The Market is Failing the Public, Just Look at the High Line

Who is better off now? (Friends of the High Line)

Who is better off now? (Friends of the High Line)

Robert Hammond, the co-founder of Friends of the High Line, did a revealing interview last week where he lamented how neighborhood residents around the High Line haven’t benefited from the completion of the park and the corresponding development boom. It’s admirable that Mr. Hammond has recognized this, but, as he points out, it’s too late.  Perhaps Mr. Hammond has learned the bigger lesson from the High Line: we can’t rely on the private market to create public good. 

The High Line was originally a 1.5 mile elevated industrial railroad built in the 1930s that connected the Meatpacking District to Hudson Yards (back when they were a meatpacking district and rail yard, respectively.) It closed by the early 1980s and remained a local, grassy oddity until the late 90s.  That was when Mr. Hammond and others that started Friends of the High Line saw the potential for a unique public park and successively prevented the Giuliani administration from demolishing the infrastructure.

Mayor Bloomberg also saw the possibility of the park within his vision for the vast redevelopment of the western edge of Manhattan. The mayor helped push the park forward with a total of $123 million in city money.  The remaining $50 million came from private donations.  The first segment opened in 2009, followed by the second (2012) and final (2014) around the Hudson Yards development. It has quickly become the most visited attraction in New York City with nearly 8 million visitors last year.

As a result, the park has played a central role in the rapid redevelopment of Chelsea and the Hudson Yards area.  Hundreds of new high-end residential units and commercial space are open or opening over the next few years at a dizzying space   (not counting the multi-billion dollar project at Hudson Yards).   The High Line has fundamentally shifted the center of gravity in the city towards the west side and is expected to generate over $1 billion in tax revenue over the next 20 years.

But calling the High Line a public park is a stretch because it really isn’t public or a park.  It is a beautiful piece of repurposed urban infrastructure and offers a unique experience, but it doesn’t offer the types of programs or services that traditionally successful urban parks offer residents.   Most of those activities are prohibited. FHL has conducted surveys with local residents that show that not only do they not use it - they don’t even feel it was designed for them. They are right.

Instead, it is a pleasant conveyer belt for tourists that picks them up or drops them off in trendy Meatpacking District or the soon-to-be-trendy Hudson Yards and takes them through new trendy condos and hotels along the way.  There are a few, hard-to-find access points in between those terminals for local residents to get on or for tourists to get off.  Our tax money was given less to a Public Park and more to a private development showroom.

I have no doubt Mr. Hammond, a longtime resident of Chelsea, envisioned the High Line to be more inclusive, especially given his group’s early local organizing efforts.  But the truth is that redevelopment is not helping existing residents and was never going to. Gentrification is complicated, but the High Line is clearly putting pressure on many people in the area.  

On the other hand, I have no doubt that the Bloomberg Administration and contributing private interests underwriting the design and construction did not share Mr. Hammond’s vision or concerns.  Regardless of whatever practical structural limitations the unique nature of the park had to work around, there were demonstrably exclusive design assumptions caked into the park from the beginning.  Limited access, limited hours, and limited activity were not preordained by any means, but they shaped the design and programing for a specific audience that didn't include local residents, especially children.

These results were, of course, inevitable when private interests shape public space.  The city, despite owning the infrastructure and contributing the majority of the capital, didn’t dictate the planning and didn’t incorporate the usual public input to outline and achieve specific public policy goals.  As was generally true of the Bloomberg Administration, the project brought in a private-sector worldview to what should have been a public-centric design goal (that might have cost a lot less in comparison.) Either way, the city didn’t get a great public space out of it and most New Yorkers didn't get any benefit.

You might ask why it matters – the High Line is wildly popular with tourists and $1b in tax revenue for a $123m investment is great for the city.  There are two reasons.

First, a practical critique about government economic development: if you are a city government getting into the development game, picking winners and losers, you’d better get a good deal from the winners. If the tax revenues from the High Line area are estimated to be $1b (which based on existing tax policy is probably a giveaway), then many, many more times that will be generated in private profit during that period.  If the development of the High Line (coupled with the not-unrelated zoning changes around the area) was that valuable, then the city and taxpayers got a terrible return on $123m while a few private actors reaped the most benefits.  That’s simply an unacceptable transfer of public wealth.

Second, there is the much larger and more urgent critique of relying on the private sector to generate public good in the first place.  The experience of the High Line shows us that the private sector, even when supported by public funds, treats public space as an economic development engine rather than as a center of civic engagement of benefit.  That mindset is not a model for civic progress.  It's why you'll never see a similar city effort with the proposed Queensway.  There isn't the possibility for significant economic development that section of industrial or residential queens (at least not yet.)

You can point to different historical eras where this narrow development view wasn’t the case, or where there was a mutually beneficial balance, but it's clearly one-sided today towards private profit. (Compare the stately grandeur of Grand Central with the vapid consumerism of the Oculus for example.)  What we’re finding out is that the trade-offs leave the public sphere depleted and sickly.

This matters.  Great democratic societies have great democratic spaces. More importantly, great democratic societies are committed to funding the creation and maintenance of these spaces for the sake of civic health. 

From the early days of the New Deal to the dying days of the Great Society, New York City used to be on the forefront of this robust faith in public development.  Whether it’s the parks system, the public school system, the colossal public housing program, monuments to successful public policy surround us.  This model worked in building infrastructure, but more importantly it worked to build a sense of shared destiny and collective effort in public life. It also allowed for new voices and ideas to access those spaces to contest and change its vision, albeit wildly unevenly. This is the definition of a healthy democratic society.

Ironically, this civic model broke down not because people changed and stopped carrying about their communities, but because the private sector changed and stopped carrying about the community.  NYC suffered significant deindustrialization that triggered a mass exodus of working and middle class residents that devastated the tax base.  Industry and the deregulation-happy federal government abandoned the city (and many other cities) over the following decades in favor of a stateless global corporatism. That’s why the High Line was abandoned in the first place.

Along the way we have internalized the distrust and disrespect for the public sphere that the more unseemly segments of the private sector have always held.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: we don’t think the government – at whatever level - is capable of doing great things so we keep eroding its ability to do even basic things. Despite all the physical evidence of what energized public policy can achieve (you can see three examples from the High Line: the Fulton Houses and Elliot-Chelsea houses are NYCHA developments that have provided housing for thousands of New Yorkers for decades) we think we must rely on the private sector to build our infrastructure and institutions. We end up with poor public space while enriching a few.

We won’t get the type of inclusive, free-forming public space that our society needs if we rely on the private sector to build and maintain it for us.   We need to recommit ourselves to building up the public sphere again and reaffirming our faith in public institutions to provide public good.  Good that we define and redefine ourselves.   It starts with recognizing that our current thinking isn’t working and that we must believe again in the power and purpose of public intervention.