At first, you might not pay much attention to it. After all, it doesn't really stick out -- elevated rail lines aren't that unusual in a big city. Street-level trains and pedestrians don't mix well, and in the early 20th Century, New York State adopted a law which moved some of the lines above the street. Indeed, some portions of New York's subway are still above grade, especially once you are out in the boroughs.
These elevated routes, like many rail lines, were not constructed on land the railroad owned in fee. Instead, the owners of the land granted an easement to the rail lines to use the land "for railroad purposes." Which meant that the grant of easement remained only as long as the easement holder used the land for a railroad or related purposes. Again, nothing out of the ordinary there.
But then you remember that Manhattan's last el ran decades ago. The elevated trains eventually were discontinued because they were "loud, dirty, messy, and slow." But even after the railroads ceased operating, some of the structures were not dismantled and removed. The High Line, on Manhattan's west side, is one of those. It was not an elevated passenger line, but carried freight, and opened for service in the 1930's with the last train running some time in the 1980's. Upon discontinuation of the railroad use, the easement should have been extinguished and the land revert to the fee owner.
But this is a rails-to-trails story, so you know what happened next. Eventually, the city converted the former rail line into a unique public park, full of green spaces, Manhattan views, performance venues, and a pedestrian walkway. All right there, in the middle of the big city.
But despite the abandonment of railroad uses and the public taking over the property, the family which owned the reversionary interest was not offered compensation for their property. So they brought suit in the Court of Federal Claims for a taking.
Those of you who follow the blog should be familiar with this tale, because it resulted in a Federal Circuit decision as well as a cert petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. We filed amicus briefs in both venues.
Unfortunately, unsuccessfully, we might add. The Federal Circuit concluded that the Romanoffs' predecessor-in-interest had granted a "general" easement to the railroad, which permitted it to use the land for virtually any purpose it desired, not just a railroad purpose. Thus, the Romanoffs could not complain when the High Line freight line ceased operations and the railroad abandoned the track, and the Romanoffs did not own property that had been taken. The court rejected the argument that New York law had never recognized such an animal as a "general" easement, and indeed, if an easement was interpreted to have granted unlimited use, it really wasn't an "easement" at all, but was a transfer of fee simple title, something which plainly was not intended here.
But that's the story.
So last time we were in New York City, we planned on paying a visit to the High Line to see for ourselves.
We did, and so should you. It's a pleasant place, for sure. Gardens, flowers, nice places to sit and contemplate, just above the busy street.
But we ask this: are the below scenes really a "railway purpose," Federal Circuit?
There's a rail line under there, somewhere.
Only thing missing from this sanitized story is the fact that the Romanoffs were forced to donate their property to the enterprise. Hey, free money!
Green spaces, and a garden-in-the-sky.
The performance stage. Sure looks like a "railroad purpose" to us. As we wrote in our amicus brief, the High Line is used more for "tai chi, 'gender bending performances from the club and theater stage,' and 'stargazing,'" than anything that could conceivably be considered a railroad purpose.
The train schedule. By that we mean the performance calendar.
You know you are in New York by the views.
No mistaking that building.
Watch out for the trains!
Even local businesses play up the rail angle. This seems more of a railroad purpose than the use being made of the former rail line.