new towers, at 200 Eleventh Avenue, will offer “en suite parking” to tenants (basically, an elevator that will take your car from street level and park it directly outside your apartment), pending community-board approval; Madonna’s rumored to be sniffing around. Another planned tower will tilt over the High Line, stooping slightly at its midsection like a butler ushering you through a door. And all of these buildings, as you pass them, will feature walls of condos and lounges and restaurants with windows full of people looking down from their sparkling new towers at the High Line, and you.
What you’ll get, in other words, is a thoughtfully conceived, beautifully designed simulation of the former High Line—and what more, really, do we ask for in our city right now? Isn’t that what we want: that each new bistro that opens should give us the feeling of a cozy neighborhood joint, right down to the expertly battered wooden tables and exquisitely selected faucet knobs? And that each new clothing boutique that opens in the space where the dry cleaner’s used to be—you know, the one driven out by rising rents—should retain that charming dry cleaner’s signage, so you can be reconnected to the city’s hardscrabble past even as you shop for a $300 blouse? And that each dazzling, glass-skinned condo tower, with the up-to-date amenities and Hudson views and en suite freaking parking, should be nestled in a charming, grit-chic neighborhood, full of old warehouses and reclaimed gallery spaces and retroactively trendy chunks of rusted urban blight? Isn’t that exactly what we ask New York to be right now?
Think of all the big, less attractive developments—Atlantic Yards, the Jets stadium, Moynihan Station, ground zero—that have foundered. Yet the High Line went from impossible dream to construction in under ten years. After 9/11, Hammond and David thought they were sunk—who would care now about an abandoned railbed? But instead the possibilities of the High Line caught people’s imagination and stirred their ardor more than ever—and why not? It’s a tabula rasa, sturdy enough to absorb whatever idyllic vision of the city you endorse. It’s pastoral, yet futuristic! It’s exclusive in its aesthetics, yet accessible to everyone!
Don’t get me wrong: It’s impossible not to cheer the efforts of two guys who started with few allies and spent eight years of their lives fighting for a brand-new park. In the sky! What a great idea! Who doesn’t love a park? And the High Line, as it existed, could not be expected to continue to run like a rusted bridge, untouched and unsullied, over the roiling crosscurrents of abundant money and development fever and relentless, transformative good taste—not in the New York we live in now, not in this city, where every parcel is coveted, every square inch monetized, even in the air. In order to persuade all the property owners to sign over their rights, the Department of City Planning, led by Burden, used the tool of allowing the owners to transfer their development rights to surrounding properties. Then they rezoned parts of West Chelsea to allow for new, larger developments. This plan includes provisions that will, in theory, encourage the mid-block galleries on the cross blocks to stay, in the hope that the galleries won’t be run out by new stores and residences, the way they once were in Soho. It’s a good plan. It even won an award. As Faustian bargains go, it’s pretty honorable, given that everyone—the preservationists, the developers, the neighbors, the weekend visitors—seems happy. For the most part. Well, almost everyone.
At Tenth and 18th, you’ll find La Lunchonette restaurant, which has been open there for nineteen years. By all rights, its owner, Melva Max, should be ecstatic about the High Line. From her front window, she has a beautiful view of one of the most visible stretches of the track. I point this out to her, but she can’t see it. All she sees is the 30-story condo tower she’s heard is going to rise in the vacant lot right across the street. “People say to me, ‘You’re going to be so busy, the restaurant will be full of people all the time,’ ” she says. “But I really don’t think these will be the kind of people who are going to walk out of their fancy buildings to come over here and have an omelette.”