Rocky’s Last Laugh: The Westway Controversy Comes Full Circle

At a recent holiday gathering, one of the things that came up over cocktails was Superstorm Sandy and two of

The FDR East River Drive. (Photo via Getty Images)
The FDR East River Drive. (Photo via Getty Images)

At a recent holiday gathering, one of the things that came up over cocktails was Superstorm Sandy and two of the proposals to protect us from the next such storm. Both call for adding landfill in the East River near the South Street Seaport. One plan—called “Seaport City”—proposes building housing and new parks. The other—known as “The Big U”—involves digging a tunnel beneath the landfill and sending a portion of the FDR Drive underground.

The proposals come from serious planners and post-Sandy studies. Seaport City emerged from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s post-hurricane revision of his PlaNYC long-term sustainability plan. The Big U was a winner of a design competition—sponsored by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development called Rebuild by Design—seeking proposals to protect the region. Both studies noted that one of the areas least affected by Hurricane Sandy was Battery Park City, largely because it is built on landfill that helped keep back the surging waters.

That’s when one of the older guests said, “That sounds like another Westway with all that landfill!”

“Westway?” asked one of the younger guests. “What’s Westway?”

The questions from the 20- and 30-somethings at a Chelsea holiday party listening in on their parents’ conversation were not surprising. The battles over Westway were over when they were born, and none of their contemporaries have ever tweeted or shared a post about this footnote in New York City history. But as we shared perceptions of the project’s design, community battles and the lawsuit that sealed its fate almost 30 years ago, we suddenly realized that we may have come full circle. The high-rise real estate development that was feared for Manhattan’s west side is a reality. And a highway tunneling through landfill—a key Westway component—is the preferred solution for protecting lower Manhattan’s East River shore from the next Sandy-sized hurricane.

As happened with Westway, battle clouds over the proposals are now gathering. But before we examine the current issues, a bit of historical perspective–indeed, perhaps revisionism–is in order.

Westway was a highway-cum-real estate development project envisioned by Governor Nelson Rockefeller for Manhattan’s lower west side. In the 1970’s, the area was lined with dozens of ship piers—most of them abandoned or decaying. The last of the transatlantic ocean liners were being displaced by 747’s, and the cruise industry was tiny. Newly containerized cargo ships needed large spaces for staging, loading and unloading, so New York’s port activity had shifted to Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey.

Similarly, small-scale manufacturing, which had been an economic driver of the city for more than a hundred years, shrank. Between 1947 and 1980, more than half of New York City’s manufacturing jobs disappeared—falling from 1,047,000 to less than 499,000.

As the manufacturing base was falling apart, so was much of New York’s infrastructure. Maintenance on the subway system that had been deferred in the 1960’s was taking its toll: many subway cars were disabled and most were covered in graffiti.  Tracks were so bad that there were hundreds of “red flag” zones in which subway trains had to slow to 10 mph or less.

Highways were no better. Perhaps the most notorious image of the city’s collapsing infrastructure occurred on December 15, 1973, when a 60-foot section of the West Side Highway collapsed under the weight of a dump truck carrying asphalt for the highway’s repair. Neither the truck driver nor the driver of a passenger car that also fell the 20 feet to West Street below were injured. But the antiquated six lane highway, built between 1929 and 1948 as part of Robert Moses’ parkway system, was at last shut down.

The structure’s collapse—along with serious traffic problems all along the west side of Manhattan—gave new impetus to a project that had been developed by Governor Rockefeller’s Urban Development Corporation. Quickly tabbed Westway, the project called for an underground highway that would run some four miles from the Battery to 42nd street. The highway would tunnel through landfill to be dumped into the Hudson River to replace the dilapidated and abandoned ship piers that dominated the West Side. A platform would be built atop the landfill as a site for both parks and commercial/residential real estate development. Significantly, 90% of the cost would be picked up by the federal government—specifically, the Federal Highway Administration—because the underground road would be designated an interstate highway. The remaining 10% of the estimated $1 billion cost would be paid for by the state.

