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A different West Side Story: How a boulevard changed Manhattan

May 04, 2022

By Gary Sorge

Replacing the elevated West Side Highway with a boulevard was decades in the making—and now we can see its true community impact

For decades, Manhattan’s elevated West Side Highway cast a shadow on its waterfront. Initially built in the 1930s to increase road safety, improve vehicle travel times, and aid commerce, it physically and visually cut off neighborhoods from the Hudson River.

Worse, as the elevated highway fell into disrepair, it attracted crime and the corridor became a place to avoid. The working waterfront was not as vibrant as in decades past and the lack of pedestrian activity created a sense of isolation and disconnect from nearby neighborhoods.

Berenice Abbott, West Side Express Highway and Piers 95-98. Photo taken from 619 West 54th Street, November 10, 1977. (Credit: Museum of the City of New York 49.282.167)

Fast forward a few more decades and the area has been completely transformed due in great part to the vision of the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), city stakeholders, and design consultants. Defining features of the West Side of Manhattan like the High Line, Little Island, and Chelsea Piers perhaps would not be what they are today without the removal and rethinking of the highway. The shores along the Hudson River currently boast some of the most visited—and Instagrammed—sites in New York.

New Yorkers may still refer to the street as the “West Side Highway,” but we would argue the “West Side Boulevard” is more appropriate. Committing to transforming this 5.9-mile corridor of the city into a safer, more inviting space for residents, business owners and patrons, and visitors was not always a foregone conclusion. It took years of planning and consultation—listening and modifying the plan to fit community needs without compromising safety, connectivity, commerce, and aesthetics.

While replacing the elevated highway with a boulevard significantly changed the streetscape, it also spurred a burst in real estate activity including new housing and retail, office, and public space for people. 

Early concept of the West Side Boulevard south promenade.

While other American cities consider adapting their own urban highways, Manhattan shows us what a transformative effect these projects can have on an entire city—well beyond the street itself. As conversations around urban highways are picking up, it makes sense to reflect on the origins of the West Side Boulevard, its influence on the city, and the Stantec-led design.

Making way for people and public space

The plans for the West Side Boulevard took years of consultation by NYSDOT with community leaders, city transportation officials, and myriad others. The final design choice for the updated boulevard was much more pedestrian-friendly than what had come before.

Wide sidewalks, tree-lined medians, and refuge space for pedestrians on center medians greatly enhance cross-town pedestrian flow. The boulevard improves access to the river’s edge and its expansive park and recreation space. More than 500 trees were planted between Chambers Street and Battery Place alone, providing shade, mitigating heat gain, and improving drainage—all important for urban resilience. A separated bikeway that was part of the proposed boulevard, called the Hudson River Greenway, includes a planted buffer that makes active transportation an attractive choice, while enhanced lighting makes the corridor more inviting to pedestrians 24/7.

A portion of the West Side Boulevard today.

Construction of the project was nearly complete on September 11th, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers fell onto the roadway. While some design elements were changed to accommodate new security requirements and the 9/11 Memorial site, the spirit of the original design persevered. After September 11th, the project took on a new meaning—the completion of the Boulevard marked another milestone in the community’s recovery from the horror of that day.

While there was some doubt as to whether the area would recover, skepticism was swept away by subsequent years of park and open space creation and private investment in the corridor. Newly created public spaces led to increased real estate investment and property tax revenue along the west side of Manhattan along with the crowds of residents and visitors who flock to the west side. Street design after 9/11 revived originally conceived approaches to enhance east-west pedestrian connectivity, linking neighborhoods to the waterfront.

Quality of life indicators also improved along the corridor. Reduced traffic has improved air quality, and extensive tree plantings create a more walkable and appealing streetscape character. The increased evapotranspiration and shade provided by urban trees has reduced peak summer temperatures between 2- and 9-degrees Fahrenheit, according to the EPA—a welcome update as cities grapple with rising temperatures from global warming.

Another direct result of the project was the creation of the Hudson River Park Trust. The Trust oversees a 500-acre park made up of bikeway, recreation piers and uplands, and greenery stretching 5 miles north from Battery Park City. According to Peter Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, LEED AP, and professor of architecture at City College New York and Columbia University:

“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.” (April 28, 2015)

Adopting 19th and early 20th century design principles was central to the at-grade boulevard. Those principles prioritize pedestrians with the use of wide sidewalks, frequent crossings of the thoroughfare, landscape and site amenities for scale and comfort, a dedicated nonmotorized pathway, and reduced vehicle speeds.

If a pedestrian-centric design for a major vehicular thoroughfare can succeed in a city as congested as New York, it can work in any city.

Community mobility, not just another thoroughfare

The West Side Highway’s original design sought to “speed” traffic through the city at 40 mph. Statements of its greatness were not held back, some calling it the greatest highway of its kind in the world. The first serious discussion of replacing it came in 1973, when part of the structure collapsed under the weight of a dump truck filled with asphalt.

Years of proposals followed, which included building a costly new interstate highway buried in a tunnel under the Hudson River, new elevated configurations, and at-grade boulevard options. The at-grade boulevard configuration was ultimately chosen, and it has been a resounding success.

