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.
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Design for part of New York's 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.

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.


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