The Westway Case

A postcard of the West Side Highway. (Source: Preservation Institute)

Striped bass were pitted against development—and the fish won

By Robert S. Eshelman

During the mid-twentieth century New York City underwent a massive transformation of its built environment, led by the controversial urban planner Robert Moses. The automobile was a cornerstone of Moses’ vision. Neighborhoods were bifurcated, circumvented, surrounded, cast into shadow, and even razed due to over a dozen major parkways, expressways, highways, bridges, and stadium parking lots.

Moses built public parks, beaches, and Lincoln Center, too. But after several decades of auto-centric planning, many New Yorkers had had enough. Manhattan’s freeway wars came to a crescendo when, in 1974, the city proposed to tear down a crumbling highway overpass along the Hudson River on Manhattan’s western edge.

In its place, they would construct a four-mile long, six-lane, underground highway running from the Battery Brooklyn Tunnel to 42nd Street. In addition, the $2 billion project, named Westway, included above-ground commercial and residential developments and a 93-acre park.

In 1981, lawyers representing a coalition of neighborhood block associations, public transportation advocacy groups, and environmental organizations sued in federal court. They alleged that the State of New York did not properly study how construction would impact urban development, traffic patterns, air quality, noise, and water quality.

The Striped Bass. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Westway opponents were particularly concerned by the state’s determination that the aquatic habitat within the proposed construction zone was “almost devoid of macroorganisms” and “biologically impoverished,” according to its Environmental Impact Statement. The state of New York claimed, essentially, that there was no significant fish population where they wanted to build Westway.

The plaintiffs disagreed, arguing that construction would deplete striped bass fisheries that ran along the river’s edge. Striped bass are a premier sports fish and a highly important commercial commodity on the East Coast. The Hudson River is one of the primary spawning grounds. Build Westway, the plaintiffs argued, and striped bass stocks would dwindle.

On March 31, 1982 district court judge Thomas P. Griesa ruled that the state’s environmental impact statement failed to properly consider the fish. A new one was released in 1984, which stated that the project would have “significant adverse impact” on them. Westway was dead in the water.

Albert Butzel was the plaintiff’s lead attorney on the case and believes that it has left a very significant legacy. “It has effectively ended land filling along the shore lines,” he says. “It has certainly discouraged a lot of proposals that might otherwise have come down the pike and stopped others.  Most of this is good for the environment but some people, particularly on the development side, feel that it has gone too far and that the limits should be eased.”

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