High Line Park Spurs Remaking Of Formerly Grotty Chelsea

The mission of the High Line, the future park that will rest on an elevated train platform slicing across 22

The mission of the High Line, the future park that will rest on an elevated train platform slicing across 22 Manhattan blocks, is to slow down. The park’s designers want the experience of it to be meditative, a break from hustling urban life.

But just beyond its limits—which stretch only as wide as the skinny platform, at 30 to 60 feet—there is a frenzied contrast. Up and down the High Line’s mile-and-a-half stretch, dozens of sites are readying for construction.

At least 27 projects—mostly luxury condos and hotels—are in various stages of development: Some are being constructed, others have just broken ground, and a few are in the design stages. And many more are expected.

All of the projects will have an intimate relationship with the park: Some buildings will have private access points that lead to walkways into the park; three will actually have the High Line tucked inside the buildings; many will loom over the park, with high-end retailers serving as a backdrop; and all will be capitalizing on a rare chance to develop directly next to—or, in some cases, within—Manhattan’s newest public park.

“I think it’s remarkable,” said Andre Balazs, whose two developments both have the High Line running through them. “It’s like having a building in Central Park.”

Many of the planned buildings include a ridiculously well-muscled list of architects: Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano and Annabelle Selldorf, just to name a few. The formerly hardscrabble part of West Chelsea, already on its way out, will soon be no more.

“Every parking lot and every derelict building in that neighborhood will be redeveloped,” said Ron Solarz, a broker at Eastern Consolidated, which is representing at least three sites in the area. “It will be all hotels, condos, rentals and restaurants with super-high-level users.”

But what will it mean when it’s all added up? The architects, the developers and, ultimately, the new dwellers have the chance to influence something so routine, yet so hard to achieve in New York: reorienting the identity of a neighborhood.

And who exactly are these people clamoring to move into the new West Chelsea?

ON MARCH 22, A NEW LUXURY CONDO named the Chelsea Modern, located on 18th Street off 10th Avenue, held a launch party. Prices for each of the 47 condos starts at $1 million. The party’s high-wattage attendees included Ivanka Trump, Spanish supermodel Eugenia Silva, and socialites Emma Snowdon Jones and Tracy Stern.

Matthew Betmaleck, a 39-year-old who owns his own fashion-photography company, spent $1.25 million on his unit in the building. He said the building’s proximity to the High Line is why he bought in.

“It’s Manhattan, so outdoor space is at a prime,” he said, wearing glasses with a Club Monaco scarf wrapped around his blazer. “If you live on the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side, Central Park is at your front door. Right now, I live on Bank and Washington, so I go to the West Side Highway all the time for rides or to walk my dog, and I think it’ll be the same thing at the High Line. It’ll be a destination, and people will come and check it out and say, ‘Wow! What’s that? I wanna see it.’ But I think ultimately the people who live here will be the people who use it.”

Greg Casto, a 26-year-old working in public relations, hopes to move into one of these shiny new condos when he can afford it. That’s because West Chelsea defines what Chelsea means to him already.

“Chelsea is becoming a very focused, very smart community,” he said. “That’s what you’re seeing here—not only in living arrangements, but in shops and restaurants, too. Everything that is around Chelsea is becoming very sexy and very sophisticated. And that’s the key message everyone is bringing to Chelsea: smart and sexy.”

He said he’s lived in New York for nine months.

The High Line streaks from Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district to 34th Street. The entire train platform, which is made out of a very 1930’s combo of steel and reinforced concrete, will become a park, except for the portion between 30th and 34th streets that’s shaped like a sideways J—the city is still figuring out what to do with that section.

The park is scheduled to open in the summer of 2008, with a projected cost of $165 million. The city has raised $85 million, the federal government has given $22 million, and private funding has raised more than $17 million. The Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit arm that has pushed this project forward, has launched a campaign to raise an additional $40 million.

“I’m very excited about the project,” Congressman Jerry Nadler told The Observer. He took a tour of the High Line in 2005 with Senator Hillary Clinton and City Councilwoman (now Speaker) Christine Quinn to boost support for its redesign. “It certainly says something about the power of the West Side.”

The park, designed by Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, is unique in that it will be open around the same time as the dozens of luxury developments skirting it.

