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The Road Not Taken

A $2.1 billion proposal to bury the West Side Highway below 40th Street and build a park on its roof, Westway was the largest development battle in New York City history. The project was on the boards for sixteen rancorous years. It was constantly in the headlines. Over 1,000 articles on the topic appeared in the NEW YORK TIMES.

Richard Silver To its opponents, which included community boards, civic groups, and local politicians, Westway represented a grassroots defeat of the pro-car, planning by fiat mentality embodied by Robert Moses, who blanketed the city in highways during his forty year reign as New York's master builder. To its supporters, Westway was an opportunity tragically squandered, and the entire episode symbolizes the difficulty of building big projects in the city. "No unbuilt project has had a greater impact on New York City's recent history than Westway," essayist Philip Lopate writes in his new book WATERFRONT, "and it haunts every choice made in its stead."

In 1969, the year that city planner Samuel Ratensky and a team of architects first proposed Westway, the highway along Manhattan's Far West Side was in shambles. Built in the 1930s, the road had rapidly deteriorated because of heavy use and the corrosive effects of rock salt and pigeon excrement. The city responded with patchwork repairs, and the problem got worse. In 1973, a section of the highway near Gansevoort Street collapsed.

The highway's structure had also outlived its purpose by 1969. When the West Side Highway was built on an elevated platform, the streets below were lined with shipping piers and warehouses. The road had been built above the grade to get motorists out of the way of the constant flow of trucks moving back and forth between piers and warehouses. But with the advent of containerization, shipping entirely disappeared in Manhattan, and the neighborhoods alongside the highway become desolate.

At first Westway seemed likely to happen. The underground road would have replaced the crumbling highway while providing open access to the waterfront by hiding the traffic underground. Supporters thought it would reinvigorate the surrounding neighborhood. Westway quickly gained the support of major political leaders, business elites, and labor unions. The Federal government was going to finance the project with money from the Highway Trust Fund. Architect Craig Whitaker, who worked for Ratensky and wrote the original plan for Westway, expected that the whole project would be done in four or five years. "Fifteen years later, of course we hadn't broken ground, and the project crashed and burned."

Whitaker attributes the failure of Westway to an anti-government attitude that was understandable considering that the "government had done many things rather badly" in the period leading up to Westway, including slum clearance, and a plan to build an expressway across Canal Street in Lower Manhattan. Whitaker presented Westway before more than 700 community meetings, and found it hard to convey to people that plan was not the Lower Manhattan Expressway reincarnated along the Hudson. For years, Westway's opponents fought the plan on environmental grounds, arguing that it would increase air pollution. Many thought that the federal money earmarked for the project should be traded in for funds to improve New York's mass transit system. In 1985, Judge Thomas Griesa dealt the project its final blow by ruling that Westway might harm the Hudson's striped bass population and therefore couldn't go forward.

Nineteen years later, Craig Whitaker has no personal regrets about Westway, but thinks the city should. "I think some very good people worked very hard on it for a very long time. It just didn't happen. But for the city, it remains a tragedy, and a sad one "
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