Much greener than we thought.

Okay, first off: I haven’t been to the High Line. I know, I know. The Most Important Park of Our Time. Or at least the most important park to Ed Norton. So yeah, I hear it’s great. I would hope so. With a construction cost of around $12M per acre (that’s $275/sf, which would build you a luxury house just about anywhere outside of the city), the costs are certainly great. And like the park, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The current estimate for upkeep is in the neighborhood of $500K per acre per annum. That compares to $5K on average citywide for parks. Other recent renovations that operate under the same private/public control structure, such as Bryant Park, requires $324K. They are roughly the same size, and though the High Line is a more complex site, the variety of programming at Bryant Park pushes costs a long way as well.

Further afield, Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is currently being planned, has a construction cost in the $4.25MM per acre cost (though that seems to go up every time someone looks the budget), and a maintenance projection of $188K  per acre, based on a total yearly budget of $16MM. Like the High Line, it’s based on some unstable calculations, basing revenue on ground rents — not unlike Battery Park City, but with a salient difference that BPC ground rents are based on existing, complete buildings, whereas the only potential income producing property for Brooklyn right now is looking mighty shaky.

The High Line didn’t even have that sort overly optimistic source of funding. The city has committed a $1MM (which is a solid $165K an acre), and the proposed BID, which has plenty of people pissed and was not even part of the original plan, would only generate equal the city’s end, leaving a half-filled hole. In year one.

Where was the planning for this? When you put up drawings with carazy plantings, outdoor film screenings need a bouncer for crowd control, one would think someone at least took a gander at how much plant food would be needed. And have you seen those benches? Ipe wood can be 40% more than cedar. Though it lasts longer, the issue is the wear and tear of New York and its eager masses of street artists, malcontents and other near vandals can short circuit long-term cost considerations.

Is it fair to be so churlish, or at least small minded, about cost, in the face of such a civic triumph? That’s a little sarcastic, surely, because it is an example of incredible effort and impressive design. I can’t say great design, because I haven’t been there, and because one of the qualification is not just the parade, but the clean up. And someone really didn’t plan well for the clean up. You can castigate the Brooklyn Bridge Park people for having eyes bigger than their stomach, but at least they measured pretty carefully.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the Diller, Scofidio & Renfro submission. Steven Holl, even back in the go-go days of 2004, was skeptical of the long-term prospect and costs. DS&R, with sexy renderings that better reflected the boundless delusion of everyone on the far west side, won in a walk. Probably worked better having exciting drawings and excitable architects when raising money. Holl, with all his experience, a whiff of cynicism about New York and civic development (and perhaps of cresting the hill of real estate nirvana) wasn’t the standard bearer you would design for such a situation.

I don’t know that it’s fair to say park development is experiencing an unprecedented ‘renaissance’. Like most capital improvements, as the city pulled out from the black hole that was the 70’s and got back on track with subway stations, streets and the like, parks certainly came along for the ride. One of the inadvertent benefits of the long gap in development was the Westway lawsuit which, even as it may have been an excellent plan — one can never really be sure if the best parts of a plan are embraced, as evidenced by the WTC development — it cemented environmental opposition and provided the organizing framework that birthed the greening of the waterfront movement that resulted in the Hudson River Park.

Over the past twenty years we’ve been the beneficiaries of two parallel developments: original compelling park spaces, and rather expensive park spaces. One certainly goes hand in hand with the other. And the results are impressive, as a design experience and a park user. But this increasing complexity comes at very real costs. And even though our per capita spending on parks lags compared to some other large cities, we have been offloading those costs to potentially conflict-laden deals. Witness the number of weeks a year you can’t get into Bryant Park, or the ‘controlled’ access to the High Line. As we come to expect more of our parks — more discrete programmed spaces, more exceptional visuals — the logic of private funding will be more intractable. This is not entirely a consequence of constituent demand. The renovation of Washington Square Park was hotly contested by many residents, near and far, most of whom seemed to embrace the notion of Park As It Was. The ‘improvements’ were largely cosmetic and served a set of interests that were considerably narrower than the vast melting pot we typically associate with a bustling metropolis.

People who are experienced with getting things done in the city are understandably skeptical of start simple and make better. Public projects like the Second Avenue subway and private ones like the Hearst Tower can take decades.

And maybe that is okay. Cities can take centuries to build. Instead of rushing into obligations that are difficult and expensive to unwind (Port Authority anyone?), modesty might be the best policy. As much as we — well some of us — stand in admiration of the accomplishment that the High Line is, not nearly as many are standing to ensure its longevity. When the very real spectre of admission fees may loom just weeks after the unveiling, it’s not hard to argue the plan as it lies is not only not a long-term model, it may not be a short-term one either.

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