If you want to live in an apartment building designed by Zaha Hadid and can afford $5 million for a two bedroom, the place to go is West 28th Street, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Or perhaps you’d prefer a luxury unit designed by Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA, Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA, Neil Denari, FAIA, or Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA. In which case you’d also be looking in Chelsea, more specifically along the 1.45-mile stretch of the abandoned freight railroad turned High Line. And that doesn’t even include the dazzling towers by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Rockwell Group, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill that are now under construction at Hudson Yards, an 18-million-square-foot development encircled by the High Line’s northern end.

Since the first section opened in 2009, the High Line has been a magnet for visitors (over 7 million last year) and architecturally adventurous, high-end real estate. Anyone strolling along it today would assume that encouraging luxury development was its raison d’être. Except that it wasn’t. Not really. Robert Hammond and Joshua David, the two neighborhood activists who teamed up to save the industrial relic from demolition, did sell the Bloomberg administration on the idea that the project would help generate some $200 million in new real estate taxes, a bit more than it would cost to build the park. But they wildly underestimated its impact: development adjacent to the High Line will pump $900 million into the city’s coffers by about 2038.

Initially, the appearance of forward-looking architecture along the High Line was heralded as a boon, a miraculous transformation of stodgy old Manhattan. But the thrill soon faded, at least for some critics. As Jeremiah Moss, author of Vanishing New York (Dey Street Books, 2017), wrote in a 2012 New York Times op-ed: the High Line has been “a catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrification in the city’s history.”

Buildings by Gehry, Nouvel, Ban, and Seldorff have sprouted up around New York’s High Line.
Shinya Suzuki Buildings by Gehry, Nouvel, Ban, and Seldorff have sprouted up around New York’s High Line.

For former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his administration, rapid redevelopment of a neglected, heavily industrial swath of Manhattan was absolutely the goal. In 2005, as part of the plan to transform the High Line into a park, the department of city planning under Amanda Burden rezoned industrial West Chelsea for residential development with provisions that allowed the transfer of air rights from properties directly next to (or under) the park to sites on nearby 10th and 11th Avenues. Developers of sites next to the park could build taller than zoning allowed if they paid into a fund to equip the new park with stairways, elevators, and public restrooms. The city’s Economic Development Corp. website indicates that some 1,374 units of housing and half a million square feet of commercial development have cropped up along the High Line since the 2005 rezoning, but those numbers are clearly dated—understating the park’s enormous impact—and no city agency was able to supply new ones at press time.

Having unwittingly helped transform an industrial relic into an overheated engine for gentrification, Hammond is now doing his best to use the lessons he learned for the greater good. In June of this year, Hammond convened the High Line Network. “Joshua David and I had met with hundreds of these projects over more than a decade. And we were trying to figure out how we could be helpful over the long term,” he says. “That’s when we came up with the idea of a network. Let’s learn from each other.”

A subsidiary of the nonprofit Friends of the High Line, the grant-funded network consists of 19 urban park projects in U.S. and Canadian cities that embrace the High Line ethos: seeing the beauty in some discarded piece of infrastructure and transforming it into a public place. Membership is free and by invitation, says network director Emma Bloomfield, and includes projects “that reuse different kinds of infrastructure to create public space, represent geographic diversity, and have momentum.” Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park is part of the network; so is Philadelphia’s Rail Park and Miami’s Underline.

View of the Houston skyline from Buffalo Bayou Park
Albert Vecerka/Esto View of the Houston skyline from Buffalo Bayou Park

Social issues—gentrification, displacement, equitable development—dominated Hammond’s thoughts when the network first met. But he wasn’t sure that those issues would matter to the other members. “We actually thought other projects might not be that interested. What we found after the first gathering was that the number one issue was around equity.”

A Rude Surprise
Building a new park in a 21st-century city isn’t easy, given the complicated task of securing financing, political support, and approvals, not to mention the actual design and construction of the project. Factoring in social problems like displacement and equitable development introduces even more complexity. Transforming an eyesore into an amenity is almost guaranteed to boost real estate values in the surrounding area. Certainly that’s one of the reasons that historic green spaces like Central Park and Prospect Park exist. Back in 1867, Frederick Law Olmsted was already envisioning the area surrounding Prospect Park’s entry plaza as “a great residence quarter of the Metropolis.” And HR&A Advisors, the New York–based real estate consulting firm that was an adviser to the High Line, has “identified that these kind of big parks in other cities across the country could raise property values anywhere from 5 percent to 40 percent,” according to Scott Kratz, the director of Washington, D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park project, a network member.

