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High time for a High Line?

New York has just opened a park atop an abandoned railroad trestle, showing the possibilities of parks that rise above it all and reuse urban history. Here are some ways Seattle could follow suit.
Design for part of New York's High Line

Design for part of New York's High Line Friends of the High Line

The first phase of New York City's High Line project — a high-design strolling park atop an abandoned railroad trestle on the lower West Side — has just opened. You can read about it and see some pictures in this New York Times story. It's very cool, as is this video.

The old elevated railroad used to transport cattle into a slaughterhouse district. It was closed in 1980 and slated for demolition, but a writer and a painter conceived the idea for saving it in 1999. (Imagine how long this would have taken in Seattle!) Two future phases will open later, extending the elevated park from Gansevoort St. to 34th St. Parts are along the Hudson, and many sections snake through an old industrial zone, now partly gentrified.

The idea really caught the city's imagination. The first phase is designed by James Corner Field Operations along with the top architectural firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It is full of creative touches (one stretch celebrates the wildflower garden that had seeded itself among the abandoned rails). It has sparked a lot of plans for buildings nearby, at last count 30 important projects, and the southern end will be anchored by a new Whitney Museum designed by Renzo Piano. As with Chicago's Millennium Park, big name donors such as Barry Diller and his wife Diane von Furstenburg helped raise funds for the $152 million project. You can read critic James Russell's highly favorable assessment of the design in Bloomberg News. Or this gush from New York magazine, which describes the Jack-in-the-beanstalk world of a park in the air.

Might this idea be exported? There already is a similar project in Paris, called the Promenade Plantee. And Speaker Frank Chopp's idea for a waterfront structure with a highway inside and a park on top had some elements of this idea. Then too, Seattle's new city planner, Ray Gastil, comes from New York City where he did some work on the High Line. Hmmmmm.

I can think of four possible opportunities for adapting this idea in Seattle. One is along the waterfront, extending south from Victor Steinbrueck Park, alongside and descending the bluff, and giving strollers a splendid view out over Elliott Bay. (No, I don't mean keeping the Viaduct!) Another might be around Freeway Park, with perhaps a walkway up in the trees (as at Kew Gardens in London and in Millennium Park) and perhaps along the bluff above the Freeway extending to the south, or connecting north to a possible second convention center at Convention Place. A third location could be the proposed pedestrian and bike trail between South Lake Union Park and the Olympic Sculpture Park, with Seattle Center in the middle. A fourth might be part of the new trail around Lake Union, particularly in the northwest corner near the Fremont Bridge, and where there already are lots of industrial forms and shapes.

Already, I hear the objections. Elevated structures took a beating in the battle to get rid of the Viaduct and in all the urban design objections to the Monorail. But those are large, loud examples, as opposed to pure pedestrian walkways in the air.

So think a bit about the advantages of elevated linear parks. They can provide remarkable views, often through the slots of the cityscape. They open up access to back-door and upper-level spaces. They make connections with gritty urban history. The design experience is not the usual bland blend but instead has the visual excitement and tension of green spaces set amid rusting iron forms. The Seattle aesthetic has been to make open space as green and pastoral as possible, as if blotting out the city. Time for a richer palate, a more dissonant and beautiful chord.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jun 9, 8:13 a.m. Inappropriate

David: You and many others demonized Frank Chopp for this very idea with the viaduct, and now you praise it after the uber-expensive bored tunnel that voters rejected has been dictated by "leaders" who really don't care what voters have to say. Great timing.

Posted Tue, Jun 9, 8:20 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree that it would be unwise to save the Viaduct as a linear park as it is far more valuable for movement of vehicles — and will continue as a vehicle transportation corridor for many decades to come.

But the Promenade Plantee does have something to offer by way of example -- use of the space beneath the Viaduct for shops, artists spaces, or whatever. Chopp's plan astutely incorporates that element.

And to the larger picture, David, no one (I think) with any sense of urban street dynamics and security would suggest building a new "elevated linear park." It's a Robert Moses thing -- you are dating yourself. :) The High Line (which may work -- the evidence is not in) and the Promenade Plantee are examples of "discovered spaces" and were not purpose-built. The money is (thankfully) not there for "elevated linear parks" when we don't have sidewalks throughout the city; a sense of proportion and priority, please.

Posted Tue, Jun 9, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

David Sucher got it right. Both promenades were built on abandoned railroads; both are excellent examples of historic preservation and adaptive reuse. When it comes to linear parks, we are blessed with the Burke Gilman Trail, also an abandoned railroad right of way with quite a few elevated segments. It may be that Seattle provided the model for Paris and New York, but east coast folks (yee gods, the Parisians confuse Seattle with D.C.) would never admit to that, eh?

MJH

Posted Tue, Jun 9, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

What I liked about the Choppaduct was the idea of an elevated linear park with great views of the Bay, not the transportation solution he proposed. Seems to me the idea of an elevated park, reusing some elements and building others, might find a home in Seattle. Freeway Park is already elevated in its northern portions, floating 3-4 stories over Union and Pike. And you would want to get up in the air to get across the northwest corner of Lake Union. Seattle's hilly topography is another inducement to an elevated park crossing some ravines and valleys. Any other candidates out there?

