An unprecedented urban place-making opportunity on Manhattan's West Side is about to become a reality. The conversion of the High Line, an abandoned 1.45-mile-long elevated rail structure that runs north-south for 22 blocks, is the focus of four master plan proposals by multi-disciplinary teams on view at the Center for Architecture in New York City through August 14, as well as on the Friends of the High Line (FHL) website at

The four teams are: Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Zaha Hadid Architects; Steven Holl Architects; and TerraGRAM: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. FHL and the city of New York made the announcement mid-July, and one team will be selected by the end of summer 2004 to further develop its master plan over the next six to nine months. Construction, in this phased process, is anticipated to begin in 2006.

The High Line was built in the 1930s to remove freight trains from city streets, and although the structure has not been used for this purpose since 1980, it has remained an iconic landmark for New Yorkers. Friends of the High Line, a community-based nonprofit group, was formed in 1999 to preserve the structure for reuse as an elevated promenade through the federal rail-banking program, which was created by Congress in 1983 to preserve abandoned transportation corridors for use as trails. In December 2002, the city of New York endorsed the project and petitioned the federal board with jurisdiction over the High Line to convert it to an elevated pedestrian walkway and public open space. A year later, FHL sponsored an open international ideas competition, which received 720 entries.

What makes the High Line so exceptional is that, while the steel structure has naturally matured (it has been tested and is structurally sound), a wild, natural landscape has blossomed. These contradictions-man-made versus natural, urban versus pastoral-is what reinforce the importance of maintaining the High Line as an active part of the city fabric, and present a unique opportunity to create a series of dynamic public spaces. Perhaps the only project similar in size, type and urbanistic approach is the Paris Viaduct, a reclaimed railway line converted into a pedestrian promenade with art galleries, shops and cafés below.

Even at this early stage in the High Line proposals, lighting is included as an integrated and considered component: it was one of the required elements to be discussed in the presentations. Among the four finalist teams, each led by an architectural and landscape architecture firm, prominent lighting designers and artists who work with light are involved. Artist Olafur Eliasson and lighting firm L'Observatoire is part of the Field Operations team; Halie Light and L'Observatoire are working with the Zaha Hadid-led group; Renfro Design Group Lighting Consultants are on board with Holl; and lighting designer Domingo Gonzales and artist James Turrell are working with TerraGRAM.

While it is still early to say how the High Line will ultimately be developed, the proposals offer numerous possibilities to engage architecture, landscape, art and ecology. Field Operations incorpor-ates the diverse ecologies in an 'agri-tecture' that combines the natural and man-made. Hadid's proposal involves a place-making and lighting vocabulary that evokes fluidity and the linear nature of the High Line itself. The Holl team sees a 'suspended valley,' where the underside, illuminated with an LED lighting system, is as important as the top. Finally, TerraGRAM focuses on the 'primacy of time and process' in defining the landscape. No matter which team is selected, both the process and the result will leave an urban fabric richer for it. elizabeth donoff