Volume 78 - Number 50 / May 20 - 26 , 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Patrick Cullina is the High Line’s new vice president of maintenance and operations.

The High Line park is steaming quickly toward grand debut

By Patrick Hedlund

A decade-long local effort to transform a derelict former West Side railway into a public park-in-the-sky will finally be realized next month with the debut of the High Line’s first section in Chelsea.

“To me the most rewarding thing is bringing somebody up there to show it to them for the first time,” said Joshua David, who conceived of the idea with fellow park founder Robert Hammond back in 1999. “I’ve seen it from step to step. But to see it through their eyes — and see how struck they are by it — is how I can feel that incredible sensation.”

The High Line is projected to open just two to three weeks from now, giving parkgoers access to the elevated structure’s initial section between Gansevoort and 20th Sts. Early risers and night crawlers will delight in the High Line’s operating hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, and jaunts down the winding walkway will yield scenic views of the Hudson River and Manhattan skyline.

Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit organization co-founded by David and Hammond to advocate for the park’s creation and oversee its construction, recently hired Patrick Cullina as its vice president of maintenance and operations. Cullina most recently did a four-year stint as vice president of horticulture at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Along with managing the High Line’s myriad plantings, Cullina is tasked with ensuring a quality experience for the throngs of visitors likely to crowd the West Chelsea green space during the warmer months.

“Any successful garden is one where the decisions are formed by your experience,” Cullina said, explaining that the park’s landscape will evolve as the plantings mature, helping to dictate future decisions on the High Line. “Each season has its lesson to teach, and we’re going to gather those lessons as we go.”

While the project will benefit from its partnership with the city Parks Department, which will provide some enforcement staff at the park, nearly all the labor required to maintain the High Line on a daily basis will fall on the Friends. Depending on the season, a staff of about 15 to 20 — including gardeners, groundskeepers, custodians and maintainers for the park’s mechanicals — will tend to the park and its infrastructure, while volunteer “greeters” will help answer visitors’ questions about the elevated greenway’s features.

One challenge for horticulturalists will be balancing the park’s multiple plant varieties atop the former viaduct, which is “essentially the city’s largest green roof,” Cullina said. Shallow soil depths, sunlight and wind exposure will all affect the High Line’s “micro-climates,” he added, which “change literally from block to block.” 

“A lot of this will have to unfold over time,” Cullina acknowledged. “Our ultimate aspiration is to have a consistently compelling landscape. It progresses from the time you enter to the time you exit.”

But parkgoers will have to contend with “a very different kind of public landscape environment than anything anyone’s ever experienced,” Cullina said, including sometimes-dubious delineations between the High Line’s pathways and green spaces.

“There aren’t these really clear-cut definitions of where the plants are,” he noted. “Over time the plantings will become so dense and thick that it will become clear.”

All in all, the park will provide a study in transition as the flowers, shrubs and trees mature through the months.

“You see it once,” Cullina said, “that’s not the end of the show.”

Aside from its organic growth, the High Line’s appearance will also be enhanced by a “subdued lighting that goes the whole length of the line at night,” as well as daily cleaning by staff, Cullina added.

Both bicycles and pets are prohibited in the park, but bike racks will be available at the entrances. Residential buildings near the former railway will not enjoy private access points to the High Line, which will have “no connectivity unless it serves the public first and foremost,” David said.

Ironically, the park’s popularity as a public realm could create problems, as initial overcrowding is a chief concern of the Friends.

“We want everybody to come to the High Line,” David said, acknowledging that the hype surrounding the project has grown to near-mythic proportions. “But we don’t encourage everybody to come the very minute it opens. It’ll be beautiful on Day Two and Day Three, on Week Two and Week Three.”

However, the High Line’s biggest challenge will be the park’s ability to grow some green — and David isn’t talking plantings.

“Friends of the High Line’s budget basically doubles when the ribbon cuts,” he explained, noting that the opening comes at a time when most nonprofits are slashing budgets. “Our biggest challenge is taking all the excitement that’s out there about the High Line and making sure that people understand we still need people’s support.”

New V.P. Cullina views the park undertaking not only as a singular achievement for New York City, but an idea to build upon for future urban planning and adaptive reuse.

“As much impact as this project will have, [the Friends’] example and partnership with the city will also be something that people will look it,” he said. “It’s always inspiring to see the reaction of folks. It’s sort of a vehicle for excitement, and I think that’s great.”

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