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Enemies of the High Line

Despite not being the first example of infrastructural adaptive reuse, the High Line in New York has certainly kickstarted an urban trend. Cities all around the world now want their own “version of the High Line.”

Philly is working on a new “rail park.” I toured the space last summer and it’s very similar to the High Line in terms of existing infrastructure. Rome and Toronto are both working on “under” spaces, which are beneath an old viaduct and elevated expressway, respectively. And the list goes on.

But I think it’s worth remembering just how contentious the High Line was before it was built. For some people it was just an eyesore and a public safety hazard. Here’s a excerpt from a New York Times article dated 2002:

“This is a terrific win for us,” said Michael Lefkowitz, a lawyer for Edison Properties, one of 19 businesses that own land beneath the High Line.

Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said an agreement to share the $11 million cost of dismantling the High Line was being circulated among the property owners and the rail bed’s owner, CSX, of Richmond, Va. “It’s about eliminating a public safety hazard,” Ms. Patterson said, “but it’s also about enabling the city to move forward and better develop the area.”

It’s also worth mentioning that former Mayor Giuliani supposedly favored demolition of the High Line. Former Mayor Bloomberg, however, did not:

…Mr. Bloomberg said: "Today, on the West Side of Manhattan, we have an opportunity to create a great new public promenade on top of an out-of-use elevated rail viaduct called the High Line. This would provide much-needed green space for residents and visitors, and it would attract new businesses and residents, strengthening our economy. We know it can work … . I look forward to working with Friends of the High Line and other interested parties to develop a feasible reuse scenario.”

The challenge with these sorts of things – that is, new ideas – is that we live in a world of proof and precedents. We want to see that it has been successfully done before, because, otherwise, we might be wrong. So now that New York has shown what is possible, it has cleared the way for other cities.

Rethinking old infrastructure is a sound urban strategy. But we also shouldn’t forget that it’s less valuable to be right about something that every other city already believes to be true. The real value is created when you’re right about something that most other cities don’t yet believe.

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