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Neighborhood Tour: What You Don't Know About NYC's High Line

Neighborhood Tour: What You Don't Know About NYC's High Line
New York Historical Tours co-founder Kevin Draper and Eastern Consolidated principal Adelaide Polsinelli outside The Standard High Line hotel

The New York City High Line has borne witness to some unique flashes of American history in its roller coaster-esque quest to become a highly sought-after, high-value office district.

Rail lines constructed up and down 10th Avenue on the heels of the Industrial Revolution funneled raw materials and shipments in and out of the city. In 1930, in a move that thrilled nearby landlords and developers, the city raised the railroad tracks, making it easier to ship supplies in and out, its hand forced by high train-related death rates on the “Avenue of Death.”

By the end of the Second World War, trucks had become the primary mode of supply transport; by Thanksgiving of 1980, trains were rendered completely obsolete. The lines remained empty until 1999, by which point the city was on the verge of tearing down the raised tracks.

“The demolition permits were ready to go,” New York Historical Tours co-founder and historian Kevin Draper said. “[Mayor Rudy] Giuliani had already signed off on it.”

That is, until the last community meeting before demolition. Two ordinary citizens, Joshua David and David Hammond, proposed turning the old tracks into a park instead.

Chelsea Market
Kevin Draper and Adelaide Polsinelli outside Chelsea Market, formerly an industrial warehouse

Initially, the proposal did not go over well. Real estate owners were highly anticipating the demolition, already projecting rents would double. A park could ruin this potential.

Lacking the support of local CRE leaders, David and Hammond reached out to clothing designer Diane von Furstenberg, who loved the idea and brought her husband, Barry Diller, on board as a fundraiser and, later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The first phase of the High Line was completed 10 years later, anchored by the Whitney Museum of Art to the south. Today, Phase 3 is well underway as Hudson Yards blossoms on the northern end, next to the Javits Center receiving its own multibillion-dollar facelift.

The whole path, Draper said, has been carefully laid out to unfold like a story. Artists hoping to net some exposure can apply to put in installations along the walkway for up to a year, and architects are working in tandem with each other to create buildings whose designs "converse" with each other. Even the Standard High Line hotel at 848 Washington St. is perfectly shaped like an open book with a well-defined spine down the middle, a testament to the storybook effect its developers envisioned for the site.

As for the doubled real estate values developers bemoaned losing back in 1999? Those prices are up eight- and tenfold, Eastern Consolidated principal Adelaide Polsinelli said. Meandering down the path of the High Line, visitors are treated to a delightful retail mix of high-end boutiques, larger tech chains like Apple and Samsung, and luxury fashion options such as Stella McCartney and, of course, Diane von Furstenberg lining the parallel roads.

“This optimizing of retail, right here on the High Line, is where experiential retail truly began,” Polsinelli said. “The whole idea of cultural stops, tourism, dining, hospitality and entertainment in one package — it all came out of the High Line experience. We have three neighborhoods: the West Village, Chelsea and Clinton. You have a whole day trip built in.”

Neighborhood Tour: What You Don't Know About NYC's High Line
Kevin Draper and Adelaide Polsinelli along the High Line pathway

The High Line as New York City trendsetter, it turns out, is a recurring theme in its relatively short history. Several newer developments springing up along the path were created with biophilic architecture (incorporating patios, plant life and sunlight into their infrastructure), a move copied by buildings throughout the city. Meanwhile, bridges that formerly carried nothing but steaming freight trains are studded with Art Deco designs crafted for aesthetic pleasure from a ground-up view.

The views do not stop there. Heading north on the path toward Hudson Yards, Jersey City sparkles to the west, punctuated by a surprise glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and an American flag planted where Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr faced each other down for their fateful duel. It is a view unique among outdoor public space in New York City, available solely due to the park’s elevated position. 

Neighborhood Tour: What You Don't Know About NYC's High Line
Kevin Draper and Adelaide Polsinelli in front of the Hudson Yards developments.

The High Line is one of those rare Manhattan locations whose steep value increase is due less to historical glamour and more to the decades of potential its developers now see. Polsinelli pointed out High Line development as reminiscent of Williamsburg’s rise a decade ago. Newly online office space in and around the park — all delivered from repurposed freight properties and ironworks factories — represents a hearty acknowledgement of the neighborhood as desirable. Easy access to the subway on 14th and 23rd streets is boosting office property values, with some spaces running for $80 to $90 per SF.

Take, for instance, Eastern Consolidated’s property on the Fashion Institute of Technology campus at 242 West 27th St. The building sits on a closed street, blocks away from Penn Station and overcrowded bus stations but with no pedestrian traffic. Polsinelli sold the building for $850/SF to a buyer transforming the property into an incubator space for the school’s graduate and design students.

“Four years ago, there wasn’t much office space or demand for such space in this area. Now it’s a hip, cool place to move your company,” Polsinelli said. “Converting these existing buildings to office is more cost-effective, because you’re growing the building. A 100K SF old industrial building will expand to about 120K SF when cleared for offices. And once you’ve simultaneously achieved that neighborhood vibe of being cool, it’s a no-brainer.”

Media giants certainly seem to agree. The former headquarters of the National Biscuit Co. (Nabisco) — the buildings have seen everything from 1980s manufacturing of Saltines and Fig Newtons and the invention of the Oreo — have been replaced with Food Network studios and offices, all nestled in the floors right above the Chelsea Market.

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