3. Westway was a failed replacement for the West Side Elevated Highway

Westway protestors
Westway protestors, photo by Robert Zwirsky via Wikimedia Commons.

Governor Nelson Rockefeller championed a replacement plan, known as the Westway, that would have buried the six-lane highway in 220 acres of new landfill south of 40th Street, placing the new development on land instead of on raised platforms. The project would have cost a whopping $2.1 billion, and it even received support from President Reagan’s Department of Transportation. According to Phillip Lopate in Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan , “Part of what made the Westway plan so costly was that it offered far more than just a highway, encompassing a park and commercial and residential development as well.” Lower Manhattan’s flattened growth and the need for a sudden economic boost were tempting for many in the area. Yet many also objected to the project, noting that the proposal was essentially “the return of an old monster they had already slain.” Jane Jacobs staunchly opposed the project as well.

In 1977, the EPA issued a report showing that Westway was environmentally unsatisfactory and subsequently called for the trading of highway funds for mass transit. However, anti-Westway activists could never concretely prove that Westway would worsen air quality. Judge Thomas Griesa of the U.S. District Court, though, asserted that the road would harm striped bass, blocking the Army Corps of Engineers permit. According to Lopate, “The many enemies of an unbuilt Westway proliferated, however, in part because it remained an abstraction, a clumsy giant born of theory, unable to defend itself from charges of unreality.”

On September 30, 1985, after massive debates and legal disputes, New York City officially gave up on the project, allocating 60 percent of its interstate highway funds to mass transit. The remaining funds of $811 million were allotted for the “West Side Highway Replacement Project.”

For anti-Westway activists, this was a major victory for the city, since subway stations were improved and new trains and computerized monitoring equipment were purchased. And much of the praise (or aggravation) for defeating the project can be attributed to Marci Benstock, “an inspiration to environmental activists everywhere—and a paranoid zealot who does not know when to stop fighting.”