The plan involved 700 acres, including 178 acres created by landfill extending 600 to 900 feet into the Hudson. Forty-eight percent of the designated area—82 acres or some 2.5 miles of continuous green—was to be parkland managed by the state. The balance of the area would be given to the city to be sold to residential and industrial developers according to the plan negotiated with the City Planning Commission in consultation with the adjacent local Community Planning Boards.

By 1974, the business community largely supported the plan, and it was endorsed by both Mayor Abraham Beame and Governor-elect Hugh Carey (who had been an opponent when in Congress). It looked like a sure thing.

But this was the 1970s, and nascent environmental and community groups were becoming increasingly powerful. There had been earlier opposition to development on the West Side. Some opponents had spent years fighting—and successfully beating—Robert Moses’s three different plans to build expressways that would transverse Manhattan. Having seen how Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway had devastated communities there, they were able to mobilize sufficiently powerful coalitions to prevent a similar disasters in Manhattan. But Westway was different. Here they pursued four sometimes overlapping issues.

First, there was a belief–part ideological and part practical–that Federal Interstate Highway monies should and could be diverted from highways to much-needed mass transit improvements. Second, there was opposition to high-rise real estate development along the generally low-rise West Side. Third, there were environmental air quality concerns. Critics feared that a more efficient interstate highway would attract additional traffic and worsen air pollution. And finally, there were environmental-water-habitat concerns that the proposed landfill would disrupt the Hudson’s ecosystem and endanger dozens of fish species that bred among the piers.

There were many heated claims, some exaggerated, others erroneous. Some critics argued that the new highway would be 12 lanes wide. (It was to be only 6; the same as the original highway and the current, rebuilt West Side Highway). Others said the plan called for 85,000 new apartments. The actual number was 7,100 units spread across three locations. (By comparison, Hudson Yards contains 12,500.)

A man watches the waves in New York Harbor from Battery Park during the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. (Photo via Getty Images)
A man watches the waves in New York Harbor from Battery Park during the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. (Photo via Getty Images)

Not surprisingly, no one ever uttered the words “not in my backyard”—at least not publicly. But NIMBY was in fact very much a rallying point for many West Village residents.  As one admitted recently, as a top researcher for a leading R&D lab, he believed that Westway was an environmentally superior option.  But it would have disrupted life in his immediate neighborhood, and so he opposed it.

In order to proceed, Westway needed a favorable environmental impact statement (EIS). The New York State Department of Transportation issued a draft EIS in 1974, public comments were received and a final EIS was issued in 1977. Over the next three years the State Department of Environmental Conservation repeatedly certified that Westway would not violate state water or air quality standards.

Final approval however, rested with the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army has had authority over the navigable waters of the United States since 1899. And the landfill would affect the navigable Hudson River. In 1981, the Army gave its approval and issued the landfill permit; the Governor and Mayor quickly signed an agreement allowing the project to proceed.

That’s when litigation against the project kicked into high gear.  Lawsuits against the project had been filed as early as 1974, first by Action for Rational Transportation (ART) and then by the Sierra Club.  Now both groups amended their complaints and brought new actions against the state and the Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1982, two trials were held before Federal District Judge Thomas Griesa. The judge enjoined the construction of Westway, unless and until the agencies remedied certain legal deficiencies. Specifically, he wanted the Army to prepare a better environmental impact statement—one consistent with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. It had to address the issue of striped bass fisheries—the migration patterns and egg-laying—among the piers in the Hudson. Judge Grisea also directed the Army to keep complete “records of all activities, deliberations and communications which occur in relation to the landfill permit application.”

In 1984, the Army published its new environmental impact statement, and within a year issued a new landfill permit again allowing Westway to proceed. The plaintiffs, again led by the Sierra Club, alleged wrong-doing, and another trial, this one lasting two months, took place in the summer of 1985.

In his decision at this second trial, Judge Griesa spared little effort to hide his contempt for the Army Corps of Engineers’ behavior between 1982 and 1985. In a 64-page decision, the court detailed the Corps’ half-truths and deceptions it used to justify and approve the landfill permit. In short, the judge held that the Army Corps of Engineers had ignored his orders to conduct a legitimate environmental impact statement; and that they failed to keep good and accurate records.

