Record $20 Million Gift to Help Finish the High Line Park

October 27th, 2011

By Lisa W. Foderaro for The New York Times — Many visitors to the High Line, the popular park that wends above street level on the West Side of Manhattan, stop at its northern terminus and peer wistfully through a chain-link fence at the as-yet unreclaimed half-mile segment to the north. Until this week, the nonprofit conservancy that operates the High Line still needed to raise $85 million to finish the park and maintain it.

On Wednesday night, the conservancy took a major step toward that goal when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced a $20 million gift to the High Line from the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation.

The gift, which will help build up the park’s endowment and pay for the design of the last section, is the single largest donation ever made to a New York City park, according to city officials.

It follows two previous donations totaling $15 million to the High Line from Barry Diller, chairman of IAC and Expedia, and his wife, the designer Diane von Furstenberg.

“It’s not surprising that Barry and Diane — visionaries that they are — got in early on the High Line project,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement. “But even better, they are seeing it through. Their generosity is leading the way for the High Line to become a New York icon that will be enjoyed for generations to come.”

The High Line is an unusual public-private partnership. The city paid most of the construction costs of the first two sections (the second opened earlier this year), which together run from Gansevoort to 30th Streets.

But Friends of the High Line, the conservancy that rallied to save the railway from demolition and raised money for its transformation into a park, assumed full responsibility for the cost of the operations from the start.

With three million annual visitors, 10 times what the founders of the conservancy initially envisioned, wear and tear, as well as educational programming, is a constant challenge for the 60-member staff.

“If you ask Josh or me what keeps us up at night, it’s not next year or whether we complete it — we know it will get done,” said Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line along with Joshua David. “It’s the maintenance, and this gives us security. Having an endowment gives us another revenue stream to fall back on in hard times.”

Annual operating costs for the park come to $3 million.

But perhaps just as important is the gift’s ability to propel Friends of the High Line toward the finish line: the railway’s endpoint at 34th Street. Now the curvaceous teak benches and ornamental grasses that make up the park’s northern landscaping stop abruptly at that chain-link fence.

On the other side is a jumble of weeds, rocks and old ladders. The future section, which hugs the West Side Railyards, runs west to 12th Avenue and then continues north to 34th Street.

That segment is owned by CSX Transportation, which is now in negotiations with city officials, as well as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other interested parties, on an agreement that would allow for public access. In 2005, CSX donated the portion of the High Line south of 30th Street to the city.

Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, said the talks dealt with a “very complicated site.” But he added that “everyone wants for the city to eventually” obtain the site for the High Line park.

Mr. David and Mr. Hammond estimate that the final half-mile stretch will cost up to $75 million to build, about the same as each of the first two half-mile sections. Given the constraints on the city’s budget, private sources will have to cover the initial capital expense, they said. Before the new gift, Friends of the High Line had raised about $65 million toward its $150 million fund-raising goal.

In a statement, Mr. Diller took the long view. “In a hundred years, people will be amazed that this park was ever built, and during all that time it will have given pleasure to such great numbers of people,” he said. “I’m glad that our family is able to pay a small role in making the High Line a reality.”

In a city of deep-pocketed philanthropists, the donation from Mr. Diller and Ms. von Furstenberg turned heads, not least because it went to a park rather than a cultural or educational institution. Previously, the largest private gift to a park was $17 million from the philanthropist Richard Gilder in 1993 to Central Park.

Friends of the High Line hopes that the $20 million donation will inspire additional giving.

That happened once before. After the Museum of Modern Art mounted a small exhibition of designs for the park in 2005, the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation made its first gift of $5 million, generating interest in the project. Then came a gift of $10 million from the foundation in 2009. Earlier this year, Tiffany and Company Foundation gave a $5 million challenge grant.

The return on those investments has been substantial; the first two sections of the High Line have generated more than $2 billion in planned or new development, city officials said. The park has also become a major tourist attraction, drawing a quarter of its visitors from outside the United States.

Gazing at the unfinished segment, Martin Oeggerli, 37, a photographer visiting from Switzerland, said he would like the park to keep going. “It would go straight to the Hudson and give you a great view,” he said.

Last week, when Mr. Diller told Friends of the High Line of the gift over the phone, the conference room erupted. “A large number of people on our staff burst into tears,” Mr. Hammond said.


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