San Antonio native Robert Hammond had no experience developing parks when he picked up a New York Times article about the planned demolition of a set of former freight rail tracks in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
Startled by the loss of the landmark in his adopted city, Hammond attended a community meeting on the demolition in 1999. There, he met Josh David, and the two exchanged business cards. That launched a now 20-year effort to reimagine an abandoned industrial space that became the wildly popular High Line linear park.
Hammond spoke at a luncheon Wednesday at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts that kicked off the Rivard Report’s three-day San Antonio CityFest ideas festival. Hammond talked about the creation of the High Line and took questions from Robert Rivard, co-founder and editor of the Rivard Report.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff introduced Hammond. Wolff was a key figure in the redevelopment of the San Antonio River through the Mission and Museum Reach park projects, which draw comparisons to the High Line. All are part of a wave of urban projects converting post-industrial landscapes into renovated districts that integrate the city’s history, nature, and art.
“You can sort of think about the [San Antonio] River as your High Line, Robert,” Wolff told Hammond.
After opening in 2009 as a linear park, the High Line has spurred a real estate and business boom along its route. But Hammond and his colleagues also have faced challenges with funding and making sure the park benefits all residents of the neighborhood they were trying to help.
“The biggest lesson I think people can learn from the High Line is you have to capture the value before you create it,” Hammond told the audience. “Once you create it, you can’t get it back.”
During his talk, Hammond shared many of the roadblocks he encountered and unintended consequences of the project. One opponent was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. Giuliani signed a demolition order on the High Line soon before leaving mayoral office, even as efforts to save the space ramped up.
“This was our main opponent,” Hammond said. “He used to just be hated in New York; now he’s hated internationally. I didn’t think he could get worse, but he did get worse.”
Hammond isn’t the only San Antonian to have left a mark on New York City parks. In fact, former San Antonio residents were instrumental in forming the conservancies set up to preserve New York’s Central Park and Battery Park, Rivard pointed out.
With parents who valued the environment and public spaces, it might be no surprise Hammond’s life went the direction it did. Hammond’s father, jeweler Hall Hammond, was heavily involved in the local chapter of the Sierra Club and the San Antonio Botanical Society and worked on the restoration of San Pedro Springs north of downtown. His mother, Pat, is known for her kite-making, kite collection, and for founding Alamo Heights’ Fourth of July parade.
In the decade since its opening, the High Line is becoming more of a New York destination. The High Line is popping up in postcards showing off New York landmarks, and its name has been co-opted for perfume and CBD gummies. A 2017 episode of The Simpsons lampooned the project with “Skypark-Line” built in the fictional town of Springfield.
That’s a long way from where it started when Hammond and David began working to preserve the space.
Along the New York Central Railroad tracks that had been abandoned for 25 years, wildflowers had grown between the metal rails, Hammond said. One way to persuade early donors to support the High Line was showing pictures of the wild plants during all seasons of the year, Hammond said.
“It was just magical,” he said. “You had a mile and a half of wildflowers running right through the city. It was basically like a private garden.”
After cleaning up soil and debris contaminated by lead paint and other pollutants, the area was rebuilt with paths, wild-inspired plant gardens, water features, and art. Around 8 million people per year visit the park, which will have contributed an expected $1.5 billion in economic output between 2007 and 2027, Hammond said.
Its popularity poses a challenge for his staff of 20 people, which has to raise most of the funding for the High Line’s $17 million budget on its own. With no charge for admission to the park, the Friends of the High Line group had created immense value for the city and nearby developers while securing no steady source of funding for the park’s upkeep, Hammond said.
“That is one of the examples of our failures,” Hammond said.
Hammond wasn’t shy about sharing the project’s missteps along the way, though he began his talk with a New York Post article that he said misquoted him as characterizing the whole endeavor as a failure.
One serious issue that emerged was who benefited from the High Line. Early on, Hammond and his staff noticed that residents from the nearby City housing developments were nowhere to be seen. These people were predominantly people of color, mostly low-income, and “hated our programming,” Hammond said.
“When we opened the High Line, almost no one was coming from there,” Hammond said. “We could tell, very unscientifically, that it looked very white.”
After a survey that confirmed what they had observed, they realized that the High Line was doing little for those in the neighborhood, while also leading to the replacement of familiar local businesses with luxury stores. The conservancy responded with jobs programs for teenagers, community-led programming like Latin dance nights, and family programs meant for those in the area.
As projects like the High Line become more common, Hammond hopes that planners and developers will tap into the collective they’re organizing known as the High Line Network. Texas has the largest number of projects in the network outside of New York, he said.
“I want them to create economic benefits for the city,” Hammond said of such projects. “But also think about who also benefits and what you can do with that value and the other social and cultural benefits.”