Judge Griesa’s contempt for the respondents–and for the Corps in particular—was evident throughout the opinion. Although the decision devotes some 30 pages to the spawning habits of the striped bass, one might fairly infer that fish had little to do with the decision. This was about the arrogance of the Corps and state officials, their contempt for the court’s earlier orders, and the Judge’s determination not to allow such arrogance to triumph. Had the state and the Corps complied with the court’s 1982 orders—and conducted an honest SEIS and maintained accurate complete records—the outcome might have been quite different. But in 1985, Westway was officially dead.

How it All Looks Now

Today, the West Side of Manhattan probably looks exactly as the Westway opponents feared it would: high-rise towers are replacing low-scale structures from the Battery to 72nd Street.  Upscale residential buildings follow the Highline from the Meat Market north to 34th street—where they abut the massive Hudson Yards development. And a recently-enacted law out of Albany threatens to transform parts of the West Village and SoHo. It is here where the delicious ironies begin.

One of the indisputably wonderful changes on the West Side that grew out of Westway’s demise was the creation of the Hudson River Park Trust. When finished—it is about 70% complete now—it will total 550 acres of bicycle paths, recreation areas, and greenery stretching from Battery Park City five miles north.

At its midpoint is Pier 40. Originally built in 1963 for the Holland America Line, the Pier was transformed in the late 1990’s into much needed ball fields and a parking garage for 1600 private automobiles.   Unfortunately, its 15 acre site is in desperate need of repair, with costs estimated at $125 million.

Finding this money hasn’t been easy. But in December of this past year, the New York State Legislature passed, and Governor Cuomo signed a bill that is both a creative and controversial solution. The newly enacted law allows the Hudson River Park Trust (which owns Pier 40) to sell the undeveloped air rights over Pier 40 to developers. But the legislation contains a unique twist: the sales are not limited to properties contiguous to the Pier. Instead, the Trust can sell the air rights to developers  across the West Side Highway for a mile north and south of its Houston Street site, and for a full block eastward. It is expected that the sale of the air rights will fund the Pier’s repairs, maintenance and improvements.

But selling those air rights to developers means more apartments, retail activity, commercial space and construction disruption for the still relatively low density West Village and SoHo—just as Westway had threatened to do.

And again, opponents—many original Westway warriors—have rallied. This time, however, their objections do not involve the mating habits of the striped bass. (And of course, there is certainly no utterance of anything that might be construed as NIMBY.) Today they focus their opposition on the area’s vulnerability to storm surges.

Tribeca/NYFEST Soccer Day during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival at Pier 40. (Photo via Getty Images)
Tribeca/NYFEST Soccer Day during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival at Pier 40. (Photo via Getty Images)

One opponent to the Pier 40 plan is Marcy Benstock, once an anti-Westway leader, and today executive director of the Clean Air Campaign.  “There are so many things wrong with it,” Ms. Benstock said of the Pier 40 rescue plan. “The Hudson River estuary is a wild system with wind, tides and storm going every which way. The first priority for the next mayor should not be putting more people in harm’s way along the water.”

Ironically, many of the most serious studies and proposals for protecting New York from the next superstorm agree on one element: the benefits of utilizing landfill. Among the most comprehensive analyses was Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC. The 438-page report noted that Battery Park City—built on landfill from the original World Trade Center excavation—weathered Sandy better than other parts of the city. The landfill in the Hudson actually created a berm which resisted the hurricane’s surging waters. Seaport City grew out of that insight.

So did the Big U, one of the winning design solutions in the HUD competition. The Big U would create a barrier system that would be combined with new buildings, bike paths and parkland that would hold or hold back water.  It would wrap around Manhattan from West 57th Street down to the Battery and up to East 42nd Street, and include a series of berms, seawalls and barriers. A key element of the design is to landfill some of the East River along the lower part of Manhattan, build parks on top of it, and tunnel a new FDR Drive beneath.

And that just may bring the Westway debate full-circle. Landfill—the very thing Westway critics warned would destroy Manhattan—now appears to be vital to the island’s survival.

One wonders if, somewhere, Nelson Rockefeller isn’t smiling after all.

Steve Cohen is an attorney at Kramer Diller Livingston & Moore. Rocky’s Last Laugh: The Westway Controversy Comes Full Circle