Could New York's High Line translate to Seattle?

A visit to the celebrated elevated park, converted from an abandoned railroad trestle. The High Line's architect has just been selected to lead the design team for Seattle's waterfront park.

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Design for part of New York's High Line

A visit to the celebrated elevated park, converted from an abandoned railroad trestle. The High Line's architect has just been selected to lead the design team for Seattle's waterfront park.

Last week, on a visit to New York, I had a chance to walk the High Line in lower Manhattan. I had a hunch that its architect, James Corner, might turn out to be the choice for Seattle's waterfront park (as happened), so I went for a look-see.

It was a splendid, sunny Tuesday afternoon, right after lunch hour. I began at the north end of the park, at 10th Ave. and W. 20th St. This is actually just the northern terminus of phase 1 of the park, the first eight blocks (down to W. 12th St.). You walk up a flight of metal stairs and emerge on top of an old railroad trestle that used to carry livestock to the various meat-processing plants in this part of town, just south of the hip galleries of Chelsea. There are two tracks on the meandering trestle, with one of them somewhat exposed and with wildflowers growing through the ties and rails. The other track is mostly covered with plank-like concrete material, weaving through the vegetation and other attractions, feathering the plank edges into the wild grasses.

The linear park is quite narrow, except for one part (pictured) where it side-steps to a different alley, but it is still able to handle a sizeable crowd out for a stroll. It's surprisingly quiet up in the air, even though only 30 feet above the sirens and traffic, and great for conversation. Here and there are benches and (too few) tables, but very limited concessions for food. In one wide stretch, there is a small outdoor stage. The structure cuts through some enormous old brick buildings, and they afford opportunities for some excellent public art. One gorgeous work by Spencer Finch at the Chelsea Market building sets hundreds of small panes of glass in the different pixel colors of water; another by Spencer Finch is a soundscape that plays recorded sounds of bells all around the city. Some other art work is below and off to the side of the structure, inviting the eye out to the fairly rugged cityscape alongside. The canny selection of public art by architect Corner bodes well for the Seattle park.

From time to time there is a splendid view of the Hudson River. In the best stretch of views, there are concrete chaise-lounges, mounted on the rails so you can pull them together for romantic snuggling. Every one was occupied with couples soaking up the late-summer sun.

My sister, an artist, who accompanied me on this stroll really loved the High Line, especially the way it embraced the dark steel structures of industrial New York, recalling the old "ash can school" of painting. The wild grasses are mostly those that had sprung up naturally in the long years when the old trestles sat unused. They didn't provide much color at this time of year, and I might have liked more flowers and groves of trees. Still, I admire the unfussiness and limited palette of the design and plantings; they don't upstage the views.

In time, the elevated park is expected to stimulate nearby development. One modern hotel has been built, looming over the viaduct, and museums talk about nestling under and around the project. I had expected more connection with existing buildings, opening up a new streetscape at the third floor, but there's only one building close enough for that so far. One stretch of several blocks was lined with hip clothing stores down at the street level, an indication that the blighting effect of the gritty structure is fading away.

So far, the gentrifying is not extensive. There are still some meat packing plants, with trucks in their parking lots awaiting orders from fancy restaurants. The views from above give a glimpse into historic New York's muscular buildings and earthy workforce. But I doubt that working remnant will resist the influx of tourists and rising rents for long.

It's tempting to think of some of this excitement coming to Seattle, with the new design team. But the parallels are slight. Our grimy old Viaduct will be coming down, so the views from above and out to the water will not be available. (Might it make sense to keep some of the structure, free of cars, for an elevated park?) Nor is our old waterfront/railyard/warehouse district really functioning that way anymore, though it retains several plain buildings of that era. The railroad that cuts through the Olympic Sculpture Park, creating an effect somewhat like the High Line, doesn't rumble through the central waterfront any more. So recreating a clash-culture mix of vegetation and industrial grit, the secret to the High Line's aesthetic, would seem too forced in Seattle.


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