Manhattan’s High Line Park illustrates how a great city may evolve and renew itself in an entirely unpredictable way

The nearly-complete park, built along a disused overhead railway line, replicates the “accidental landscape” that sprang up after trains stopped running 34 years ago. It’s also been an “accidental” stimulant to the real estate industry, credited with catalysing billions of dollars of development astride it and nearby.

A crowning achievement of the former mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg, the High Line is finished except for a short spur that is waiting for the completion of a 900 feet-tall skyscraper through which it will pass — a project Related might not have built and leased to Coach Inc and L’Oréal had it not been for the park’s electrifying effect on the neighborhood.

At the dedication for the High Line’s third and final major phase on 20 September, actor and director Edward Norton said the idea had seemed “half-baked” when first proposed in the late-1990s.

Almost everyone in the political and business establishment wanted the 80-year-old trestle torn down — even Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor who heroically turned the tide against crime and led the city through the hell of 9/11 and its aftermath.

Could a dangerous, derelict train line 30 feet above the street, stretching 1.5 miles on the Far West Side, be turned into an inviting public playground? Who would pay for such a folly?

When I originally toured the trestle in 2007, strolling the crumbling roadbed on a bleak November afternoon and tripping over debris, I doubted the park’s first leg would be open within two years.

But the $243m (£150m) project — a cost “more per acre than probably any park in human history,” according to The New York Times — came in only slightly later than planned. Although city-owned,
it is smoothly maintained by Friends of the High Line, the private nonprofit which dreamed the whole thing up and raised more than half its development cost.

Estimates of its spillover economic impact vary wildly, from $3bn (£1.9bn) to tens of billions. But its psychological effect cannot be quantified. To behold the new cityscape which has grown up around is to grasp the miracle.

As a free-to-all public amenity, the High Line is almost too successful , drawing nearly five million visitors last year. Its narrower sections can be difficult to traverse on sunny weekends, making it difficult to enjoy magnificent landscaping and the kaleidoscopic views of the skyline and Hudson River. It’s hard to recall that steel fragments once fell on passing cars and muggers and prostitutes ruled the shadows beneath it. A disco club owned by a friend of mine was Molotov-cocktailed from above by hooligans who sneaked onto the tracks.

The High Line’s desperate state symbolised Manhattan west of Ninth Avenue, then a backwater of warehouses, obsolete factories and empty lots. Today, it’s an increasingly dense concentration of luxury apartment buildings, hotels and even new office buildings.

The boom was catalysed by just the promise of the park, years before it opened. In a crucial step, Bloomberg rezoned the once low-rise, industrial district, to allow taller apartment and office buildings and hotels. The move caught the wave of rising expectations for the High Line and prompted developers to stake claims.

Among 20-odd projects underway are a spaceship-like condo scheme for Related, designed by Zaha Hadid, and a Norman Foster-designed condo for Scott Resnick’s SR Capital, which will include a $40m (£25m) penthouse. Rental units are going for $5,400 a month at Related’s recently opened Abington House, at the foot of the park’s new segment running north from 30th Street.

Enormous commercial and residential projects are also coming, most notably Related’s sprawling, 26-acre Hudson Yards between 10th and 12th Avenues, where the 75-storey office tower for Coach Inc and L’Oréal is rising. Related once wanted to demolish the trestle’s northern leg, which curls around a sunken rail yard. Now, as it begins to construct a platform over the yard to support its new towers and a public park, it prominently features the High Line in its promotional material.

Land values along the park have reached the moon. Parcels which might have sold for $100/sq ft pre-rezoning have recently fetched $900/sq ft, and one site is on the market for $1,200/sq ft. The influx of capital and high-earning residents naturally prompted predictable laments over gentrification among those who preferred the area’s “authentic” desolation.

The High Line once stretched much further than its current range between Gansevoort Street and West 34th Street. Locomotives hauled freight cars laden with food and raw materials to the factories which straddled the tracks, such as the Nabisco cookie plant.

The line’s southernmost segment was demolished in the 1960s. The last train on the remaining tracks carried three carloads of frozen turkeys in 1980. The trestle soon deteriorated and the roadbed evolved into a melancholy sea of wild vegetation that seemed eerie against the backdrop of skyscrapers.

The strange, elevated wilderness captured the imagination of two young neighborhood visionaries, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, who dreamed up the idea for a park and galvanised the campaign to create it.

The finished High Line has many other parents, including private donors such as businessman Barry Diller and hedge fund king Philip A Falcone, and chief designer and landscape architect James Corner. But the true hero was the City of New York’s unpredictable, regenerative spirit, which some had given up for dead.

Steve Cuozzo is a real estate columnist and contributor at the New York Post.