Part 4: Salvation

The High Line didn’t appear out of thin air, but thin air played a role in its development. For decades, the High Line had been seen as an ugly obstacle to neighborhood redevelopment. Comprehensive rezoning of the area and provisions to allow the transfer of development rights turned the structure into an asset.

People who owned property under the High Line had the legal right to build a building 10 stories, but the steel structure made that impossible. The transfer of development rights allows such property owners to sell the rights to build higher to neighboring landowners — spinning value out of thin air.

The swearing-in of Michael Bloomberg as the 108th mayor of New York City in 2002 tilted the politics in favor of preserving and redeveloping the High Line and in 2005, the city and CSX entered into a Trail Use Agreement for the High Line. CSX donated the High Line south of West 30th Street to the City of New York.

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Improbable Journey: The story of New York’s High Line



S1: We were invited to visit an earlier administration in the city of New York and I had the opportunity of meeting with the Deputy Mayor, who told us as we walked in the door that our High Line was the biggest blight in the city of New York.

S2: We really didn't own land; we owned rights, property rights, but they were in the air; we own an aerial easement. We own a concrete and steel structure but it overrides other properties owned by other people, whose ability to develop their property in the future, is severely impacted by the fact that it has this big railroad structure over it.

S1: A group of property owners came to City Hall wheeling a cart, on which there was a big chunk of concrete that had fallen from the High Line onto somebody's property and this was how they made their case, for why the city had to tear down the High Line, as soon as possible. Because in their view, it was a threat to health and safety of people in the area.

S2: The city during the years from the 80's to the 90's, agreed with the property owners. They also felt there was no opportunity for development of the High Line and that it was a blight, and they were really looking to get this part of the city developed.

S3: The Meat Packing District and West Chelsea were already beginning to transform. There were galleries coming in, more restaurants. The previous administration looked at the High Line as something that, if it came down, we could just really redevelop the neighborhood.

S1: Here you have this neighborhood that's so close to so many other prime parts of Manhattan...

Announcer: The weiners are packed in carton.

S1: ... yet the zoning still proscribed largely manufacturing uses, that had left the city decades ago, and it wasn't coming back.

S2: There are people who have the right to feel the other way about it.

S1: It got to the point, wherein the final days of the Guiliani administration, papers were signed that would have committed the city to participating in a demolition agreement for the High Line.

S2: There was a real turning point in the city's policy towards the High Line, in the 2001-2002 time frame and it's really attributable to one simple reason, the change in the mayoral administration.

S1: The High Line's a good idea. We don't have anything like it in this city.

S2: The Bloomberg administration understood the visions that the Friends had for the reuse of the Line, as well as our desires, for the use of the Line as a public park.

S1: Coincident with the redevelopment of the High Line, there was a city policy to encourage the redevelopment of the entire neighborhood and that required a rezoning. But how do we figure out how to use the city's interest in up-zoning, with the communities interest in preserving this immediate area, and the interest in preserving the High Line itself as a park and combining those things, using a tool called the Transfer of Development Rights or TDR's, as they're known.

S2: For example, assume that a property owner whose property isn't cumbered by the High Line, has the legal right to build a six-story building, but because of the High Line can really only build a one-story building. We created the right for the adjacent property owner to theoretically, build a ten-story building but only gave them the air rights to enable them to build a five-story building. How could they build a ten-story building? They had to purchase five stories from the property owner, whose site lay underneath the High Line.

S1: At that point, everybody was able to come together over the next couple of years, on an agreement where the underlying property owners would be able to get the benefit of these transferred development rights.Where the railroad would be indemnified for any liabilities, with the city getting the ability to zone the way it wanted to zone, and the Friends being able to preserve the Line in its entirety.