As housing prices in many American cities have steadily climbed, the economic benefit these projects offer their surrounding neighborhoods, long a desirable trait, has often come to be seen as a rude surprise. In Chicago, for instance, in the neighborhoods adjoining the 606, a 2.7-mile-elevated-rail-line-turned-park and a network member, there’s been a 50 percent surge in home prices since 2013, when construction on the project began. The most dramatic increases have hit the trail’s less affluent west end, in the Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods. Chicago aldermen are trying to dampen the real estate speculation by imposing steep fees on developers looking to demolish affordable housing in favor of new market-rate homes. Unfortunately, the aldermen’s efforts are too little, too late.

Historic Fourth Ward Park along the BeltLine's Eastside Trail segment
The Sintoses Historic Fourth Ward Park along the BeltLine's Eastside Trail segment

To have any chance of managing the issue of inequality, projects must confront it from the very beginning. For network members, the results, so far, are mixed. Consider the Atlanta BeltLine, a 33-mile loop of former rail-lines-turned-recreational trails (designed by Perkins+Will and Kimley-Horn) to be accompanied (eventually) by 22 miles of light rail linking some 45 urban neighborhoods. Scheduled for completion in 2030, the project began as a graduate thesis by Ryan Gravel at Georgia Tech. After he graduated in 1999, Gravel teamed up with his colleagues at an architecture firm to pitch the idea to city and state officials. Only one recipient evinced genuine interest in the project: Atlanta councilwoman Cathy Woolard, then chair of the council’s transportation committee. Says Gravel: She “had a background in community organizing and she understood the project just intuitively.” By 2005, they had managed to secure what’s known in Georgia as Tax Allocation District [TAD] funding to pay for close to half the projected $4.8 billion project. The general idea is that as a “blighted” area improves, the increases in property tax revenues pay for the project that’s driving the improvements.

But the BeltLine advocates included some housing activists who insisted that 15 percent of the TAD funds be allocated to building affordable housing along the trail. “We got it in there,” Gravel says. “They’re committed by state law to do 5,600 units, which is a significant investment … but not enough.” Indeed, Atlanta’s housing prices have steadily soared since 2012, with a 9.5 percent increase in the past year alone. “Atlanta is on fire right now,” Gravel says. “And that’s not bad. These communities need more people. They need an economy, they need jobs and grocery stores. But it shouldn’t come at their expense. That’s the hard part, to make sure you can make improvements but also protect people who live there.”

Aerial diagram of the BeltLine
Perkins+Will Aerial diagram of the BeltLine

The mandated affordable housing along the BeltLine—now a third complete—has been slow to emerge. In July, an investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution determined that only 785 affordable units had been financed by the BeltLine’s TAD funds. Meanwhile, low-income homeowners along the BeltLine path are seeing the assessed values of their houses rise and are struggling to pay property taxes, and low-income renters are being priced out.

The Journal Constitution story prompted the resignation of the director of the Atlanta BeltLine Inc., the quasi-public agency that is actually building the trail. Gravel, for his part, resigned in frustration last year from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership (ABP), a nonprofit fundraising and advocacy organization. Still, he contends, “The answer to this problem can’t be to not improve communities. The answer is not to not build parks and trails and transit and grocery stores. You don’t hold a neighborhood down just to keep it affordable.”

A Blueprint for Equitable Development
For a more promising case study, consider the 11th Street Bridge Park project in Washington, D.C., designed by OMA and Olin and scheduled for completion in 2019. The park will span the Anacostia River on piers left over from a demolished highway bridge. A dramatic, angular, multilevel landscape, the park creates, for the first time, a significant pedestrian connection between the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods north and west of the river—those surrounding Capitol Hill—with the entrenched poverty of Anacostia on the river’s south and east side.

