Wednesday, February 27, 2013

High Line fallout continues: Director stepping down after reintroducing freight trains to elevated park

Manhattan--The decision to reintroduce freight trains to the hugely popular High Line park on the island's West Side was not without controversy. The move was expected to raise millions of dollars for expansion and maintenance of the one-mile-long elevated greenway, but many predicted catastrophe even before the first train rumbled through the impressive public space.

Yesterday, exactly one year after CSX trains began moving freight on the line--the first freight activity since 1980--the park's Friends of the High Line board of directors declared the experiment "an overwhelming bust." The park's co-founder and director of Friends of the High Line, Kevin Venegar, who single-handedly made the call to bring trains back in 2012, also announced he is stepping down in the wake of "Freight Gate."

"It was a bad call on my part," said a choked-up Venegar, to a throng of reporters gathered at the southern terminus of the park near Gansevoort Street. "It was quite an eventful experiment, one that went horribly, horribly wrong. I sincerely apologize. I want to thank the board for providing me with countless opportunities to successfully mesh a populated park with an active rail line. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. I hope I will be remembered for helping bring New York a great space to walk, contemplate, and take in the city from a very unique vantage point. And, hopefully not remembered for all the other stuff."

The "other stuff" included six derailments, one of which spilled thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into the Gallery District last April, where 48 people were hospitalized and six never made it home. In May, a German tourist, asked to take a photo for a passing starry-eyed couple, was crushed to death by an extremely slow-moving train near West 20th St. The two love birds were so lost in each other they failed to warn the focused photographer.

In September, nine children were injured while crossing the park to rejoin classmates on a school field trip. Their teacher later admitted: "The train came out of nowhere." In January, another derailment sent two rail cars over the edge and onto West 26th Street, where a passing cyclist "never knew what hit him." In total, there have been over 1,500 injuries and sixteen deaths from incidents involving the freight trains over the past twelve months.

In a desperate attempt to improve safety and keep the trains running--which appeared doubtful by October--the High Line introduced a color warning system (that rivaled the Department of Homeland Security's elaborate scheme) to inform park users when it was safe to walk the line and when to keep off or move to the side. These warning lights were installed over the length of the park and concentrated in "troubled" areas.

Some sections of the park, however, are very narrow and pedestrians must be completely up against the side railing (abdomens sucked in) in order for the train to pass without contact. On rare occasions, visitors (usually wearing headphones) are forced to climb the railing and hang precariously over the side, with the street far below, to avoid being hit or brushed by the large diesel engines.

"Sure, we were embarrassed about the derailments and the frequent train-pedestrian conflicts," said board member James Carlson. "But, the incident in August gave me many sleepless nights. It was a tough one. It just seemed to clearly indicate that things were not working."

Carlson is referring to the CSX delivery of over 200,000 frozen turkey burger patties to the incorrect warehouse in the Meatpacking District in August. Though not the High Line's responsibility, the delivery debacle to a building not outfitted with refrigeration facilities occurred during a scorching heatwave and the stench from the rotting meat kept park enthusiasts away for nearly two weeks. Park employees eventually pitched in to load the meat back into the rail cars for proper transport and disposal to Staten Island.

The trains also obnoxiously compromised the proud work of award-winning landscape architects. Many beautifully landscaped areas of the park have been obliterated by the trains or trampled over by visitors attempting to dodge the locomotives. Some gardens were relocated and saved in anticipation of possible conflicts with the new massive neighbors.

"I was totally on board with Kevin's decision," said Gayle Summers, a park board member. "Bringing trains back seemed like a great way to generate revenue for the park and pay tribute to its history. I mean, after all, the High Line is the Mercedes Benz of elevated parks and it comes with a hefty price tag. Yes, we get big donations, but we also need to raise money in other ways. Never in a million years could I have predicted the problems that have arisen."

The CSX agreement brought in more than $15 million to the park, but all of this (and five million more) was paid out to cover medical and clean-up costs for train accidents.

Venegar will remain the executive director through the end of the year. "Over the next ten months I will work tirelessly to restore the High Line to its pre-CSX days. It is my promise to right this wrong. It will be strictly a people park, not a people and train park. We know that now."

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