Taking the High Road

Taking the High Road

The Bloomberg legacy in New York includes the redevelopment of old industrial infrastructure – benefiting people and property prices at the same time.

In January, New York was hit with its first sizeable snowfall of the year. All afternoon, large snowflakes fluttered everywhere; by morning, three inches of snow had blanketed Central Park. Traffic crawled along the avenues. Snowplows and salt trucks eventually took to the streets, but on the city’s Upper East Side, the snow accumulated until buses were stuck and some residents resorted to snowshoes and skis to navigate the city.

“You wouldn’t believe how long it took my cab to get home to 86th Street and Madison Avenue,” a colleague told me, her eyes wide with indignation, eyebrows nearly reaching the brim of her mink fur hat. “It would have been faster to walk. De Blasio completely botched this.”

This was New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s first snowstorm since taking office on January 1, and his sluggish response left the elegant uptown neighbourhood (and residence of his political predecessor, Michael Bloomberg) curiously neglected. The frustration of snowed-in denizens has perhaps less to do with walking through knee deep powder than it does with an underlying anxiety about the new left-leaning office. Indeed, many New Yorkers are already wistful about the Bloomberg years.

Bloomberg, the former Wall Street executive and media mogul with a personal fortune estimated at US$27 billion, spent 12 years in office, and the city he left behind is vastly different than the shaken metropolis he pledged allegiance to in 2001.

One of the most dramatic markers of change is the city’s physical transformation. Unabashedly pro-development, Bloomberg re-zoned 40 percent of New York’s landmass during his tenure. Seven of the city’s 20 tallest skyscrapers were erected during his tenure, including the New World Trade Center and an even taller building currently under construction on Park Avenue. When completed in 2015, the 425-metre luxury condominium 432 Park Avenue will alter New York’s iconic skyline and become, as project architect Rafael Viñoly told me, “a mast – a new anchor that changes the weight of the city”.

But Bloomberg’s vision for a taller, denser city also included a plan to create more parks and open up previously underused areas. He accelerated the opening of the waterfront in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, installed bicycle lanes throughout the city and established car-free pedestrian malls in midtown Manhattan. Last summer, he introduced CitiBike, a bike-sharing programme that is already immensely popular.

One of the most successful urban initiatives of the Bloomberg era – and one that demonstrates his belief that public amenities can generate private and community economic benefit – was the High Line, a 1.60km linear park built on an abandoned elevated railroad track on Manhattan’s West Side. First built in 1929 to serve the once thriving shipping docks on the Hudson River, the elevated railroad carried its last load (reportedly, three boxcars of frozen turkeys) in 1980. For the following two decades, it became overgrown with weeds, a forgotten relic of the past.

Then, in 1999, local architecture enthusiasts Joshua David and Robert Hammond foundedFriends of the High Line, a non-profit organisation that lobbied to preserve this piece of historic infrastructure. In a rare public and private partnership (backed by both the city and deep-pocketed philanthropists), the line was transformed into an innovative public space combining beach, park and promenade.

 The High Line opening ceremony with mayor Bloomberg in the center

The High Line opening ceremony with mayor Bloomberg in the center

The High Line runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District, to 30th Street. From the elevated promenade, you can take in views of the Hudson and Chelsea warehouses, or relax on one of many benches or banks of stairs and people watch – there is even a large picture window just above 10th Avenue.

Designed by James Corner Field Operations in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro and landscape architect Piet Oudolf, the project deliberately retains pockets of unruly plant life interspersed with places of leisure, a programme the designers have called “agri-tecture”. Inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew out of the structure while abandoned, the landscaping includes early blooms of witch hazel in February and late blooming asters that last until November. In the winter, winterberries and crimson bloodtwig dogwood contrast with the snow.

Since opening in 2009, the High Line has become New York City’s second most visited cultural venue, attracting 4 million visitors a year. Other cities have taken note. In Shoreditch, east London, town planners are considering a new park on top of the old abandoned railway arches at the Bishopsgate Goodsyard. And it’s not just the High Line’s popularity that has developers and city officials talking; it is also the positive effect it has had on real estate prices along its route.

Luxury hotels like the Standard arch over the railway line, and architectural experimentation abounds. Neil Denari’s contoured glass-and-steel HL23, Frank Gehry’s boxy IAC building, and Shiguru Ban’s Metal Shutter Houses are all located near the linear park. At 505 West 19th Street, a new building designed by Thomas Juul Hansen will pass underneath the High Line, with components rising up on either side of it. International developers are getting in on the action, too. Singapore architect and developer Soo K Chan is building the luxury condominium Soori High Line at West 29th Street come 2016.

Much of Bloomberg’s legacy has yet to be realised. His projects and policies will be judged in the decades to come. But in spring, West Chelsea will once again offer pockets of greenery, parks and bike paths, and the former industrial era will be reflected in the renovated lofts and converted factories surrounding the High Line – a reminder that generations come and go, neighbourhoods rise and fall, and New York never stops reinventing itself.

This story appeared in the April 2014 issue of The Peak

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