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West Street: A Little-Noticed Success
If a 19th-century method of moving traffic can succeed in a city as congested as Manhattan, it can work in many other cities as well.
By Peter Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, LEED AP
April 28, 2015
Whenever I drive along the Hudson River on West Street, I marvel at what has been built there, and how well it works. I note that West Street is based on precedents that originated in the 19th century, yet are appropriate to the needs of the city in the 21st century. At the same time, I think about how close New York City came to constructing an inappropriate Interstate Highway along the river.
The story begins in 1929, when construction began on the West Side Elevated Highway. The highway, which was designed to “speed” traffic through the city at a swift 40 miles-per-hour, was described then as perhaps the greatest highway of its kind in the world. But in December 1973, a portion of that elevated highway collapsed under the weight of a dump truck filled with asphalt. From this catastrophe arose the proposal to replace the West Side Highway with a new Interstate Highway buried in a tunnel under the Hudson River. This proposal provoked passionate opposition and, in the end, it was not constructed. Surprisingly, the West Side Highway Replacement Project (West Street), which carries traffic at grade on a local boulevard, is a resounding success. What can we learn from this unexpected result?
A West Side Highway timeline
The saga of the West Side Highway is long and complicated. Beginning in 1929, New York’s Henry Hudson Parkway and the West Side Elevated Highway were built as public works projects. The parkway ran at grade from the Spuyten Duyvil neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan, south to West 72nd Street. At 72nd Street, the road continued as a 60-foot-wide, six-lane elevated highway running parallel to the Hudson River, and extending to the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan, a distance of about 13 miles. Elevating the highway allowed the essential business of the city piers to continue unimpeded at street level along the river.
By the 1960s, the elevated highway was in disrepair. In 1971, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) proposed reconstructing the West Side Highway as an Interstate, with parks and apartments to be constructed above it on platforms. While that proposal was under review, the 1973 collapse near Gansevoort Street derailed the plan, and the UDC immediately proposed Westway, an ambitious $2.1 billion project to bury the highway in the Hudson, and cover it with new landfill, which could be developed at grade.
The prospect of adding more landfill to the Hudson River led to significant opposition based on environmental considerations. Nevertheless, in 1981, the Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit to New York City for the project. In reaction, the Clean Air Campaign and other opposition groups sued in federal court. Two years later, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Griesa stopped all work on the project, finding that the Army Corps of Engineers had not considered the impact of the landfill on striped bass that spawned in the river. Then, in 1985, Judge Griesa ruled that the Army Corps still had not adequately addressed the impact of landfill on the river’s ecosystem; thus, four years into the project, the Interstate Highway could not go forward. At that point, New York City abandoned Westway.
A new boulevard is proposed
After the collapse in 1973, traffic was diverted to West Street, the local road that ran at grade under the elevated highway. In 1986, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) hired the engineering firm of Vollmer Associates to develop alternatives to replace the West Side Highway. In 1989, during the protracted process of evaluating alternatives, New York City dismantled the original elevated highway.
Finally, in 1993 – 20 years after the highway collapse near Gansevoort Street – the New York State and New York City Departments of Transportation concluded that the local street was handling traffic and serving local businesses better than a high-speed Interstate would be able to do; the two agencies approved a replacement project to upgrade West Street; the $811 million West Street Improvement Project was funded with a portion of the money that had been designated for Westway. Construction of the West Side Highway Replacement Project (West Street) was completed in 2001, 28 years after the UDC first proposed Westway.
The design transformed West Street into a riverside boulevard consisting of three lanes in each direction (north and south), separated by a 19-foot-wide raised planting strip with room for turning lanes, which occur approximately every two blocks. The West Side Highway had provided only three off-ramps – at 23rd, 42nd, and 57th Streets – limiting east-west traffic connections. The West Street boulevard allows traffic moving on the larger road to access the narrow east-west streets of the city grid. Overall, the West Street improvements extend from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel at the southern tip of Manhattan, north to 57th Street, where plantings and turning lanes terminate and West Street ramps up to an elevated extension of the Henry Hudson Parkway.
The impact of the new boulevard on the west side of Manhattan has been extraordinary. On the west side of West Street, new parks, bicycle lanes, and walking paths have been developed along the Hudson. On the east side of the boulevard, residential and commercial construction has taken place. West Street has liberated the West Side of Manhattan, and the area continues to thrive and improve.
Precedents from the 19th century
The success of the West Street boulevard is based on 19th- and early 20th-century models for urban movement. It is instructive to look briefly at the changing agendas of the past 150 years in order to understand West Street and its positive effects.
• Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn is the world’s first parkway. It was conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1866, and constructed between 1870 and 1874. Its purpose, the designers said, was to create a landscaped road built expressly for “pleasure riding and driving” as a scenic access to Prospect Park. This idea to bring the countryside into the city influenced the construction of major parks and parkways in cities throughout the United States.
