I've been waiting for some time for somebody to notice that the High Line project in West Chelsea isn't all it's cracked up to be. (For those of you unfamiliar with the issue, the Highline is an elevated park being built on old railroad tracks on the West Side of lower Manhattan.) So congratulations to Nicolai Ouroussoff (On The High Line, Solitude is Pretty Crowded, New York Times, 12/24/06) for pointing out that the project has pretty much turned into one huge corporate welfare giveaway (though of course he doesn't put it in quite these words). With twelve condo towers slated to be built directly adjacent to the High Line, not to mention a hotel and a museum, there's not going to be much of a view anymore--even for those wealthy enough to be allowed up into the High Line park.
I really don't think I'm being too cynical here either: I've already heard talk of limiting access to certain parts of the High Line (closing off portions of it after a certain time, for instance). Expect to hear more of this in the coming months. Ouroussoff suggests that residents of these condos should have to use the public steps like the rest of us, but that's a pipe dream; I'm sure the developers have already received assurances that they will be able to open their lobbies directly onto the High Line. Hopefully they won't actually be given permission to set up outdoor cafés, but that won't stop them from gradually colonizing the park with tables and chairs. Of course they could be fined, but, as with much of this illegal advertising that is plaguing our city of late, somebody in government has to have the will to enforce the rules.
It's as if the High Line were being built specifically to benefit developers. City government seems to be bending over backward to give them whatever they want. Ouroussoff cites a particularly egregious example of this trend: "In a design by Mr. Denari for a residential tower, city officials allowed him to cantilever his building several feet over the High Line to compensate for the site's tiny footprint." Gee, that won't block the view at all! I do really feel for architect Neal Denari, though: it must be a bitch to want to build a huge building and then find you only have a tiny space to build it on. But wouldn't the more reasonable solution be to find a larger space, or perhaps even design a smaller building? My apartment is getting rather cramped, so perhaps I'll just get some lumber and build an extension out over 23 rd St.
Where I really take exception with Ouroussoff is in his contention that the city is completely powerless to stop the mad rush to build up West Chelsea. (The corollary to this is that the city is also completely blameless: Ouroussoff extols the city's sincere efforts to, "...protect the public interest from an onslaught of commercialization.") He says, "But as long as they conform to the new zoning codes, the city will have little control over the form and appearance of most of the designs." But of course the city has every control: it exercises control in many ways, not the least of them through the zoning process itself. The city did not have to rezone the area to allow huge condo towers; it could have left the area zoned for manufacturing, or rezoned it in any number of creative ways. And the city could go back to the drawing board and rethink the matter now too, before it's too late.
To those who argue that these condo corporations should have the right to profit from their property, remember that when they bought this property it was worth very little, and it would still be worth very little if the city hadn't rezoned the area and bankrolled the High Line. Why should they have this gargantuan windfall at the expense of the rest of us taxpaying citizens?
Oh, the inexorable march of capitalism! Ouroussoff asks: "Are we simply deluding ourselves into believing we can slow the pace of the inevitable?" But, as with Mr. Denari's building, the "inevitable" seems to be getting a lot of help from city government. And what's more, the "inevitable" has certainly been slowed to a crawl at Ground Zero, perhaps the only area of the city that really needs to be developed. How about a little bureaucratic red tape in West Chelsea!