IT’S THIS LUXURY, WHICH LITERALLY OVERSHADOWS a park birthed through hefty public support, that raises the question: Will the High Line become a stylized playground for the rich only?

The Friends of the High Line loudly say no.

“We care passionately about this being a place for all people in the neighborhood and all New Yorkers,” said Joshua David, who co-founded Friends of the High Line in 1999. “And if there are some expensive buildings in the High Line neighborhood, then that’s true of neighborhoods throughout Manhattan. But this remains an incredibly diverse neighborhood, and we’re committed to its diversity.”

At the least, the people who move into these condos will have a comfy lifestyle. Mr. Balazs’ 14th Street High Line Building, for instance, will actually include the High Line, even though the Parks Department will still manage the part that’s inside. Mr. Balazs described the 15-story property as a “private club” that will be for “members only,” who will buy into the building and rent out rooms as a hotel.

According to one source, the High Line Building may also ask the city for a private entrance from the building that leads to a passage to the park—in essence, a direct passage from the building to the park itself. Connection to the park, said developer Charles Bendit, will be a main selling point for all landlords who can get access to it.

“It’s like living two houses off Central Park, and you have access to the park right around the corner,” he said. “You will have the same benefit here.”

Several more developers are expected to make a request for this sort of private entrance once their buildings come closer to completion, the source said.

The one building that has made the request is the Caledonia, which is owned by Mr. Bendit’s Taconic Investment Partners and mega-developer the Related Companies. The tower’s approximately 185 luxury condos are sold out, Mr. Bendit said. The building has already signed Equinox, which will have a second-floor view that will overlook the High Line.

Mr. Bendit said he expects other developers to follow suit—to bring in high-end retailers to overlook the High Line from their second- or third-story windows. Even if there aren’t direct connections to the stores themselves, if a person strolling in the park has a wandering eye for the Bed Bath & Beyond right next-door, then he can shuffle down the High Line’s stairs and buy that shower curtain he always wanted at a moment’s notice.

Naturally, the marketing machines are already moving with a swift pace. High Line 519, a condo being constructed on 23rd Street, markets its units as a “fusion of contemporary architecture, European opulence and raw Chelsea charm.”

But what exactly is “raw Chelsea charm”? Does it recall the authenticity of Chelsea and the meatpacking district in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when S&M and gay leather bars like the Eagle, the Mineshaft and the Lure pervaded the area? Or is it the gritty urban setting that’s currently in its last throes?

Whatever the appeal, it’s now being smoothed over with that burnished architecture. The New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff recently called Mr. Gehry’s development, between 18th and 19th streets near the High Line, a strong—if safe—project and lavishly praised a stairwell in the building, saying it might be the city’s best.

Indeed, it’s projects like Mr. Gehry’s that make for few, if any, detractors of the re-imagined West Chelsea. Even classic naysayers for most projects, like Florent Morellet, the owner of the meatpacking mainstay diner Florent, approve of it.

“I believe the change is positive,” he said. “You have to live with change. When I took over the restaurant, there were people who moved in the neighborhood in the 1970’s, and people said, ‘That’s it. It’s gentrification; it’s over.’ Then more moved in during the 80’s, and they thought it was the end, and the same in the 90’s. Every month, someone says to me the neighborhood is finished.”

So with a new element about to wind its way through the area, there’s naturally one thing to do: plan a big party. Even though the High Line is more than a year away from opening, tickets are on sale on March 30 for the official H&M-sponsored High Line Festival to help raise additional funds for Friends of the High Line. The party will be in May, though it won’t take place on the High Line, since it’s still illegal to enter it. But that’s beside the point.

For a project and an area that places such a premium on famous luminaries like Mr. Gehry and Mr. Nouvel, this event fits the bill. The famous gay party planner, Josh Wood, and Broadway producer David Binder are organizing it. David Bowie will curate the festival. High-profile artists like Laurie Anderson and Arcade Fire are among those that will perform.

Of course, the H&M-sponsored event, which will also get some sponsorship help from Garnier, Jet Blue and Grolsch, looks a lot like the High Line and all the developments around it—a little edgy, but something that is definitely established.

Mark Wellborn contributed reporting to this story.
High Line Park Spurs Remaking Of Formerly Grotty Chelsea