The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As D.C. embraces its industrial past, New York’s High Line Park shows the way

Take a walk along New York’s High Line, an abandoned, elevated rail line remade into a park drawing scores of visitors and pricey projects. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Julian Hunt went to see the High Line Park in New York City’s West Side before it was even open.

Hunt, a D.C. architect, made the trip as part of a painstaking labor of love. For the better part of a decade, he has been attempting to convert a series of abandoned concrete tunnels beneath Dupont Circle, where streetcars once rumbled, into a menagerie of art galleries, performance space, cafes and exhibitions.

Early into his effort, Hunt visited the High Line, a mile-and-a-half long park built atop a railroad platform near the Hudson River that is different parts leisurely path, art exhibit, garden and engine of what is now one of Manhattan’s fastest growing neighborhoods.

Similar to D.C., parts of Manhattan are experiencing a wave of new investors and residents, and Hunt said he wanted to see how New Yorkers were reclaiming a broken piece of their history for public space.

“This was the best American example we could find of reprogramming industrial infrastructure. It has had such a visible impact on Manhattan,” he said. “There’s never been a project like this in D.C. because this city has never really been anything like it is now.”

Hunt is far from alone in having made a pilgrimage to the High Line. As D.C. rediscovers its own industrial structures, enough local entrepreneurs and architects have gone to tour the park that Amtrak may want to consider a High Line D.C.-to-New York special.

Among the D.C. projects being considered are the reuse of power plants, railroad underpasses, tunnels and a decommissioned water filtration system.

Some are commercial in nature, some public, some both. Almost all include parks.

Last year, Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District, toured the High Line as she plotted a series of parks and civic spaces next to the tracks heading to Union Station in D.C.’s NoMa neighborhood.

Jasper said the tour was a reminder of the growing importance of comfortable outdoor places for people living in increasingly small apartments and dense neighborhoods. The District government has committed $50 million to her parks effort.

“It’s a really good example of how people use public space as their office, their living room,” Jasper said of the High Line. “They want to enjoy those public spaces with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. We plan on incorporating those opportunities into the NoMa parks.”

No other city is like New York. But as real estate money and white collar apartment renters continue populating inner D.C. neighborhoods, there are a growing number of efforts to try to reclaim and reuse the city’s old bones to tell unique stories, create popular public places and attract investors.

And the people behind most every one of them are trying to borrow from the former New York Central Railroad spur that now attracts 5 million annual visitors.

When the first leg of the High Line opened in 2009, no train had run on the tracks for nearly 30 years. Other parts had been demolished and those that remained were fenced off from the neighborhood, which largely consisted of construction supply warehouses and auto body repair shops.

In 1999, two residents of the area formed a nonprofit organization that began planning the track’s reuse, eventually persuading the city to acquire it and hiring architects to re-think it.

“The designers always say, it’s the only place in New York where you don’t do anything,” said Peter Mullan, executive vice president of the nonprofit Friends of the High Line.

Today, the organization’s 70 staff members include horticulturists and art curators, and there is an $8 million annual budget. A third half-mile-long phase was completed in September, leaving the park nearly complete.

Much of the design in the latest leg evokes the structure’s history, with raised railroad tracks along the path and long stretches of unimproved areas that remain overgrown the way they were when the space was abandoned.

Though the group struggled for years to win the money and approvals to complete the park, it is now in the midst of a building boom in the neighborhood. Multimillion dollar condominiums are advertised for their proximity to the park. New headquarters for Time Warner are under construction nearby.

Mullan said the park is now so popular with visitors from out of town that he is focusing on how to make sure it remains a place for locals — though this sometimes has the effect of making it even more popular for tourists.

“I think that its uniqueness and that feeling that it’s off in this kind of out-of-the-way place is what makes it popular. It’s a way to see New York. It’s a way to see what it’s like to live in New York,” Mullan said.

Washington’s best chance at building something that physically resembles the High Line is the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park, which would be built atop piers left behind from the city’s old 11th Street Bridge. A team of OMA and Olin Studio was selected to design it in October.

Scott Kratz, director of the bridge park project, said he has visited the High Line six or seven times in recent years, and watched it bring light to the eyes of people he considered stereotypical Big Apple cynics.

“When describing the High Line, there was this sense of childlike joy,” Kratz said. “‘Have you been? It’s the most amazing thing ever,’ they’d say. New Yorkers are sometimes these sort of hardened people. It’s not often you see New Yorkers exhibiting that level of joy and wonder.”

Kratz said it would have been difficult to contemplate leaving his job at the National Building Museum a few years ago to try to build the D.C. bridge park without the High Line’s success. He anticipates having to raise $40 million, of which the District government has committed $14.5 million.

“Our job is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but we didn’t have to go through what they did — which was to argue that this could work. Because they didn’t have something they could point to. People really did think they were nuts. And we now don’t have to go through that. We can say look it can work.”

A former chairman of the High Line group, John Alschuler, has experience in shaping D.C. neighborhoods, having advised former Mayor Anthony Williams on projects ranging from the convention center to Nationals Park.

“The most important things to borrow from the High Line are first an unrelenting, constant focus on excellence. The High Line was a good idea but it was executed brilliantly and at the highest level of quality,” said Alschuler, chairman at the architecture firm HR&A Advisors.

There are similarities between the neighborhoods through which the High Line traverses and NoMa. Ten years ago, NoMa was best known for its Greyhound bus depot, surrounded by warehouses and parking lots. The NoMa name — for North of Massachusetts Avenue — had barely been coined. More than 18,000 people live there now, and the population is expected to double in 10 years.

There’s little in the way of open space though, leaving Jasper, head of the NoMa BID, to work around the train tracks that cut through the neighborhood from Union Station. When the business improvement district began a design competition aimed at enlivening four underpasses beneath the tracks, it received 248 submissions from 14 countries.

Jasper is also planning a “meander” lined with plants and retail, stretching south from New York Avenue. Horticulturists from the High Line advised her. “Their plants thrive because of how they were selected,” she said.

Unlike the bridge park and NoMa project, Hunt hasn’t been promised a dime from the D.C. government to reopen the 15-foot-wide streetcar tunnels beneath Dupont Circle, though he is close to signing a five-year lease with the District for the space.

Called the Dupont Underground, it has served as a fallout shelter, hangout for the homeless and for less than a year in the mid-1990s, as a food court, though it has been closed so long many residents aren’t aware of its existence.

He envisions a place that could host fashion shoots, dance parties, museum exhibits and temporary retail, but he plans to leave a lot of the decision-making to the people who show up next year when he opens the doors for the first time.

“The point is to start using it and see what works,” he said.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz