In Winds of Winter, Midair Park Takes Shape
The project threads its way through 10 other developments, including a new tunnel through what will be the Standard Hotel at Washington and Little West 12th Streets.
By GLENN COLLINS
January 2, 2008
The sleek, computer-driven architectural previews of New York’s first midair park, the High Line, depict pedestrians navigating a public promenade that is on track to be celebrated next fall. Like space-age schematics, they offer a futuristic refuge: a pristine ribbon of green providing exquisite views of Manhattan.
But the High Line has been something quite different, a flaking, rusting industrial ruin that needed to be transformed to match the digital renderings. And someone has been doing all that work. So right now the High Line is one hairy construction site.
The defunct elevated railway — which stretches from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street on the Far West Side — is a secret world these days, barred to the meatpacking district crowds that mob the new Apple Store and swarm to a high-end shopping festival in a once-scruffy quarter that real estate advertisements now call “the prestigious High Line District.”
Fifty hard hats in safety orange — including ironworkers, carpenters, painters and garden-variety laborers — perform a fast-tracked logistical ballet 30 feet up on the line, as steel and concrete are delivered just in time to be grappled into place.
Bridges freeze before roadways, of course, and thus it is on the High Line, which shimmers with icicles at times while vibrating with hard winds from the Hudson. Safety railings sing in the gales, and it is not uncommon for snow and sleet to blow upward, swirling in updrafts shaped by the patchwork of low-rise buildings underneath.
Not unlike the hardy wildflowers, shrubs and even apple trees that adapted to the lost world of the track bed, workers have already embraced the onset of winter.
“The cold is great — bring it on,” said John Forbes, 43, an ironworker. “We really don’t mind cold. It’s heat that’s the killer.” He referred to the summer’s labor on the unshaded railway radiating hotly from its 8-inch-thick concrete slab.
Of course, high wind — as on a recent afternoon punctuated with chilly gusts of 40 miles an hour — forces managers to shut down the construction cranes. A freeze curtails the concrete pours and painting forays, while ice and snow divert topside workers to their shovels before they can scurry to tasks on the line’s dry undersurface.
The project that has been promoted as the new Central Park for downtown is, currently, a mile-long obstacle course. The rail bed threads its way not only through High Line construction but also 10 other developments, including a new tunnel through the Standard Hotel at Washington and Little West 12th Streets.
“It’s very, very tight up here,” said Mike Balbo, 27, back on the High Line. He was behind the wheel of a 9-ton payloader ferrying job debris. “Just fitting this on the road is hard.”
Bob Marriott, general superintendent for Kiska Construction Corporation, the general contractor, said, “We’ve been trying to complete our repairs and our painting without massively disrupting the businesses and tenants below.”
Save for a parcel near Gansevoort Street, the city owns none of the real estate underneath the High Line aside from streets and sidewalks. “You do not want to drop things from on high,” said Gerard Zimmermann, 40, a chief inspector for Kiska.
The roadbed’s elevation is nothing, of course, to workers accustomed to dancing on high steel. “For me this is pretty easy,” said Mr. Zimmermann, who has walked atop the George Washington and Verrazano-Narrows Bridges.
Nevertheless, the airborne landscape poses safety issues and other, more personal constraints. For example, since sanitation contractors do not deign to scale 30-foot heights, the workers must descend from the line “because companies will only clean portable bathrooms downstairs on the street level,” said Garrett Scalza, 30, who was supervising a group of carpenters near Gansevoort Street.
And since the High Line extends through residential areas, “We can’t make noise early or late, or work on the weekends,” Mr. Zimmermann said.
Given their total exposure, High Line workers are especially vulnerable from on high. “It’s pretty safe up here except when there’s construction above us,” said Sathar Ansari, 32, a site safety manager. “Other contractors, by accident, have dropped plywood and other debris, but luckily no one was hurt.”
Despite extreme heat and fierce cold, so far workers have experienced only minor injuries, save for one carpenter who tripped and fell three feet and lost five days of work.
Near Gansevoort Street, laborers are already installing the concrete planking surface destined to be a walkway for visitors. Cast in Quebec and weighing 600 to 800 pounds, the planks — some 7,600 of them — are hefted by forklifts “and then we muscle them into place with crowbars,” said Emilio Arostegui, 40, who leads a labor crew. They are jigsaw puzzle pieces of a structural system of pedestrian promenades that extend like concrete fingers into the planting beds that will restore the park greenery using 6,300 cubic yards of soil.
