Initial details of the third and final leg of the High Line were released at a community meeting yesterday evening. Slated to open in 2014, the estimated $90 million extension of Manhattan’s madly popular railroad-turned-elevated park includes easy access to public transportation, breathtaking views of the Hudson River, and a climbing structure designed explicitly for kids.
But the most noticeable feature will be the one that’s missing: the 360-degree panorama of gritty old New York that provides a cinematic backdrop to the High Line’s lush first and second stretches. The third leg starts at 30th Street and cuts west toward the Hudson River, then north to 34th Street, around Hudson Yards, the proposed commercial development of a massive rail yard. Today, the yard is a no man’s land—just a lot cross-hatched by train tracks and sleepy LIRR cars. In a few years, it’ll be the new end point of the expanded seven-subway line. Ten years from now, it could be covered in towers, one of which might nearly rival the mind-boggling height of the Empire State Building. In other words, the designers are planning for an urban environment that doesn’t exist yet. But when it does, it’ll be huge.
"The context is very different," says Lisa Switkin, of the landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, which codesigned the High Line with the designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro. "The existing High Line mainly runs mid-block, north-south along historic buildings and some new buildings. Here, the High Line is running east-west mostly on 30th Street. On one side there’s the street; on the other, 21st-century development. We had to ask, how do we respond to the new conditions?"
The answer: Maintain the design DNA of the High Line that’s already there, while embracing the unique western orientation and the ginormous scale of the proposed Hudson Yards development. In the "DNA" camp, there will be additional "peel up" benches—seats that look like they grow out of the ground elsewhere on the High Line—only they’ll be more elaborate. There will be peel-up planters, peel-up picnic tables, peel-up water fountains, and even peel-up desks (so you can whip out your laptop and toil away to the soundtrack of urban mayhem?).
In the "embrace the surroundings" camp, there’s a proposed elevated lookout point around 11th Avenue for gajillion-dollar views of the Hudson River. (Prediction: Many, many wedding photographs will be taken here.) There will also be lounge chairs in a 70-foot-tall tunnel, where one of the proposed Hudson Yards towers passes over the High Line. Lie back, and you’ll get a dizzying view of the mammoth skyscraper above—an effect that’s all the more exhilarating (or frightening, depending on how you feel about heights) because the chairs cantilever over the street below.
The design scheme is limited by the complexities of building a park and a large mixed-use development at the same time. Most notably, the designers have proposed a temporary walkway ("a simple path through the existing landscape," according to press materials) that’ll serve as a placeholder until nearby construction on Hudson Yards lets up. "That area will be a construction site," Switkin says, so you can’t build a permanent park right away. "Instead, we’ll create a walkway over the landscape, and people will get to see the High Line the way that it was [before the new development]."
Other design moves were informed, at least in part, by public feedback. People demanded play space for kids. In response, the designers came up with the idea to rip out concrete planks just west of 11th Avenue, then cover the beams underneath in thick rubber, creating a climbing structure that lets kids literally play inside the old railroad. "That’ll be really the first design feature truly designated for kids," says Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Matthew Johnson. People also asked, "Can we continue to embrace the historical components of the High Line?" he says. So the designers plan to develop a "rail walk" where visitors can traipse around on train tracks. The walk might even incorporate old switchgear. "Whether it will be fully operational remains to be seen," Johnson says.
Another big request: more open space. One of the primary complaints about the second leg of the High Line is that it’s too narrow and jams up with wide-eyed tourists fast. The designers hope to turn a large swath of section three—a platform freight trains used to carry mail to and from the post office loading docks—into either an amphitheater or an open gathering space. Along the park’s narrower tracts, they’ll sacrifice dense plantings for wider paths. "People wanted relief from heavy traffic, especially on the weekends," Johnson says. "The section between 11th and 10th avenues has a lot more hardscape than previous areas."
In some ways, Part III is shaping up to be the toughest installation in the HL trilogy yet. "Section three has posed some of the more complex problems," Switkin says. "Not only do you have to live up to the success of the first two sections, but also there’s a desire to do something different that’s about the new New York. Sections one and two were partially about responding to the historic Meatpacking District and Chelsea. This is a gesture toward a historic relic, but it’s also moving into the future."
[Images courtesy of Friends of the High Line]