The Surprise in This Box?
A Highway, Some Assembly Required
By JAMES BARRON
June 23, 2006
Quietly, if the arrival of a wheezing, chugging pile driver can be described that way, a construction crew is beginning to build a highway in a box on the West Side of Manhattan.
Or, more precisely, a box for a highway.
Maybe, years from now, the highway will be routed through the box. Maybe.
The road is the West Side Highway, which between West 59th and West 72nd Streets runs on a viaduct. For generations the ground below the viaduct was a no-man's land of railroad tracks. But as apartment buildings began to rise above it, on the eastern edge of the 13-block-long parcel in the 1990's, the lower western edge was transformed into a 23-acre park.
Now, as work begins on four more apartment buildings in the planned 17-building community, the highway-in-a-box crew will build the structure to contain the West Side Highway between 59th and 72nd Streets when the viaduct is no longer viable. Because the viaduct is less than 15 years old — still fairly young for a viaduct — no one expects the city to consider routing the road through the box for at least 10 to 15 years.
Michael W. Bradley, who has played a major role in getting the highway-in-a-box going, is careful to say what the project is not. It is not Westway, the underground road that residents waged war on and that the city abandoned in the 1980's. It is nothing like the Big Dig, Boston's leak-prone tunnel project, and its $180 million price tag is nowhere near the Big Dig's $14.6 billion.
"It's all relatively simple construction," said Mr. Bradley, the executive director of Riverside South Planning Corporation, a nonprofit organization formed by five civic groups and Donald J. Trump, when he was the developer for the buildings at the edge of the site. "You don't have to excavate and relocate the utilities and shore everything up."
Unless the utilities and the buildings to which they are connected have already been built.
That is why the four new buildings created an opportunity for Mr. Bradley's group to start on the box, as well as what he called "Rubik's Cube of construction" — the work on the box would have to be coordinated with work on the four new buildings.
The first step in building the box is to place steel support columns — hence the pile driver — between 65th and 64th Streets.
"If this is done now, you save a ton of money and heartaches," Mr. Bradley said. He estimated that the savings would total "at least $40 million."
But with the box ready when the viaduct needs to be replaced, the cost of rerouting the highway could be about the same as building a new viaduct.
Some excavation would still be necessary, because the space for the box between 65th and 69th Streets was filled in when the first of the apartment buildings was being built. The box was suggested in the city's 1992 agreement that allowed Riverside South to be built, and the responsibility for building it was the developer's.
For years the developer was Mr. Trump, who Mr. Bradley acknowledged was a "lightning rod" for opponents. "Just by his presence," Mr. Bradley said, "there were people who might have seen the merits of the project but were either turned off or scared."
But Mr. Trump's Hong Kong partners sold the Riverside project last year for $1.76 billion. And now Jerrold L. Nadler, who represented the Upper West Side in the New York State Assembly and now represents it in Congress, says that "their obligation was to build the box at their expense — Trump, Riverside South, whoever's building it."
By Riverside South's calculations, $30 million in private money will be spent on the box project, along with $150 million in city, state and federal transportation money. The state is committed to building the southbound section of the box between 65th and 62nd Streets, Riverside South says.
But Mr. Nadler took issue with using city or state money to excavate filled-in stretch between 65th and 69th Streets. "They're going to say, 'We have to remove the landfill and build the box at public expense,' " Mr. Nadler said.
"That's wrong. If and when there's an agreement that we ought to move the highway, then the box ought to be there, built at their expense, not at public expense."
Mr. Bradley said that by the time the environmental impact statement on the highway-in-a-box concept was finally completed in 2001, there was a consensus that "it doesn't make any sense to do this now, but maybe we'll get back to this" when the existing elevated road is showing its age.
Some longtime opponents of the Westway are equally unhappy about the box project. "It is absolutely the wrong thing to do," said Olive Freud, an organizer of the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development.
"If they wanted to do something for the people in the neighborhood, they'd complete Riverside Boulevard and forget about the highway," she said. The boulevard was created to run in front of the new apartment buildings.
But the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, said the park "will be a better park if the highway is underground and the park's on top."
"It really makes a lot of sense," he added. He called Carl Schurz Park, on the Upper East Side next to Gracie Mansion, "a much better park because the highway is underneath it, not next to it or on top of it."
"I think a lot of people now realize no matter how nice Hudson River Park is, it would have been nicer if Westway had been built in some configuration," he said. "The highway would have been underground, we would have had a much larger park and a much better connection from the community to the park."
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company