Hudson River Park Origins

Published on Jul 1, 2011

Newcomers to NYC may take the Hudson River Park, which runs from Battery Park to 59th Street, for granted. But it wasn't so long ago that the waterfront was nothing but derelict piers and abandoned industrial buildings. In fact, it was the collapse of a portion of the old, elevated West Side Highway that got the ball rolling on revitalizing the waterfront with parks and an improved West Side Highway. However, it would take decades, and a fight against the original Westway Project, before the current parks emerged as greenspace now enjoyed by thousands of New Yorkers every day. Brian tells us more.

The summertime brings thousands of sunbathers to the luscious lawns and landscaped piers of Hudson River Park, but this sliver of greenspace hasn’t always had a pretty face. In fact, just forty years ago, this area was a derelict, industrial waterfront district that was a constant subject for renewal.

But several revival plans were fought by the strong voices of New York’s urban activists. The Westway Project, in particular, was a 1970s proposal to rebuild the crumbling West Side Highway from an elevated road to a massive, twelve-lane, underground expressway. This project involved new landfill to be created, extending the West Side’s waterfront out to accommodate for parkland and new development. But many were suspect of this plan, and claimed it was a poor solution to the city’s traffic issues.

Opposition quickly gained momentum and many West Side residents took a stand against the developers, as this plan went against the teachings of urban-activist Jane Jacobs (who developed many of her ideas from experience as a resident of Hudson Street in the West Village). Jacobs reminded New Yorkers that a superhighway in Manhattan was sure to promote automobile traffic within the city, rather than ease it (similar to Jacobs’ predictions about the failed LOMEX project just a decade before). After enough public outcry (and 14 years of planning, revisions to the plans, and court cases) the $2.1 billion Westway Project was finally abandoned.

The fight against Westway rescued New York from the car-centric minds of the federal and municipal developers. The activists let it be heard that the plan would not only take away investment from the failing NYC subway system, but would have caused irrecoverable traffic problems instead of relief. What followed was the “West Side Highway Replacement Project”, which extended the Henry Hudson Parkway southward to a ground-level boulevard, at a price that was under half of Westway’s proposal. It also provided a boost to mass transit, as many of the city's highway funds were then allocated to mass transit programs. (You can learn more about the failed Westway Project on Wikipedia.)

The new plan gained approval, and since 1998 development has progressed in stages to open the current Hudson River Park, which stretches from 59th Street to Battery Park. At 550 acres, this park space is Manhattan’s second largest, and preserves the West Side’s maritime legacy in several ways. Still peeking above the waterline are hundreds of original wood beams retained from the piers that once stood. The remaining piers were landscaped into beautiful pockets of parkland that stand as some of the most unique public spaces in the city.

The development that took place in the late 1990s was successful in providing the city with a much needed greenspace on the West Side without a massive superhighway. Today, Hudson River Park remains one of the most utilized recreational spaces in Manhattan, and even offers free kayaking at three separate piers.

And the park isn't finished... plans are in place to continue to develop areas of the park. So enjoy the summer by taking a stroll along this gorgeous greenway, or visit the Chelsea Piers facility at 21st street for other unique activities. Hudson River Park is one recreational space that will continue to engage New Yorkers for sunny weekends to come.

So the next time you're enjoying the Hudson River Park, remember that you're biking/jogging/sunning in a formerly run-down industrial area, and that it took decades of vision, planning and delays to get the park you enjoy today.

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