Posted Tue, Jun 9, 2:32 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with David Sucher and MJH on this. I loved the Promenade Plantee, and I've been watching progress on the High Line. That's a total of two examples. I wouldn't trust folks to replicate them. The scale of the viaduct is totally different, and any argument at reuse needs to stand on its own sinking feet.

If you're really desparate for an aerial park, maybe we could string together the green roofs of the new buildings in South Lake Union. Westlake is the bottom of a valley reaching up to Fairview and Dexter. Building height gets taller at the bottom, making a rather flat surface for the roofs. A series of bridges could link them, making a wonderful place to see the Fourth of July fireworks and a nice shortcut over to the Seattle Center from the Capitol Hill area (assuming Aurora is dealt with).

Rob K

Posted Tue, Jun 9, 3:21 p.m. Inappropriate

David asks for suggestions of other candidates. How about the Magnolia Bridge replacement project, which is partially planned, still several years from construction, and looking right now like a big lost opportunity? (See www.seattle.gov/transportation/docs/magnolia/mb_Open_house_boards_Oct07_v3.pdf)

This is a great opportunity for a great pedestrian experience and greatly improved urban connections:
1. Connects two adjacent neighborhoods (Queen Anne and Magnolia) that have lousy existing connections.
2. Leverages a necessary and inevitable vehicular transportation project to create a great pedestrian experience, with terrific views of Downtown Seattle, Mt. Rainier, Elliott Bay and West Seattle, as well as active working piers right at your feet.
3. Presents an opportunity to create an uninterrupted pedestrian route from Discovery Park, along Magnolia Blvd. across Interbay, up and over Queen Anne, and all the way to the shore of Lake Union via Galer Street, ultimately connecting to the new Lake Union Trail and South Lake Union Park. How's that for urban trail-making?

CP

Posted Tue, Jun 9, 3:22 p.m. Inappropriate

David Brewster, how can you use Freeway Park as an example to emulate?!! :)

It could have been a great place -- certainly the concept of using airspace over the freeway is to be enthusiastically lauded.

But its design -- the way the concept was realized --makes it, and I think that this is widespread opinion, a sad sad failure.

Posted Tue, Jun 9, 4 p.m. Inappropriate

Just to be clear: I in no sense advocate keeping the Viaduct! Down it goes. Further, there are more than two examples for this idea, and if you look at the High Line website, linked in the article, they have photos of three or four other examples. As for Freeway Park's design, it happens to be celebrated around the world and is a master work by America's finest landscape architect, Lawrence Halprin. Its planting plan fell into some neglect but is now being thoroughly refreshed, with advice from Halprin and guided by Iain Robertson of the U.W., a superb designer. New lighting, more daylight, and other features are dealing with some of the aspects that have made it seem dark and full of hiding places. What it needs, like most urban parks, is a sense of connection to other places; hence my suggestions for linear extensions that take advantage of its already being somewhat elevated.

Posted Tue, Jun 9, 10:34 p.m. Inappropriate

@David Brewster: I got served! Way to call me out for uncharacteristically not following links. I thought the video was on the New York Times site tho because of context.

@CP: My god! The pedestrian crossings are bad, aren't they? Dravus has walled walks on both sides, Emerson's convoluted mess is even worse for north-side-only peds, and Magnolia has a narrow sidewalk only on the south side. Don't spread that hike around too much, please. I'm doing it next month and I don't want to be knocked off the sidewalk by n00b urban hikers.

Rob K

Posted Wed, Jun 10, 4 p.m. Inappropriate

David Brewster writes "As for Freeway Park's design, it happens to be celebrated around the world and is a master work by America's finest landscape architect, Lawrence Halprin."

We must each judge Freeway Park for ourselves. Reliance on authority such as "celebrated around the world" much less the conclusory "master work by America's finest landscape architect..." avoids analyzing the issue. Judged by contemporary urbanism, which values "place-making for human interaction," Freeway Park was and is a very poor design.

Several important points to consider:

* In judging Freeway Park you need to distinguish between
1. the initial and very brilliant concept for bridging I-5 and using its airspace to re-connect two neighborhoods
versus
2. the implementation of that concept (by Halprin and his design team) which was motivated by the entirely foolish, wrong-headed and inappropriate conceit of "creating a little bit of wilderness" in the middle of a major central business district.

* You are dead-on accurate in your analysis of what is (or was) wrong with Freeway Park — the design indeed lacked of a "sense of connection to other places" i.e. the park is inward-looking and attempts to isolate itself and its users. But that lack is not accidental but stems from the initial design. The thought way back then in the 1970s was to create a park where an individual could get away from other people and the presumed annoying "hustle-bustle" of a city: hence the wilderness motif. The correct motif for such an urban park should have been one which promotes human interaction, conversation, communication — not one which further isolates people.

Maybe the recent improvements you mention have changed the character of the park and the "new Freeway Park" is entirely rethought. I would be pleased to hear that. But that doesn't change the fact that the original design implementation by Halprin's firm was deeply flawed.

Posted Wed, Jun 10, 5:10 p.m. Inappropriate

The NYT article showed no photos of the space below the elevated park. That is the other side of the coin isn't it? hard to imagine that the street below the trestle would not have benefited from its removal.

kieth

Posted Wed, Jun 10, 8:55 p.m. Inappropriate

New York City and Paris are flat as pancakes. Any elevation in those cities afford scenic vistas. Seattle has natural elevations, why would we need to create artifically what nature does so well?

2cents

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