Friends of High Line Co-Founder Robert Hammond Talks About Stepping Down

Robert Hammond announced this month that he will step down as executive director of Friends of the High Line at the end of the year. The self-described entrepreneur will leave the organization that he co-founded in 1999 with Joshua David in enviable shape. The High Line—the elevated park that in 2009 opened to the public on a long-abandoned former West Side freight railway trestle—drew 4.4 million visitors last year.

Friends of the High Line is in the midst of a $125 million capital campaign that will help fund stage three of the project and bring its northern terminus to West 34th Street. Once it officially runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District through Chelsea and to the Hudson Yards site, the High Line will serve as a pedestrian artery between three of the city’s most dynamic—and fastest changing—neighborhoods.

Mr. Hammond spoke to The Commercial Observer about the genesis of the project, the surrounding real estate gold rush it has amplified, if not prompted, and the backlash of a vocal minority.
Headshot_Robert Hammond_RH favorite 2012The Commercial Observer: You presented the idea of the High Line to the local community board 14 years ago. What originally planted the seed for it?
Mr. Hammond: I’ve lived in the same apartment in the West Village for 19 years now. And I’d always seen the structure from the street. I found it interesting, but honestly didn’t give it much thought. Then I read an article saying it was going to be torn down. I assumed someone was working to preserve it, since everything in New York has a preservation group attached to it, basically. But this one didn’t.

I heard it was on the agenda of a community board meeting. I’d never been to one, and had never wanted to go. But I went and happened to sit next to Joshua David, who I didn’t know at the time. By the end of the meeting we realized we were really the only two people interested in it. Many people actively wanted to tear it down.

We started talking before we’d ever been up on the structure. [Rail transportation supplier] CSX was at the meeting, and they wound up giving us a tour of the line. Most people think we snuck up there, but the reality isn’t that exciting.

I’d fallen in love with the line from below. It seemed like an industrial version of a Roman aqueduct. But then when we went up there we saw a mile and half of wildflowers, and views of the Hudson River and Statue of Liberty. That’s when I really fell in love with it.

The original goal of Friends of the High Line was to stop it from being demolished, because Mayor Giuliani wanted to tear it down. But from the start, it wasn’t quite the typical preservation where you’re trying to stop something. We also wanted to create something for the public

Did you at any point anticipate just how popular the High Line would become?
No. No, no, no. [Laughs] When we started it, we had no idea. Before it opened, we projected that we’d have about 300,000 visitors per year.

In 1999, the Meatpacking District was in the early stages of what would become lightning-fast gentrification.
It’s funny. Sometimes I think we get too much credit and blame for what’s happened in the neighborhood. The Meatpacking was already sort of a nightclub spot, and the restaurants were coming in. Florent had been there for a long time. It was transitioning from an alternative nightlife space—parties like Jackie 60—to more mainstream.

As the neighborhood transformed and brought in a different profile of New Yorker and tourist, did the High Line plans evolve as well?
No. To me, New York is always about change. But what we wanted the High Line to do was also represent the history of the area. We know it’s always going to change. But this would be a permanent connection to the past. Also, a lot of the changes that were happening—and would have happened with or without the High Line—would have had no public component or benefit. The idea of creating something free and open to and specifically designed for the public was really important to us.

Have the phased extensions gone according to plan? Was the idea from the start to go all the way to 34th Street?
Yeah. And it’s happened much quicker than we ever anticipated.

The High Line will terminate around Hudson Yards, which is being billed as one of the more transformative developments in recent city history. How do you envision that area looking in five years?
I think it’s something most people don’t realize. That’s where a lot of the city is going to grow. And again, one of the things we think of is being able to connect different parts of the city and remind people of the history of the rail yard.

Projects in Atlanta, Queens and elsewhere have tried to mimic the High Line. Do you have a favorite?
They’re all interesting, but it’s less interesting when they’re just trying to copy the High Line. My favorites are the ones that are unique to their own spaces. The Lowline [a proposed underground park on the Lower East Side] is a great example. The name is related, but it’s really almost a technology play of how to use underground spaces.
What’s interesting to me is that Joshua and I didn’t have any background in urban planning. I’m excited to see that people realize they don’t have to have it all figured out when they start these things.

On the subject of urban planning, the Meatpacking District’s growth has been accompanied by growing pains and local controversy. Do you think the neighborhood has lost its old flair?  

If you ask anyone over 30 years old, they always miss whatever New York was like in their 20s. Nothing will ever be as good. The older you get, the more you dislike what’s there now. I always try to remember that change is what makes New York a great city. Cities or neighborhoods that get frozen become Disney versions of themselves.
Do I miss the slippery meat feelings and smell? Sort of. Do I miss the older, seedy clubs? Sort of. But that’s New York. If I don’t want anything to change, I can move to Seaside, Florida.

Two recent contentious real estate developments adjacent to the High Line speak to fears of the project being a victim of its own success. How do you feel about the Chelsea Market expansion?
We were supportive of that rezoning and don’t think it adversely impacts the High Line. One of my biggest concerns for the High Line is how to maintain it long-term. We pay all the maintenance costs, but the city is supposed to be responsible for long-term maintenance. But they have no money to be able to do that. The funding that would come from the Chelsea Market expansion is critical.

What about the 10-story, 175-foot tall 860 Washington Street? There are fears that it will impede High Line views.
Well, there was a building on that site that blocked those views before. There was a meat-packing plant that basically hanged over the High Line. So you’re not losing any views that even existed earlier than a year ago.

The writer Jeremiah Moss wrote an op-ed in The New York Times last summer that criticized the High Line. He painted a picture of a runway besieged by tourists and fashion models toting luxury shopping bags and of a park vaguely in cahoots with developers of a West Side corporate promenade. How do you respond to that?
You know, I think that people should criticize. We’re not perfect. But I think he got it wrong. That doesn’t accurately capture who’s up there. Almost half the people who visit the High Line are from New York City. That’s two million locals.

We do over 400 free programs that are specifically geared toward New Yorkers. And we could gear them toward tourists all day long. We do kids’ programming and lots of outreach to two New York City Housing Authority projects.
But when something’s successful, it’s tempting to kick it around a little bit.

Why are you stepping down now?
By the end of this year, a lot of the projects that I really felt were important will be complete or almost complete. We’ll almost be done with the Hudson Yards extension, which should open next year. We started a new capital campaign a couple years ago and are $81 million into that $125 million campaign. I’m ready. I’m an entrepreneur at heart and had this intuitive feeling that I wanted to start something new. I didn’t want to leave in a hurry. I wanted to announce it and give almost a year to find a replacement.

You mentioned that the High Line isn’t perfect. What’s one improvement you hope to see before you depart?
Hmm. Probably section three. Just the idea that we’re going to get all the way to the rail yards is something I never thought I would see. I thought it would take decades. Honestly, when we started this I didn’t think I would get to witness much of it. We’d start it, and someone else would finish it.

I’m definitely a dreamer, but I’m also a realist. I knew the chances of this thing happening were low.

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