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Roberta Brandes Gratz

Roberta Brandes Gratz

Posted: October 13, 2010 02:15 PM

Twenty-five years ago this month, the national transportation debate changed course when New York City traded in the Interstate Highway funds designated to build the highway along the Hudson River, called Westway, for transit funding.

Today, the focus of that nationwide debate is on taking down sections of the elevated roadways that had demolished whole neighborhoods and divided cities. Cities like Milwaukee, San Francisco and New Orleans (in one small neighborhood), have done it with spectacular urban rebirth as the result. Many additional ones - New Orleans, Buffalo, Seattle and others - plan to follow suit. Boulevards that carry multiple forms of traffic - vehicular, transit, bicycles, pedestrians - with park amenities are the goal.

But at the time of the Westway debate, building highways, devaluing transit and ignoring needs of pedestrians was the rule of the day. Additionally, that debate focused a spotlight on the parkland potential of urban waterfronts. Until then, waterfronts were mostly the site of messy, often noxious industrial and shipping activity.

At its simplest, Westway was a 12-lane highway proposed to be built on landfill in the Hudson River along the West Side of Manhattan. One section would have been built in a tunnel under the 200 acres of new landfill that was planned to be half park and half new high rise development.

But Westway was more than a highway; it reflected a national mindset. First proposed in the 1970s, Westway reflected post-war thinking that highways were the most important transportation investment. Mass transit funding diminished -- one might say was starved -- to fund roads. The deterioration of public transit and its disappearance in many places around the country is legendary.

Westway was also more than a national debate about a highway or even the larger transportation issues. It drew out differences over how cities function and how they are reinvigorated. In the broadest sense, the battle over Westway should have been the final chapter -- a postscript -- in the long-standing clash of urban strategies defined by the battles in the 1950s and 60s between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, best known by the fight over the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The Jacobs-led opponents won that battle; the birth of SoHo and Tribeca -- areas designated for demolition for the road -- was the result.

By the time the Westway fight was engaged, the highway resistance, inspired by Jacobs' victory with the Lower Manhattan Expressway, had strength. The opposition consisted of a loose alliance: environmentalists, local legislators, transit advocates, community boards, preservationists, fiscal conservatives, and liberals aided by some transportation and environmental officials inside government agencies. This was an unusual alliance. Until then, representatives of those same disciplines had not recognized the connectivity of their interests.

The battle raged during the 1970s and into the 80s until Mayor Ed Koch and Governor Hugh Carey opted to trade in the federal highway funds in 1985 for a combination of transit and highway investments just as the opportunity for all the states to trade in such funding was about to expire. The debate was a plebiscite on mass transit or highways. It crystallized the issue and strengthened the resolve of transit advocates.

This was the beginning of the end of the automobile fixation. Westway expanded the debate. People realized that transit, pedestrian-friendly streets and policies to contain auto traffic were the lifeline of the city, any city. Today this understanding is almost universal.

But the positive fallout from the defeat goes way beyond the transit vs. car debate, in many ways still unrecognized. First there exists now the best kind of redeveloped waterfront and rebuilt boulevard-like surface highway and second, the reinvestment in transit delivered benefits never recognized as possible. The infusion of trade-in funds was a catalyst for more transit funding from the state legislature.

With improved transit, neighborhoods around the city experienced tremendous infusions of new residents, lured, in part, by vastly improved transit service. A stronger awareness of an interest in the full 575 miles of city waterfront evolved or was accelerated after the intense focus on this 5-mile stretch and that interest spread to waterfronts in other cities. And, perhaps least understood, more local jobs all over New York State were created with the transit investment than would have come with the highway, so dependent on far-off sites for cement, steel and other road building supplies.

Westway proponents had vigorously argued that the landfill and highway development were absolutely necessary to spur the revival of this stretch of the West Side. Without Westway, the area was "doomed," experts said. They were wrong. The area was certainly "ramshackle," to say the least. The condition was not debatable; the cause of it was. And Westway as a cure was a joke.

Grand plans -- for highways, urban renewal, stadia and the like -- actually work as impediments to authentic regeneration. Their defeat makes regeneration possible. That is what happened on Manhattan's far West Side, now containing some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country.

Without the death threat hanging over the properties, both ordinary and distinctive buildings got renovated and upgraded. New ones were built on vacant lots. Some old buildings, both the ordinary and the architecturally notable, were torn down and replaced.

The rebirth followed precisely the SoHo pattern following the defeat of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. In fact, the same pattern is more recently visible in cities across the country tearing down elevated highways or converting surface highways to boulevards.

The reconfigured and rebuilt six-lane West Side Highway that was built instead, it should be noticed, handles traffic just fine. Without the landfill, the largest and most interesting new park since construction of Central Park has been built along the Hudson waterfront, an interesting combination of passive and active spaces all connected by a well-used bikeway.

Twenty-five years in the evolution of a city is not such a long time. But in the case of Westway's demise, that event was transformative. And while the positive impacts are many, diverse and often small in scale, the overall scale of change is huge.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of the recently published "The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs," Nation Books.