"Westway” was the name of the proposed super-highway project to bury the West Side Highway below 40th Street. The highway was planned in 1969, was long fought-against on environmental grounds, and was abandoned in 1985. Westway was one of the largest development battles in New York City history.
“Westway” was nicknamed “Wasteway” by the project’s many critics.
Westway was the name of a proposed project to put New York City’s West Side Highway underground, first planned in 1972 and officially canceled in 1985. It would have involved extensive landfill in the Hudson River off Manhattan to accommodate a highway and real estate development.
Westway had the agreement of all levels of government, which is very rare. The Federal Government agreed to pledge $1.3 billion to the project if ground was broken on a certain date. However, a lawsuit was filed saying the environmental study was not complete because they did not include the effect it would have on the mating habits of the striped bass in the Hudson River. A judge ordered them to complete the study, and because the next striped bass mating season was well after the date ground was supposed to be broken for funding, the project was finally cancelled in 1985.
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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.
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 “
6 June 1983, New York (NY) Times, “Wasteway, Governor? No Way!” by John B Oakes, pg. A17:
Given perennial shortages of both state and city funds, the Westway landfill could well become the Westway wasteland.
2 June 1984, New York (NY) Times, “Instead, Call It Wasteway” by John B. Oakes, pg. 23:
With or without the striped bass, Westway is a fraud on New York’s taxpaying and voting public. This multibillion-dollar landfill and real estate project for Manhattan’s Lower West Side waterfront, disguised as an interstate highway, is a plan whose time has long since come—and gone. It is a politician’s delight, a speculator’s dream, a city planner’s mirage and John Q. Citizen’s nightmare. It deserves to be renamed Wasteway.
13 June 1984, New York (NY) Times, “Westway: Undesirable for Fish and Man Alike” by Robert H. Boyle, letters, pg. A26:
That could also be done at very little cost, and mass transit, which is in a horrible state, would benefit greatly from a $1.5 billion trade-in for Westway, also known as Wasteway.
New York City • Transportation • (1) Comments • Thursday, June 12, 2008 • Permalink
Westway looks like a project that would have provided a long term profit to NYC with the property taxes from the new development, public benefits of extra parkland and a modern largely underground highway and environmental benefits of better controlling run off into the Hudson River- with the striped bass adjusting to the new coastline as they did previously to earlier such addiionl landfills.
The “environmentalist” organizations that killed it really hoodwinked us.