Ain’t no platform high enough.

I’m glad so much energy is being put into saving the high line. Even though it has little historical relevance to anything currently in the city, it serves as a cosmic thread knitting together the idealized vision of high art, high commerce and really fucking high real estate values. Plus it served briefly as the touchstone for white middle-class photo blogger urban adventuring. I can imagine the likes of Jason Kottke and Jake Dobkin wiping a poignant eye at some future SoHo Apple Store conference as they talk about the good old days. An aspiring media studies NYU student asks one of them about the odd doorway in the corner of one of their photos. “That, oh, that’s the entrance to Comme des Garçons; they opened a couple years before I moved to the city.” So, yeah, I want to get to one of those Highline Ballroom fund raisers toot sweet.

The city, via the MTA, is doing their part, by mandating the recent round of dissimulation on the Hudson Yards try really hard to preserve the last mile, which bends west and then circles around the western edge of the site. That will satisfy the hordes of people who want an uninterrupted — once you get around the movie screen, pool, and leaping clip art figures envisioned by Diller Scofido + The Other Guy — from the Spice Market to, um, the Javits Center (now looking to expand by re-roofing the place for $800 million).

But I didn’t start this post to carp about the facile just-add-water historicism that has pervaded the real estate development that is the High Line. And I didn’t want to spend any time at all on the Hudson Yards submissions because they aren’t legally binding, and I can’t imagine that a single person in Manhattan believes that any portion that even looks remotely interesting will be actually built (if Gary Extell was really cool, instead of sliding in with the high design spoiler option, he should just hire Scarano and Kondylis to do his proposals — a “going to war with the army you have” gambit), or to attack the shortsightedness of the entire conceit, the potential problems with a 7 line extension without other key transit improvements, or the fact that we are saddled with this cluster fuck because Pataki completely de-funded the state’s portion of capital improvements for the MTA, forcing them into hopeless debt and questionable fiscal decisions such as selling assets for one-time gains. No, I’m going to skip all that and talk about flatness.

Unless you run or ride in Manhattan, you can be forgiven for not noticing how drastically elevation changes occur. The reclamation of large areas of land (Turtle and Kips Bay, Alphabet City and Battery Park City) also adds to the myth of flatness. But in areas where natural landscape is reasonably close to its unadorned state, you encounter what might be expected from any pile of rock: the landscape drops steeply and quickly to the water’s edge.

There’s nothing wrong with this: it creates interesting vistas, and, assuming rational zoning, even helps with views and light — though in most cases the 15-20 feet differential isn’t that substantial — except at ground level, where vertical circulation is most evident, and often creates memorable vistas. The slight incline up Broad approaching Wall Street give a subtle monumentality (well, before the guns and fences distracted); as you head uptown, the changes are more drastic, as are the resulting views. Coming upon St John’s from the park side, at night, with looming darkened towers helps one truly understand why Gothic majesty persisted for so long as the go-to style for institutional might.

All this wondrous variation is the enemy of developers everywhere. Flat land is so… efficient. Cheap. Regular. Repetitive. Banal. So every time the city tries to jump start development and hands over the keys to the charlatan cabal that dutifully turns up (Related, Brookfield, Vornado, ad nauseum), the part of the solution that is hardest to parse is what happens on the ground.

There are many reasons for this: developers are trying to minimize promises of urban amenity (read: parks and plazas that must be maintained), while also shading just how much retail and advertising it to come (read: lots). In a couple cases it also helps paper over the difficult gap between concept and execution, often summarized in the distance, top to bottom, from one end of an idea to another.

At the WTC site, it’s about twenty feet east to west. The Hudson Yards gap is even larger, and even if the flat earth crew got creative, there’s only so much to be done, since the first thing they have to do is build a platform. A developer’s dream yes? Sort of; it seems that this might even be a parking lot a developer can’t love. That’s because some estimates put the gap at the west end (the part that is supposed to, you know, connect with that park — or garbage transfer station, if Andrew Berman gets his way) at over thirty feet.

And that’s not just the western edge. That’s a sheer wall that will run along 34th street as well. There is little hope for street level anything, since the other side of this wall will be the rail yard. It will top out higher than much of Javits (some previous plans for expansion included a second floor, but were scrapped for cost reasons). It will isolate the project from just about every direction, and it will look like nothing other than every bad large scale attempt as ‘revitalization’ from Albany to La Defense.
Take a look at this rendering. See that little squib dancing across the gap in the distance? That’s the “High” Line, below the horizon of the public space of the Brookfield proposal. That’s what developers are expected to spend an extra $130 million on: so the High Line can circle a big lawn straddled by even bigger towers festooned with the latest Karim Rashin gimcrackery. So, yeah, the Steven Holll renderings look sorta cool, if I ignore the fact that the massing is on the south side of the site, the most interesting feature, a monolithic low rise, would never get built without retail intrusion, and the entire thing will stand head and shoulders over the west side — in the worst way possible.

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