The appeal of the Bridge Park was clear to Scott Kratz, formerly of the National Building Museum: “The river has been this dividing line for generations, so can we create a physical and metaphorical bridge between these communities?” But the pitfalls were also obvious: “If this becomes a real destination, how do we ensure that this park can be not only an anchor for economic development but equitable and inclusive development?”

Rendering of the 11th Street Bridge project
OMA and Luxigon Rendering of the 11th Street Bridge project

After working closely with neighborhood stakeholders to write a design brief and choose the design team, the Bridge Park advocates joined forces with an existing area nonprofit that is called, coincidentally, Building Bridges Across the River. That nonprofit, which now employs Kratz, oversees the project and its social mission. The selection of OMA and Olin occurred in tandem with the drafting of a detailed Equitable Development Plan. “We collected data of property values, change over time, demographics, poverty levels, renter versus homeowner, all of that data,” says Kratz. “But more importantly, we then spent six, seven months meeting with the stakeholders, meeting with the broader community to identify clear action steps that the parks could take to make sure that those residents nearby, if they chose to, could stay and thrive.”

The Equitable Development Plan lays out 19 recommendations in three categories: workforce development, small business enterprises, and housing. As mandated by the plan, a “Home Buyers’ Club” teaches renters how to buy property: 53 club members are now in the process of purchasing a home. The Bridge Park team is also working to organize renters in small apartment buildings so that they are poised to make an offer if their buildings are put on the market. (Under D.C. law, the tenants of a building have the right of first refusal, but only have 45 days to make an offer.) And the 11th Street Bridge Park is helping to start a community land trust to ensure that “the community will maintain permanent affordability in perpetuity,” Kratz says.

“We just received a large grant last year,” he says, “where the senior scholars from the Urban Institute are not only helping us set clear, measurable goals for each of our 19 recommendations, they’re also going to be with us for the next three years to provide a constant feedback loop.”

Most significant, perhaps, is the fact that the grant Kratz mentions—$50 million from the Local Initiatives Support Corp. of Washington, D.C.—actually exceeds the $45 million budgeted for the construction of the Bridge Park itself. JPMorgan Chase also announced a $10 million donation in late September to help preserve affordable housing for area residents.

A Catalyst for Change
More than a decade later, it’s easy to forget that the West Chelsea rezoning plan that made the High Line possible and triggered the accompanying real estate bonanza had a social component, too. Certain areas around the High Line were designated for “inclusionary zoning,” meaning that developers could build larger buildings than the zoning normally allowed if 20 percent of the units were affordable. The zoning rules were intended to encourage the construction of 1,000 units of affordable rentals. A survey of the inclusionary zoning program from 2005 to 2013 by New York’s Department of City Planning shows that 1,470 new affordable units were built on Manhattan’s West Side, but a separate study by a city councilman’s office indicates that only 348 of them are in West Chelsea. Clearly, providing a funding mechanism or incentives for affordable housing isn’t nearly enough. What’s required is a much more focused effort, something that has the depth and determination of the 11th Street Bridge Park’s plan.

“The BeltLine didn’t cause all the problems the city is facing right now, and it can’t solve all of them … it can’t be everything. But what it can be is a catalyst for change.”

Still, the question remains: If park advocates can devise effective ways to enhance the economic viability of a neighborhood without displacing its residents and figure out how to fund and execute such a transformation, why hasn’t it been done already? How is it that these crucial tasks have been left, by default, to park builders?

Gravel offers a partial explanation: “I say this about the BeltLine a lot, but it’s true of all the projects in the High Line Network: They’re not only changing the physical form of the cities they’re in, they’re changing the way we think about those places and what our expectations are for living in them. The BeltLine didn’t cause all the problems the city is facing right now, and it can’t solve all of them … it can’t be everything. But what it can be is a catalyst for change.”

Hammond has a similar view. Park activists can’t solve all of a city’s problems, but they can force the city to confront them: “I think we have to make the government accountable,” he says. “You can’t just build these [parks] and hope for increased property taxes. You have to look at them holistically. We can’t enact zoning. That’s the job of the city. But these projects can encourage the city, prod the city, and hold the city accountable.