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The End Of The High Line Era

Several high-profile, billionaire-backed public spaces are on the outs.

The End Of The High Line Era
[Photo: Diane Cook & Len Jenshel]

It’s the end of the line for one of New York City’s most imaginative and controversial park proposals. Developer Barry Diller announced this week that he’s killing his plan for Pier 55, a $250-million, 2.7-acre floating park he intended to build on Manhattan’s west side. “Because of the huge escalating costs and the fact it would have been a continuing controversy over the next three years I decided it was no longer viable for us to proceed,” Diller told the New York Times.

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Designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, Pier 55 has faced a number of hurdles including soaring costs (six years ago, the initial estimated price tag was just $35 million), legal battles, and personal vendettas. This spring, Diller’s rival Douglas Durst, brother of convicted murderer Robert Durst and a billionaire developer himself, said he had secretly funded lawsuits against the park.

But Pier 55’s demise also signals another shift: the end of an era of benefactor-led boutique urbanism.

London Garden Bridge [Image: ARUP]
A similar project in the U.K., also designed by Heatherwick and backed by private dollars, recently a faced a similar fate. The Garden Bridge was a pedestrian walkway crossing the Thames River and connecting the Temple and South Bank neighborhoods, originally proposed by actress Joanna Lumley and supported by former mayor Boris Johnson. In August, current London mayor Sadiq Kahn struck down the plan, citing a misuse of public funds.

Both Pier 55 and the Garden Bridge riffed on the High Line model of public-private partnerships to build parks: wealthy donors foot the bill for these projects and in exchange, the city provides the land and a portion of funding. The expectation is that the park becomes a neighborhood’s crown jewel, offers a caliber of space the city would not be able to create (or maintain) on its own, and sparks economic growth. The High Line is widely seen as the progenitor of urban parks developed through public-private partnerships, and it was successful in achieving all three traits.

However, in recent years it’s become clear that the High Line also spread extreme economic inequality, leading to increased public skepticism–and even wariness from one of its founders, Robert Hammond–about projects developed this way. The gentrification wrought by the High Line contributed to the criticism that the Garden Bridge and Pier 55 were designed by and for the affluent.

Pier 55 [Image: Pier 55, Inc./Heatherwick Studio]
According to the American Planning Association, community engagement is an “essential ingredient of making successful urban open space.” A park designed and developed from the singular perspective of a wealthy individual bestowing a “gift”–no matter how well intentioned–can’t achieve space that is truly for the people and their needs. Without community involvement, such projects can come off more like impositions on the city than additions to them.

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The demise of two high-profile public space projects spearheaded by the elite signals that these singular visions are on their way out. Even the High Line itself is also actively rebuking the “High Line effect” by establishing a knowledge-sharing network to help ensure that new public space is equitably built with the public’s interests in mind. In order to achieve this, community feedback, co-creation, and public review is essential.

Some cities are already catching on. Washington, D.C., is aggressively addressing gentrification concerns in its 11th Street Bridge project; Houston included extensive community review in its initiative to create a master plan for Memorial Park. This isn’t to say ambitious designs are dead–only that this unilateral avenue to achieving them is fading away.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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