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September 17th, 2010
Profiles from the Recession
[VIDEO] High Times: In downturn, building parks for economic stability

Last week, the Trust for Public Land issued its annual report on urban parks, which found that, in spite of the recession, cities across the country are building new ones. They are investing in green space.

In partnership with Blueprint America, Need to Know’s Alison Stewart reports from New York, where they’ll make a park out of just about anything: a garbage dump, a parking lot — even an old elevated rail line.

the full
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Producer Fae Moore and editor David Kreger for Blueprint America

CORRECTION: The full cost of building the High Line was $153 million, not $220 million as cited in this piece.

Before the weather cools off here on the east coast, we thought we would stop and take a minute to talk about parks. Last week the Trust for Public Land issued its annual report on urban parks. And it found that in spite of the recession, cities across the country are building new ones, they are investing in green space. Here in New York they’ll make a park out of anything — a garbage dump, a parking lot, even all the way up here …on an old elevated rail line.

Cities are tough to live in. And, I think parks make cities livable. It’s good for economy of cities. It’s good for businesses around it.

I don’t think there’s ever been a case where people have looked back and said, “Wow, you know,
our forefathers invested too much money in parks.”

Meet Robert Hammond, one of New York’s biggest park enthusiasts. Hammond recently showed me around the High Line, a narrow band of gardens and pathways atop an old train trestle. It runs for a mile and a half along New York’s west side.

Opened just over a year ago, it’s one of the city’s latest and hottest public parks…with three million visitors so far, it’s defied all expectations.

I was not crazy about the idea, I kind of thought it was a waste of money and they should take it down. I have been proved wrong.

This is exactly what you hope that cities will do.

There’s the cute benches that you can sit on and people can take naps.

You just don’t expect to see a place that’s so rich and textural and… it’s just beautiful.

We opened right in the middle of, you know, the biggest economic downturn in my life. And, you know, I think the good thing is it made people more excited about the High Line, because it was a year there wasn’t a lot of good news.

The park, which is only half-completed has been 11 long years in the making. From the minute he heard about the city’s plan to demolish the abandoned train line, Hammond knew he wanted to save it. It was a relic of the city’s industrial past, when trains carted loads of food products to the heart of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

When you came up and looked at this stretch, when it was just tracks and overgrown plants and graffiti, how did you see that it could be a park?

At first I fell in love with it from the street. I love the steel structure, the rivets you could see, these giant I-beams. You know, it just felt like industrial New York. Then when I first came up here, it was wild flowers. You know, there was a mile and a half of wild flowers with views of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Hudson River.

Back then Hammond was a young businessman, riding the dot com wave…with zero background in fundraising, or park building, Hammond and a neighbor, Joshua David, started up a non profit organization called Friends of the High Line.

And, you know, it was 1999. And I have to give the Internet bubble some credit for the High Line because it was also at a time where someone who was 29 could imagine starting a project with no experience.

What was the argument for tearing down this High Line at that time,

‘Cause it hadn’t been used in you know, 20 years at that point and, you know, to me, it sounded so romantic. Oh, a train running through your neighborhood.

But, when you started talking to some of the residents, it wasn’t that romantic. They didn’t live on the wrong side of the tracks, they lived under the tracks. And so to a lot of them, it was a symbol that they lived in an undesirable neighborhood.

In typical New York fashion, people from all walks of life live along the old stretch of tracks. But back then the area at the southern end of the High Line, known as the Meatpacking District, was rapidly gentrifiying.

You know, the art galleries had already taken root. Small business owners had already started coming into the Meatpacking, a few restaurants

Friends of the High Line set out to convince land owners and developers that a park would not only increase property values, but improve the quality of life all along the tracks.

They cultivated donors with deep pockets. Diane Von Furstenberg, whose design studio sits at the foot of the park, was a big contributor. A raft of celebrities like Ed Norton and Kevin Bacon lent their star power to the cause. And an international design team created a unique garden in the sky.

I think a really important turning point was when the city really got behind this. We had the City Council, and Mayor Bloomberg. When they really got behind the project, that’s when I think, you know, that’s what really helped make it happen.

It hasn’t been cheap. The price tag for part one of the High Line was $153 million dollars…and even though some complained it was too expensive, New York City taxpayers contributed $112 million of that. But New Yorkers are not the only ones investing in park projects. This is a national trend.

In Atlanta, twenty-two miles of abandoned rail tracks will become a park and transit system….in Philadelphia an old viaduct could some day be home joggers and bikers…and in Chicago another defunct rail line is being transformed into public space. There are parks planned for St. Louis, Memphis, Dallas, Cincinnati and LA.

With thousands of acres and millions of dollars being spent in just about every major city, some are calling this the golden age of urban park development.

How do you promote investment in parks, when cities are having a hard time coming up the money to keep the streets clean, and to keep the sewers running, and everything else, all the infrastructure that just makes your basic, everyday things you have to do. Parks are a luxury, in a way.

I don’t think parks are a luxury. You know, we did an economic impact study back in 2003 that showed that the benefit to the City of New York, through incremental tax revenues over a twenty year period would be greater than the cost of building it, even though the city wasn’t responsible for all of the costs of building it.

So, we’ve always thought, and I think it’s been true beyond our wildest dreams, that this is a good economic generator for the city.

The evidence is everywhere — luxury apartment complexes designed by superstar architects are sprouting up alongside the park. A stone’s throw away, the Whitney Museum is building a new branch. There’s a luxury hotel, new clubs, and shops.

The high line has been incredible for our business, really. It has done so much.

Vicki Freeman and her husband own the Cookshop, a bustling restaurant just steps away from the High Line.

We serve at 4:00 in the afternoon, we serve breakfast. We serve– you know, I mean, it– every different time slot. And there’s someone here all the time now because they come from the High Line.

But not all residents and business owners are pleased by the rapid gentrification of the neighborhood.

My days are numbered. You know, I’m at the end of a second 11 year lease.

Melva Max owns the French bistro La Luncheonette….a neighborhood staple that’s been a fixture around here for nearly 22 years. She worries that her rent will skyrocket after her lease expires next year.

Is the catch 22 of the High Line is, it’s beautiful, it’s great to look at. But it really is changing who can afford to live in the neighborhood?

Exactly. The real estate has become more valuable. So people whose rents have, you know, expired and whose leases have expired in the last year or two have been either forced to move or they’ve been confronted with, you know, a very large increase in their rent.

What do you say to those people who are really concerned the High Line has made this area all about wine and cheese and fabulous hotels?

The High Line gets too much credit of the good and the bad for the changes going through here. You know, this neighborhood was going to change. And, you know, what I think is important to also remember is, you have two big areas of low and middle income housing that aren’t going away.

So, this is always going to be a really mixed income neighborhood. And, you know, the High Line is for everyone. The High Line is free.

Well, sort of. Next spring another 10 block section of the high line is scheduled to open to the public… by the time it’s completed the project will have cost close to $220 million dollars.

It’s the cities that I think invest in hard times, you know, that can thrive afterwards. …. I think it enables cities to recover quicker.


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