Approximately 80,000 vehicles now travel daily along the urban boulevard, which is two-thirds of the daily traffic that traveled along the elevated viaduct nearly half a century ago. The boulevard configuration moves traffic at a similar speed to the surrounding neighborhood (30 mph posted speed limit), which is always a safer option in the city. Because it’s at-grade, vehicles have much better access to the narrow east-west streets of the city grid. Instead of fewer exits that create and conflict with slower local traffic, the transition from boulevard to local road better disperses traffic.

The boulevard design works for different mobility modes because it acts as a governor that allows traffic to flow steadily, while pedestrians can safely move north-south parallel to the boulevard, and east-west across it. The large right-of-way allows for physically separated paths and plenty of trees, which are critical to encourage active transportation like walking and cycling.

Crossing the West Side Boulevard at Chambers Street in Tribeca.

Equally important to maintaining vehicular traffic flow, pedestrians were a critical consideration in the design. Wide crosswalks include ample space for people to cross, along with refuge areas on medians that provide a great level of comfort to those who cannot cross the boulevard in one signal phase, and optimized traffic signal timing to maintain reasonable level of service for vehicles. The result is a safer and more pleasant on-street experience—very different from crossing a highway.

The boulevard has become a canvas for a new approach to urban mobility. New walkway paths and a bikeway were part of the boulevard design concept, not an afterthought, and shared mobility options continue to develop along the corridor as well. 

Median plantings, safety bollards, and other improvements make the boulevard a much more pedestrian-friendly environment.

The Hudson River Greenway is now the busiest bikeway in the US, offering safe, convenient travel, and possibly the fastest way to get from Midtown to Lower Manhattan. It has also been a major contributor to increased cycling in New York, including a 55% growth in west Midtown bike traffic between 2013 and 2018, per data from NYCDOT.

Continuous and completely separated bike paths like the Hudson River Greenway can create a tipping point for people who are interested in active modes of transportation but otherwise feel unsafe. We’ve observed that urban greenways provide greater mobility access than on-street protected bike lanes.  

The Hudson River Greenway along the boulevard is a key ingredient in New York’s renewed focus on active transportation.

It could also be argued that the success of the Greenway has led to prioritizing the encirclement of Manhattan with a continuous walkway and bikeway, increasing active transportation and access to Manhattan’s waterfront. The East Midtown Greenway project, currently under construction, will be the latest addition—a critical link in the city’s plan to create a continuous loop of a dedicated bikeway around Manhattan.

Creating space for New York’s newest icons

We sometimes wonder—would public and private investment in Manhattan’s west side over the past two decades have been realized without the redesign of the West Side Highway? It could be argued that the friendlier scale of the design set the stage for more serious discussion around turning an abandoned rail line into today’s High Line.

And just across from the High Line, Little Island, the notable 2.4-acre floating park on the Hudson River, may never have been envisioned and realized without enhanced waterfront access afforded by the urban boulevard.

Hudson Yards and its well-publicized observation deck, The Edge, broke ground as the West Side Highway project was nearing its completion. The skate park, river park, and gardens along Chelsea Piers may not be the same destination they are today without the improved access and waterfront visibility created by the boulevard.

Perhaps more important than any of these destinations, Manhattan’s west side and riverfront has become a destination for tourists, workers, and residents alike—something that was almost unimaginable in the 1970s and ’80s. New York’s West Side landscape provides respite and an urban oasis that speaks to what is possible when a state and city prioritize public space for people in large scale transportation infrastructure projects.

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere

The Interstate Highway System brought extraordinary problems to cities, perhaps revealing that interstates and cities are fundamentally incompatible. It is difficult to integrate local traffic moving at 20 mph and masses of pedestrians with an interstate and a limited access highway that wants to move vehicles at 55 mph.

The West Side Highway to boulevard conversion was part of the first generation of highway “removals.” Like the Embarcadero in San Francisco, they both were a response to crisis. But what they also showed is that the traffic nightmare imagined with a highway removal didn't happen. People adapted and came to realize that the benefits of highway removal outweighed the costs.

The next generation of highway removal projects will not be in reaction to disasters—they will be proactively reconfigured into at-grade streets, parks, or development sites for community gain. These projects will have the benefit of the lessons learned from pioneering projects like the West Side Boulevard.

The recently signed Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill has put transportation investment on the national agenda, and many other cities are looking at their own urban highway removal projects. While the scope of this type of project can be enormous, the West Side Highway removal, the Embarcadero, and the City of Rochester’s Inner Loop provide a blueprint for success when political hurdles, engineering and environmental feasibility, and cost constraints may seem insurmountable.

If a pedestrian-centric design for a major vehicular thoroughfare can succeed in a city as congested as New York, it can work in any city.

  • Gary Sorge

    A landscape architecture discipline lead, Gary seeks nature-based solutions with a multidisciplinary approach, collaborative design, and attention to detail—advocating for healthier, more equitable, and sustainable places designed within communities.

    Contact Gary
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