Workers up on the line are laboring to complete the first, $71 million phase of the $170 million High Line construction, a section from Gansevoort Street up to 20th Street.
“Next fall’s opening is breathing down our neck,” said Peter Mullan, director of planning for Friends of the High Line
, a nonprofit group that helped block attempts to demolish the viaduct and helped design its renovation.
The structure is owned by the city south of 30th Street under the jurisdiction of the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Friends of the High Line. The city’s Economic Development Corporation is overseeing construction on the site along with the mayor’s office and the Department of City Planning.
The remainder of the city-owned roadbed is scheduled to become a park by 2009. Another half-mile section rings the railyards north of 30th Street and 12th Avenue, and five bidders are competing to develop the property; only three want to preserve that part of the High Line.
“There has never been another project like it, there is no model, and it involves a tangle of jurisdictions,” said Daniel L. Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development. He said he designated the High Line the first project in his new Office of Capital Project Development to spearhead construction “on an extremely accelerated schedule requiring precise coordination among multiple city agencies.”
He added, “It is on budget and essentially on time.”
Enemies of the High Line once claimed that the corridor, built from 1928 to 1934, was disintegrating in a rain of concrete. But despite its appearance, engineers have found it to be mostly well preserved and massively strong, “built to support locomotives, designed for 10 times the load it will carry as a park,” said Michael Bradley, the High Line’s project planning administrator for the parks department.
Already, workers have ripped out the High Line’s original roadbed down to the concrete slab, removing gravel, tracks, ties, soil and the urban wilderness of vegetation that had seeded itself there. This was mandatory, Mr. Mullan said, since toxic chemical contaminants had leaked from the freight trains, the last of which bowled through with a load of frozen turkeys in 1980.
Flaking old lead paint on the structure has been sandblasted down to the steel and is being covered with 18,000 gallons of paint. And workers are conserving the rail line’s Art Decoish configurations of bolted steel plates that have been termed “industrial folk art.”
“We are changing out steel beams, preparing the structure to carry a park instead of freight trains,” said Tom Ryan, 41, an ironworker who leads a restoration crew. “There are a million rivets on the High Line, and I’ve only replaced 10,000,” he said, deadpan.
The original freight rails — which had been temporarily relocated to the northerly reaches of the trestle — are now being reinstalled to the south as design elements only. Workers have just put in the first rail junction, called a frog “because that’s what a frog looks like after it’s been run over by a locomotive,” Mr. Ryan said.
By their industrious presence, the workers have relocated the pigeons that once found their earthly paradise at the underside of the trestle, producing decades of D’oh! dry cleaning moments for unlucky pedestrians.
“Pigeons know to stay away from people in hard hats,” said Mike Forbes, 35, an on-site construction draftsman.
Mr. Zimmermann added, “I think they headed to the nearest park.”
Since acidic pigeon waste corrodes the steelwork, laborers have been installing permanent, harmless anti-pigeon shields — angled plates welded atop girders — as well as strategically stretched flexible steel wires to deter birds’ happy landings.
“The thing is, the pigeons keep coming back,” said Mr. Marriott, adding that birds have already made modifications to the High Line not envisioned by the designers, Field Operations and Diller Scofidio & Renfro of Manhattan. “They’ve created new nests in the temporary pigeon netting that was installed” as a prelude to the permanent pigeon shields, he said.
On the line, there is a perpetual incongruity between the grit above and the glitz below. As winds scoured the High Line tunnel through the Chelsea Market on a recent afternoon, Fernando Espino, 36, was shoveling construction debris on the concrete slab above the roof of the Morimoto restaurant, while unseen diners below tasted truffled tofu and summoned the Iron Chef’s sake sommelier.
Workers have long been inured to the spectacle of meat hanging on hooks in the same meatpacking neighborhood where supermodels slink to fashion shoots, where Beyoncé shops and Cameron Diaz heads to her scheduled hair appointment.
Another wave of wind roiled from the river and crashed into the High Line. “It’s not a problem for me, in 30- to 45-mile-an-hour winds,” said John Forbes, the ironworker, who is 6-foot-5 and weighs 380 pounds. “I’m not going to blow away. I’m an andiron.”