City Journal

Nicole Gelinas
West Side Story
How smart policies, citizen activism, and visionary entrepreneurs transformed a huge swath of Manhattan
Winter 2014
The West Side Highway was a symbol of decay in the early 1980s.
CORBIS
The West Side Highway was a symbol of decay in the early 1980s.

New York City’s population kept expanding through the 12-year mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, as it has for three decades now. The population decline that began during the 1950s and continued through the 1970s—as high crime, worsening schools, and bad mass transit pushed New Yorkers to the suburbs—first started to turn around during the 1980s. But the resurgence has been more dramatic than many realize. Under Bloomberg, New York became home to more people than ever before—8.3 million as of 2012, up from 8 million in 2000 and 7.3 million in 1990. The population now exceeds the previous peak, set in the 1950s, by about 400,000.

New York hasn’t grown evenly, though. The winner during the Bloomberg years was the city’s West Side—north of Greenwich Village, south of Central Park, and west of Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. The area spans Chelsea, Clinton, and Hell’s Kitchen, but also neighborhoods so new that they don’t yet have recognized names. All told, the West Side has added 18 percent more people between 2000 and 2010—a growth rate more than seven times that of the city as a whole. The surge is even more striking when considering that several of New York’s most storied nearby neighborhoods—such as Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side—lost population or remained stagnant over the same period.

The city’s landscape changed dramatically during the Bloomberg years. The mayor believed that New York should continue to grow, and, given the city’s territorial limits, that meant getting taller and denser. Here again, the West Side has been at the forefront. The area is home to one of Bloomberg’s signature development efforts, unleashed by the mayor’s $2 billion commitment to a new subway stop there: the Hudson Yards residential, office, and retail complex.

But the West Side story is about much more than the Bloomberg administration’s development efforts. Forces that long predate Bloomberg’s mayoralty have helped the area thrive, including entrepreneurs’ visions for a once-neglected part of the city. Earlier good-government development decisions have played a role, too—as have the successful efforts of citizen activists to block bad development decisions. And New York’s two-decade-long success at controlling crime provided the civic framework for the resurgence. Mayor Bloomberg is rightly proud of helping the West Side flourish, but future mayors as well as leaders of other cities looking to replicate his success should consider the full picture.

Over the decades, the city—as well as the state—has had plenty of bad ideas for the West Side, which would have darkened its future. Building the West Side that New Yorkers now love was partly a story of people fighting the government—and winning.

A good example was Westway, a proposed, but never built, six-lane highway under new landfill that would have run along the Hudson River from downtown to 42nd Street. Announced in the mid-1970s, the Westway plan responded to two realities that characterized city life at the time. The first was New York City’s short-lived embrace of the automobile as the dominant form of transportation to, from, and through Manhattan. The second was the then-dire state of the city’s infrastructure. Just before Christmas 1973, the old elevated West Side Highway, which had taken cars along the Hudson River for a half-century, began to fall down. “A section of the West Side Highway collapsed yesterday under the weight of a dump truck and a passenger car, both of which fell to the street below,” the New York Times reported. The state-run highway was closed “indefinitely”—which turned out to be forever, after inspectors discovered other crumbling stretches. The inability of state and city to maintain public infrastructure would cost a life a year later, when a 14-year-old boy exploring the abandoned highway on his bike fell through a hole to his death. Westway would be the abandoned highway’s multibillion-dollar replacement.

Just as urbanist Jane Jacobs successfully fought the construction of a Lower Manhattan Expressway a decade before, activists in Greenwich Village and on the Upper West Side defeated Westway. In 1974, the Times described a typical Westway protest: “More than 30 speakers, representing more than a score of West Side community groups and backed by an overflow crowd of several hundred residents . . . gathered last night to denounce, ridicule, and vow eternal opposition to plans for transforming the West Side Highway . . . into a multi-lane interstate highway.” The activists continued their protest until 1985, when federal judge Thomas Greisa nixed Westway on environmental grounds, citing the plan’s potential negative impact on the striped bass that mate on the Hudson River piers. The city and state finally surrendered, building a far more modest street-level route—today’s West Side Highway—during the 1990s.

For many, Westway symbolized the modern city’s inability to build anything. But the plan’s failure was probably a blessing. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if Westway had gone through, of course. Some city planners contend that a hidden highway would have improved the urban environment by sending cars underground and out of sight. Likely, though, Westway would have meant greater congestion. As former city traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz observes, building a more efficient highway “ultimately would have induced more traffic” into Manhattan. And if one considers the history of Boston’s similar Big Dig project, Westway’s defeat does seem the preferable outcome. Planned and built around the same time, the Big Dig transformed a disintegrating elevated highway into a route that winds through underground tunnels. Though the project turned out okay in the end (see “Lessons of Boston’s Big Dig,” Autumn 2007), it wound up costing multiples of the original estimate. For two decades, the Big Dig consumed not just heaps of state taxpayer money but also infrastructure-planning attention—Boston neglected mass transit as well as other infrastructure over this period. Moreover, New York’s integration of the new West Side Highway with surrounding streets and buildings works better than the combination of greenway and surface road that the Big Dig produced. “Winter along the 15-acre park can still be bleak,” the Boston Globe opined in early December; even in winter, New York’s West Side teems with people, partly because of New York’s density.

The West Side has avoided other unwise projects. During the late 1990s, