9:48 am Dec. 24, 2010
Here are a few facts about the High Line, the 1.45-mile park built along a section of the former elevated freight train spur that runs up the West Side from Gansevoort to 20th Street (and that will eventually make its way as far up as the Javits Center):
- Over the next 30 years, it is expected to bring $900 million to the city in taxes; over the same period, the city expects it will result in $4 billion in private investment in West Chelsea.
- The Whitney Museum of American Art is moving next door.
- Its annual day-to-day operating costs are between $3.5 and $4.5 million dollars, and are entirely funded by the non-profit Friends of the High Line.
- Friends of the High Line spends more per acre on its park than is spent on any other park in the city.
When the High Line opened in June 2009 it was possibly the best-received public work in recent history. And yet it is not a completely public work: it only exists because 10 years ago, two men, one a consultant and, according to his biography in the Friends of the Highline web site, a "self-taught artist," and one a freelance writer, decided to try to get it built.
Along with praise for the park itself, officials and activists and journalists and planners and others who think about this sort of thing have often, though not always, praised the way it was financed and the way it was chauffeured through the maze of bureaucracy that usually attends the organization of any such public-private partnership, for example, the World Trade Center site and the new Yankees Stadium.
Among others, the advantage of the model is that the city doesn't have to get involved—in other words doesn't have to spend money—until relatively late in the process. The idea, initiative, primary plans are already done, and private fund-raising has already begun.
Enthusiasm for the High Line has not died down. A recent forum at the Graduate Center at City University was dedicated to this question: "The New York High Line: Is It a Model for the City or Not?"
One of the founders, Robert Hammond, the non-profit consultant and self-taught artist, held up the High Line as a paragon in both political and civic progress.
"You know, I can't help but contrast this—the High Line—with the national conversation that we've been having about public goods," Hammond said. "We've come to this place in national politics where people don't want to think about anything that's created publicly—I don't necessarily mean only by the government, but just the things that we can only buy as a group are somehow nowhere on the national agenda. All people want to talk about is the things we can buy as individuals and they pretend that the only way to increase the utility of the average American, is to give them more of their own money. But in fact, how much of my own money—how much money would you have to—I live in the West Village, I walk along the High Line all the time to go to Chelsea Market. What's that worth to me? Well it's worth an enormous amount of money. So we need more symbols of that kind of public good. And that's what excites me most about this."
OF COURSE THE QUESTION WHEN GOVERNMENT ACTS—or when it buys the things only it can buy—is, whom for?
The High Line is public; anyone can go there. But it was made possible only by private money. Parts of other city parks are private: a restaurant license in Central Park or Union Square gives a proprietor the right to build a private business that benefits from public land. Disputes over how to rebuild Ground Zero are mired in questions of the public claim on the space versus real-estate developer Larry Silverstein's private 99-year lease, which entitles him to the profits borne from the property of a government agency. Public-private partnerships prosper all over town: They are building (or, as the case may be, not building) things like waterfront parks in Brooklyn, the new Moynihan Station, the wide-open plazas wanted for the far West Side. The lines are blurry. Is the High Line a good measure of the effectiveness of corporate-government action for the public good? Or a measure of how much property and business owners in the immediate vicinity (an expensive one) are willing to pay to walk to Chelsea Market among tapered concrete planks, Art-Deco railings, and wild quinine?
The High Line is praised for its design, for its historic preservation, its reuse of land, and its economic value to West Chelsea and the city. Long before it was under construction, in 2002, Friends of the High Line conducted a study of the project's projected economic value, and concluded that the tax revenues generated by the park would be greater than the cost of its construction.
Now that the first section is finished, Hammond talks about the tax contributions to the city, the benefit to small businesses in the neighborhood, the increase in property values for the surrounding area, and the subsequent development boom. He did say that night at CUNY that investment shouldn't necessarily be the standard for all city projects, and that the city is not a business, but he also said that Friends of the High Line used the increased tax base to convince the mayor to approve the projects.
It will take about $172 million to complete both sections of the park; the city has committed $130 million, and the federal government $20 million. Friends of the High Line has raised about $44 million.
Hammond said the movement to build the High Line had been "bottom-up." Later he qualified the phrase: "‘Bottom-up' was a clever if somewhat misleading turn of phrase. It was bottom-up of a bunch of very sophisticated architects."
"If that's the bottom, I'd love to be at the bottom," he said.
Both critics and backers cite the star power of the High Line's donors as keys to its success. Among other high-profile supporters, new media mogul Barry Diller and his wife, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, gave $10 million to the organization, which is the sort of thing that meant the High Line was operating at the higher tier of city park before it was even built.
For example, on the High Line web site, on the "donate" page, the highest suggested amount is $5,000. On the Fort Greene Conservancy web site, the highest suggest amount is $250. The Central Park Conservancy has a "Chairman's Circle," which can be joined for $25,000 or $50,000, while the East Village Parks Conservancy will make you a "Conservator" for $100, and a give you a personally inscribed Hex Stone for $250.
At the CUNY event, sitting a few chairs away from Hammond, Malcolm Gladwell, the writer and near-ubiquitous cultural pundit who lives in the West Village, said that the High Line has fundamentally changed the character of the neighborhood; he compared the park to the new bike lanes popping up all over town to describe their contributions to shaping a new New York City.
Gladwell invoked a line from The Godfather. Michael Corleone is objecting to the murder of a friend, and Gladwell quoted the character Hyman Roth saying: "What did I say when it happened? Nothing. Because, I said to myself, this is the business I've chosen."
"This is the business we've chosen. What is New York City? New York City is this bizarre concept—bizarre, peculiar and idiosyncratic. And almost unique. It has a very, very small number of people who generate an extraordinary amount of money for the city. And every now and then we have to do things for them; keep them here. I think of this all the time; I read in the paper about the bonuses at Goldman Sachs and I think, 'I cant believe it!' I get all upset and then I walk out on the street and get on the subway and I realize oh, right, they're paying for this. It's the business we've chosen. So, is it fair at the end of the day that the wealthy people living in those lofts in Chelsea get this lovely High Line?"
"No, it's not fair. But then again these guys are going down to Wall Street and paying the city income tax and funding all of the other things that we need. So it's like, if we could start over, would we design a different city? Maybe. But we're not, we're stuck with this. we've made this bargain."
THE HIGH LINE IS, OF COURSE, NOT THE ONLY PARK in the city with private funding. A number of them—Central Park, Bryant Park, Battery Park City, Madison Square Park, to name a few—have conservancies that raise money privately to supplement what the city can spend. Often the conservancies pay for much more than the city.
The conservancies have delivered enormous benefits to the city. Douglas Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy, told Capital in an interview that the difference between what Central Park was in 1980 and what it is today is severe.
"It's [gone] from a place that tourists did not go, to, really, the No. 1 tourist destination in the city, with 35 million visitors a year," he said.
Thirty percent are tourists. The extensive fund-raising and work of the organization has made it "one of the most important economic engines that the city has," Blonsky said.
"It produces over a billion dollars of direct economic activity to the city every year and the lift that it gives to the real estate around Central Park is incredible. We actually call it the Central Park Effect, where within like a 10 minute walk of the park you have about a 17-billion-dollar lift in the real-estate values because of the park."
Would all laudable park projects lift property values within 10-minutes walk by a total of about 17 billion dollars?
The High Line benefited, then and now, from the neighborhood it's in, and benefits that neighborhood because of the kind of neighborhood it is. (As do all the conservancy parks, it's worth noting.)
It's a wealthy neighborhood taking care of itself, which seems well and good. It's a demonstration of economic disparity in New York City, but it's not necessarily a demonstration of injustice. Who can tell donors to Friends of the High Line where to put their money? And why not spend money they'd be free to spend, for instance, on opulent renovations of their own houses and private property on a park anyone can enjoy? Friends of the High Line never said it was a parks advocacy group, but to their credit, they have created a public park.
But if this is what it takes, most of the city will not see any new parks, at least not while the city is going broke, nor will the ones they have be well taken-care of. This is something the Friends of the High Line have contemplated.
"I don't know if [the private donations] weren't made on the High Line they would go to parks in the Bronx or Queens," Hammond said at CUNY. "What it does is free up city money to go to the Department of Parks that can't afford the conservancy. But I think the city parks budget is very small; it's less than one half of one percent."
The same is true of the Central Park Conservancy. Most of the donations come from those living near the park, and Blonsky said he sees the conservancy as a way that the public can participate in taking care of the park, which is an appreciated resource for most of them.
"It gives the opportunity for the city to be able to put more resources into other parks. Can you imagine if the city had to maintain Central Park to the standards that it is? It would be a huge drain on them. I think because of Central Park's overall benefit to the economics of the city, and to the people living around it, I think it totally makes sense for people to voluntarily donate."
Sitting next to Hammond on the panel was Jerilyn Perine, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council. She said that the makers of public works must not become dependent on tax-revenue increases and rising property value to justify the value of their work.
"Is the Socrates Sculpture Garden not a good thing because Vernon Boulevard mostly remained a manufacturing-zoned area?" she asked. "And so the welding plant next door is still the welding plant next door? And you know property values change, when the zoning changes, but not by themselves. Does that make that park a failure?"
Fifty percent of visitors to the High Line are from the city, Hammond said; one-quarter are from Europe and Japan, which makes it a true tourist attraction—like Central Park—which is a part of the economic argument.
"While it's nice to say, ‘Well it's private money so it doesn't affect the public,' it does actually," Perine said. "And, actually, it worries me that it's a symbol, because if this is the symbol then what are we saying to these other public spaces that can never join in to that model? Central Park gets, you know—whatever—40 thousand tulip bowls planted every year. It's great. I live near there. It's wonderful. But then there are these places that can't even get like the garbage cleaned up properly in their public spaces."
(It's actually 126,000 tulip bowls, according to the conservancy website.)
"And so just to say, ‘Well the Central Park Conservancy raises 85 percent of that money, so who cares?' Well maybe we should care. And maybe some of that money should get raised for general park purposes or we should think about how to fund public spaces in general for our whole city."
"This is going to be an interesting question in the next decade for us," Perine said. "We are a city where only really a little over a third is ‘like us.'" (By that she meant white and non-Hispanic, which was an accurate, if blunt, assessment of the the audience.)
THE HIGH LINE'S WEB SITE DEFINES IT AS A PARK, and the railway itself (though not the street under it) is owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation. But the Parks Department does not pretend to think the High Line is just another park. Responding to criticism that the High Line gets more security than other parks, the department said it "needs special attention," in part because it's elevated. Frequently arrested art vendor Robert Lederman, having won a lawsuit in 2001 that allowed him to sell his art in public parks, was issued six summonses in 2009 for doing so on the High Line; the Parks Department said the High Line is different from other parks.
The High Line is, in all respects, treated as a special case, as a park that puts design over public amenity. It does not provide playgrounds or baseball fields or barbecue pits, the sorts of sticking points that embroil community boards and tenant-advocacy groups whenever the city wants to build or remodel a park in most neighborhoods.
"I mean the High Line is kind of weird, right?" said Gladwell. "And if it had been developed by Zeckendorf, it wouldn't be weird, now would it?"
Here, the audience laughed.
"There's nothing wrong with the kind of aesthetic values and sensibilities that come from the higher end—ultimately [they] are, I think, of interest to the whole city. They're the ones that can make this kind of sophisticated re-imagining work in 2011."
As a work of art, the High Line is a boon to the neighborhood and a contribution to the city. If it's a park, then it raises questions about whether parks should be considered a luxury or an integral part of quality of life, like garbage collection.
In 1983, Mayor Edward Koch appointed Henry Stern the commissioner of Parks and Recreation, where he served under two terms; it was Rudolph Giuliani who brought him back in 1994, where he served until one month into the Bloomberg mayoralty. Two distinct iterations of the city. I wanted to talk to Stern about this, arguably third, iteration I saw at CUNY.
Private funding for parks, of course, relates to the greater narrative of the city, with its privatization and its Wall Street and its City Hall struggling with layoffs and budget cuts. Stern said park funding is trending this way, because "there isn't any public funding," which by all accounts is true.
So recently, he said, large parks projects have been mandated to be essentially self-supporting.
"How is the city, which is hard pressed—or any level of government which is hard-pressed—going to say, ‘Well! we're going to have a brand-new wonderful park in this neighborhood.'"
As long as the government struggles, so will parks, because unlike, say, police and fire departments, it is not strictly a necessary service, and it is not even close to what the city might call a necessary public amenity. How useful is the idea of taking the expense of a park in a rich neighborhood off the Parks Department's hands if the Parks Department mandates that all parks in all neighborhoods be "self-supporting?" When parks become luxuries, the luxury class gets more parks. And yet it is this very non-necessity that characterizes the ethos of a place like the High Line.
"People in so-called wealthy neighborhoods want better parks; want gardeners; they want to change the flowers every now and then. Well, why should all the taxpayers pay for that? Why should poor people pay taxes to support fine parks for rich people? It's not unreasonable that the city can provide a basic level of service and then amenities for the park can be provided by local people, either through private donations or business donations."
"There are some people who are against [private funding] philosophically, because they say everyone should get the same service," he said. "You know, like socialists."
And that, the Friends of the High Line are not, for all that Hammond's introductory remarks seemed like a harangue against those who would strip the government of all power to tax fairly and spend for the common good.
Late in the discussion, John Mollenkopf, the director of the Center for Urban Research at CUNY, who was moderating the debate at CUNY, addressed Gladwell. "Malcolm, you said this was the business we've chosen to be in. Is it the only business that we've chosen to be in?
"New York has a fantastic tradition of building great public works, stemming in part from the New Deal," Mollenkopf said. "They were not designed just as heightening real estate values or making rich people happy, but creating public spaces that all classes could use. If you look at the 1930s swimming pools that the W.P.A. built in different neighborhoods in the city. Or even a lot of the little bandshells and so forth in parks along the East River or in Prospect Park. If you look at the cooperative housing along Grand Street, you can see plaques that talk about using public assets to help us build egalitarian communities that move beyond the class differences of the past. So I think that's every bit as much of the business New York has been in, at least in points of its history, as making a lot of money in real estate. Are we at risk of having lost that part of our heritage?"
"I didn't mean to suggest that we should be indifferent to interests other than the money class," Gladwell said. "We have to accept on some level that innovations of this sort are going to start with with that—maybe ought to start at that high level—because that's the way the city is now."
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