The High Line has become one of Manhattan’s most popular attractions, offering a unique opportunity to travel above the hub-bub of our city streets and gain a unique perspective on the surrounding cityscape.
GVSHP was an early supporter of the effort to preserve the former elevated freight rail line and turn it into a public park. One of the most frequent comments we hear about walking the High Line’s one-mile length is how much the experience changes, going from the hemmed in walkway at its northern end, where new construction and old warehouses closely surround the park and keep views and light narrow and limited, to the southern end, where the High Line is bathed in sunlight and afforded broad views across the low-rise Meatpacking District to the east and to the Hudson River to the west.
But thanks to several actions on the part of the City, that’s all about to change. The southern end of the High Line will soon transform dramatically, as what are now some of the most open and exposed parts of the park will be surrounded on all sides by large new developments.
The changes will be particularly dramatic between 13th and 14th Streets, between the Standard Hotel and the “High Line” building at 450 West 14th Street. Right now this is one of the more unusual parts of the High Line park because to both the north and south you have large buildings which span, cover, and rise directly over the park (the only other place where the High Line is covered by a building is between 15th and 16th Streets, where it goes through the corner of the Chelsea Market building).
While these two tall structures restrict the view from the park to the north and the south, the views to the east and west, across low-rise buildings to the rest of the landmarked Meatpacking District and Greenwich Village to the east and Hudson River park to the west, are wide open. This makes this section of the High Line, in spite of the unusual incursion of these two buildings to its north and south, feel like one of the most open sections of the park.
Soon this will no longer be the case. Directly to the east of the High Line at 437 West 13th Street work is set to begin upon a 175 ft. tall, glass-walled office tower which will seal off views from this section of the High Line to the east. To the west, a developer is seeking to build a 199 ft. tall glass tower extending the entire length of the 13th to 14th Street block, which will eliminate much of the view of the river and sky above. In fact, in the not-too-distant future, standing between 13th Street and 14th Street on the High Line, one will be surrounded on all four sides by glass and concrete high-rises, extending between 175 and 233 feet in the air.
This is not, however, a simple case of “things change.” The size of these buildings, and the fact that they can even be built upon these sites, is very much the result of particular decisions made by the City.
In the early 2000’s, none of the four above-mentioned buildings had been built, and all four sites were occupied by historic Meatpacking plants, much like the rest of the Meatpacking District. It was around this time that GVSHP proposed and fought for the Gansevoort Market Historic District, which stretched from Chelsea Market in the north to Gansevoort and Horatio Streets on the south, from West Street to Hudson Street, and included all these sites. While New York State accepted our entire proposal and approved a Gansevoort Market State and National Register Historic District which included all these sites, the City cut out these four sites in question from the historic district they designated, specifically excluding any building which touched, or was located to the west of, the High Line.
The decision to exclude these sites was not because, by some coincidence, all those buildings were of inferior quality or lesser historic significance than those to the east which the City did designate. In fact, the buildings in question were some of the most prototypical, and in some cases some of the oldest, meatpacking buildings in the entire district.
While inclusion in the State and National Register Historic Districts provided incentives for preserving these buildings, City landmark designation would have required Landmarks Preservation Commission approval for changes to any of these sites, likely resulting in the preservation (possibly with modest additions) of the historic buildings. If they were approved for demolition, it would have required design control over their replacements, and contextual designs to fit in with the historic surroundings.
The City chose not to do this, offering developers a free hand in demolishing and redeveloping these sites. After two attempts to build a 450 ft. tall tower on the site which GVSHP blocked, in 2004 developers knocked down the 1933 Swift Meats building at 848 Washington Street (part of the history-making Swift Meats empire), which was eventually replaced with the Standard Hotel in 2009. In 2011 the 11-story “High Line Building” was added atop the 4-story 1932 New York Central Building at 450 West 14th Street, which was originally erected in conjunction with the construction of the High Line.
The 1936 Atlas Meats building at 437 west 14th Street was recently demolished, but here the owners were not content to simply knock down the historic building and construct a newer, larger one. They applied for a zoning variance, claiming that the presence of the High Line on a portion of their lot created a “financial hardship,” and asked for permission to build 67% larger than the zoning allowed. GVSHP fought the variance, and while it was ultimately reduced considerably, the City’s Board of Standards and Appeals still granted them a variance to build 24% larger than the zoning allowed. So the City not only let them demolish a historic building of the sort which they had deemed historically significant and therefore worthy of preservation elsewhere in the neighborhood, but they let them build a larger replacement than would otherwise have been legally allowed.
Lastly, at 40-56 10th Avenue, the owner is currently seeking a similar hardship finding and variance based upon familiar-sounding claims regarding the presence of the High Line, asking for permission to build 34% larger than the zoning allows. The site has been cleared of several buildings, some of which had been built as early as the 1840’s, but which had been damaged by fire and many years of neglect. GVSHP is also fighting this variance, which is yet to be heard by the City’s Board of Standards and Appeals.
The outcome of the variance application will determine how much, if at all, larger the new building will be than the zoning allows. But thanks to the excision of this area from the Gansevoort Market Historic District by the City, there will undoubtedly be some sort of new building on the site, and the zoning will allow it to be more than large enough to completely block off views to the west from the High Line.
So if you like the openness you can now experience at the southern end of the High Line, enjoy it while you can. It won’t be around much longer.