New York City's High Line park Credit: Image courtesy Virginia Film Festival

For many Charlottesville residents, the notion of transforming decaying public infrastructure into an iconic destination of its own is well understood.  In 1976, the city converted a portion its Main Street into a pedestrian plaza that is the Charlottesville Downtown Mall.

Those who enjoy Charlottesville’s blend of towering trees and an urban landscape will surely connect to a documentary being shown tonight in the Newcomb Hall Theater at the Virginia Film Festival.

“Diller Scofidio + Renfro: Reimagining Lincoln Center and the High Line” examines the work of one architecture firm through two of its marquee projects – a revitalized performing arts center and the conversion of a derelict elevated railroad into a New York City public park.

“We chose to focus on two of their projects, the High Line, where they were part of a team, and their work at Lincoln Center, where they were hired to do renovations around the arts campus,” said co-director Tom Piper of the Manhattan-based Checkerboard Film Foundation.

Piper said the film is the 12th in a series on architects, people, he said, who are known for being reluctant to return to and talk about their works.

“Even though they are based in New York, it was still hard to get them to take time to come to the site,” Piper said.  “We didn’t want seated interviews with talking heads.  In the end they were great and really cooperative.”

One Belmont resident involved in the reimagining of the Belmont Bridge is particularly excited to see the documentary.  In early 2012, Brian Wimer launched a grassroots design contest to identify alternatives to a generic rebuilding of the decaying Belmont Bridge.

“The High Line was hugely influential in me getting involved on the Belmont Bridge project,” Wimer said.  “I lived in New York and they took something you never knew was there and now you walk that part of town and it’s been revitalized beyond anyone’s dreams of what could have happened.”

The High Line was originally built as an elevated freight railroad that serviced warehouses on Manhattan’s West Side until 1980.  Today, a significant portion of the 1.5 miles track has been converted into an urban park with water features, observation areas, trees, and grass.

The old rail tracks remain an integral part of the design.  Sophisticated lighting allows evening users to see where they are walking but the light is cut off below eye level so the city’s skyline is equally visible.

However, the painstaking attention to detail in the High Line’s design was far from the mind of the two men who organized its rebirth as a park.

In 1999, while working in a dot-com start-up, resident Robert Hammond read a New York Times article announcing that the tracks were slated for demolition.  That catapulted him into his first local government planning meeting.

There Hammond met travel writer Joshua David, apparently the only other person in the city that cared enough about saving the High Line to attend.

Hammond and David were both busy with their careers, and they did not have backgrounds in planning or architecture.  Additionally, they had no experience in finding $150 million in donations to build the High Line’s first two sections.

In a presentation at Harvard University in 2011, Hammond said being “neighborhood nobodies” was actually a key to their success.

“When we started it, we definitely didn’t have a plan, we definitely didn’t have any money, and we had no relevant experience,” Hammond said in 2011.  “In a lot of ways that’s been a key to our success.  If we had been architects, that would have been the one thing that would have doomed it.

“We didn’t have a vision for it … we just knew it shouldn’t be demolished and there should be some different ideas.”

Wimer said there was a parallel to his local activism and he continues to be involved in the city’s effort to evaluate whether it should build a bridge or underpass in Belmont.

“I didn’t know what my vision was for the Belmont Bridge, that’s why we had the design competition,” Wimer said.

Following the contest, Siteworks Studios and architect Jim Rounsevell were hired by the city of Charlottesville to sift through the entries and devise a new solution. Their two concepts which are still under review by the city were a bridge with bike lanes and an underpass.

Rounsevell said one reason the High Line is so successful is because it introduced something that was absent in that part of Manhattan — green space.

“It is in juxtaposition to the buildings around it,” said Rounsevell.  “We live in a city that’s pretty green and doesn’t have the density of New York.”

“That said, one can look at High Line in terms of an idea and having a condition where you can fundamentally transform a neighborhood or a city with a park-like structure,” Rounsevell said.  “I continue to be vocal about the idea that a vehicular Belmont Bridge is a barrier.  If you take it away and make it a vibrant pedestrian experience, that’s your transformative moment.”

Wimer also sees the High Line as a teachable moment.

“I hope that a lot of people in community come see this film,” Wimer said.  “It highlights what’s possible, hopeful and imaginative.  It inspires people to get involved and create the city they dream about.”

“When people say we can’t create a bike lane, I say you aren’t thinking hard enough,” Wimer added.  “The high Line has chaise lounges you can lie down on and watch the sun set.  On our Downtown Mall they remove the chairs.”

“In our city, a lot of these things just don’t manifest themselves and we need to think less about the city we tolerate and more about the city we dream about,” Wimer said.

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