• Riverside Drive, constructed between 1875 and 1910, is the scenic north-south boulevard along the western edge of Manhattan Island, extending from 72nd Street to 181st Street. It was originally designed by Olmsted to mediate between the orthogonal layout of the Commissioners Grid and the winding (serpentine) pastoral edge of the Hudson River. The drive is bordered on the east by residential buildings that overlook the Hudson, and on the west by Riverside Park. (The Henry Hudson Parkway was constructed at the edge of the river in the 1930s.) The scenic boulevard provides access to the residential buildings and the local streets.
• Mosholu Parkway is a scenic, grade-level roadway in the Bronx, constructed between 1935 and 1937, as part of the parkway network created by Robert Moses. Mosholu Parkway extends for three miles from the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo (where its southeast end meets the Bronx River Parkway), and Van Cortlandt Park (where its northwest end meets the Henry Hudson Parkway). Mosholu Parkway carries the 19th-century boulevard concept into the 20th century.
What can we learn from this saga?
When I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture in the 1970s, I participated in a studio taught by urban designer David Craine. The problem given to the students was a crosstown expressway to be located on South Street in Philadelphia, extending east from the Schuylkill River to the Delaware River. My two partners on the project were in the urban design program; I was in the architecture program.
As a solution to the problem, we suggested an urban boulevard – six lanes of moving traffic divided by a planted median strip with generously-sized, tree-lined sidewalks on both sides. Our project was ignored; from the faculty point of view, our boulevard solution did not address the highway problem.
At approximately the same time, one of the graduate students in the architecture program used this same expressway problem as his final independent thesis project. He designed a great arching highway resembling the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that could be seen from anywhere in the city of Philadelphia. His proposed highway would be capable of spreading noise and pollution all over south Philadelphia. Yet, the architecture faculty and the dean of the school admired it so much that they awarded it the prize for the best thesis project of the year. It is hard to imagine how inflexible – and inappropriate – the conventional wisdom was at that time. The good news is that the South Street Expressway was never built.
Philadelphia’s proposed South Street Expressway and New York City’s proposed Westway have much in common. Both expressed the conventional wisdom of the 1970s. Perhaps some lessons were learned: an Interstate Highway, whether at grade, in a ditch, buried, or elevated, provides high-speed movement and as few exits as possible. As a consequence, wherever an exit occurs, traffic will back up as motorists transition from the high-speed expressway to the slower-moving local streets. As a case in point, consider the Lincoln Tunnel where it empties into lower Manhattan – an unceasing neighborhood traffic jam.
Why the West Street boulevard is effective:
• It acts as a filter to allow the more intense traffic of the boulevard – which moves well, even if not at highway speed – to connect every two to four blocks to the narrow east-west streets of the New York City grid.
• It works for pedestrians moving north-south parallel to the boulevard, and east west across it.
• It provides a human scale, with a visual connection between the new development along the west side, the boulevard, and the park landscape along the river.
• It stimulates real estate development and increases tax revenue along the west side.
The big picture
Perhaps we can look at West Street in the wider context. The Interstate Highway System brought extraordinary problems to the cities; Interstates and cities are fundamentally incompatible. It is difficult to integrate stop-and-go local traffic moving at 20 miles-per-hour with Interstate Highway traffic, which wants to move at 75 miles-per-hour.
The West Street boulevard is an example of 19th-century urbanism constructed at the end of the 20th century and functioning well in the 21st century. Perhaps the conventional wisdom does change. If a 19th-century method of moving traffic can succeed in a city as congested as Manhattan, it can work in many other cities as well.
Peter Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, LEED AP, is the founding partner of Peter Gisolfi Associates, Architects and Landscape Architects, LLP, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and New Haven, Connecticut. He is also a professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York. His articles and essays have been widely published nationally. His book, Finding the Place of Architecture in the Landscape, expresses his ideas about architecture and landscape architecture and their relationship to setting. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also by Gisolfi:
Cities: The Erosion of Urban Identity
The Place of Architecture as an Art Form in the Changing Cultural Landscape
INSIGHT: Let's Quiet Down: The Case for Places,
Regionalism, and Sustainability
INSIGHT: Small-Scale Solution to Alternative Energy
INSIGHT: Collaboration and Compromise: A Misunderstood
Aspect of the Design Process
INSIGHT: Save What's Left: Architects as Stewards of Our
(click on pictures to enlarge)
West Street in the West Village, looking south; towers on left are Richard Meier & Partners’ Perry Street condos.
Aerial of the same stretch of West Street as above.
A segment of Hudson River Park, with West Street running south.
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