It started in the 1990s when the decommissioned industrial feature — a former New York Central Railroad spur line — faced demolition, something many considered a good idea. After all, who wants a 10-metre-high train track running through the fast-gentrifying city?
But long after it outlived its original purpose, the High Line found another: pleasure.
Organizers of the ideas competition are seeking “an overall vision for the public use of a five-kilometre-long hydro corridor from Davenport Village to the Annex.”
A hydro corridor is not an elevated railway, but the similarities are obvious, if misleading. Still, the notion of revitalizing industrial infrastructure, obsolete or not, has never made more sense. As cities as diverse as New York and Toronto move beyond their manufacturing past to a more mixed-use future, whole swaths of their downtown areas are up for grabs. In most cases, especially in Toronto, that means the default condo proposal, but renewal is only limited by the imagination and daring of the city involved.
The enormously ambitious High Line sets a dauntingly high standard. Along its roughly two-kilometre length, the park — if that’s the right word — moves around buildings and even through them. It offers grassy lawns and benches, lookouts, pathways, gardens and even a small amphitheatre. It makes no effort to hide its unglamorous roots and in so doing makes them glamorous.
It also creates possibilities for a new experience of the lower west side of Manhattan, still called the Meatpacking District, though most of those businesses have given way to high-end clothing stores and trendy cafes. Several billion dollars’ worth of development has been unleashed by the High Line, the first section of which opened in 2006. The second was completed just last year.
No surprise, then, that on a balmy December afternoon, the High Line is full of people, locals and tourists, equally enthralled by the whole thing. Designed by landscape architect James Corner, of Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro Architects and Dutch horticulturalist Piet Oudolf, the facility has inspired some equally compelling architecture.
The new Standard Hotel, for instance, straddles the High Line beautifully. Condos are popping up and there’s even an office tower designed by Frank Gehry. Though this isn’t his most engaging building, it certainly brings another layer of visual interest to the place.
For the most part, however, the High Line creates novel ways to move through the urban environment and be part of it. Standing almost 10 metres high, it’s well above street level, but hardly among the clouds. It’s close yet far enough away to provide an unprecedented sense of connection to the city.
Toronto’s Green Line would offer a different sort of experience. Being at grade and a hydro route means less of a vista. It would probably make the line as much a way to get from A to B as a place to linger.
The success of the West Toronto Railpath, which opened in 2009, shows that the city is hungry for such interventions. Torontonians use the bike/pedestrian route in huge numbers and it has helped spur development, though not as dramatically as the High Line.
The fact is that the Railpath is a much more modest scheme. One of the most impressive aspects of the High Line is the attention to detail and quality of materials. The Railpath has not been taken to the same degree of finish, though that hardly seems to matter.
Sponsored by the Ontario Association of Architects and Astley Gilbert Ltd., the Green Line is an opportunity whose time has come; whether we seize it or not remains to be seen. Though parts of it are already in use (including playgrounds and existing green space), competition organizer Helena Grdadolnik envisions “a continuous pedestrian and cycling link across the middle of the city and a public space and recreational amenity to the many neighbourhoods across Toronto.”
All this leads us, of course, to the Gardiner Expressway, that relic of an earlier age now in decline. It has unlimited possibilities as a linear park, one that could transform the city into something truly spectacular. People would come from around the world to see it and Toronto would go some way to recovering its tarnished reputation as a city of imagination, not another provincial outpost roiling with self-hatred.
That’s not going to happen anytime soon, needless to say, probably never. But perhaps the reason people love the High Line so much is that it gives them permission to dream about what the city could be, if only…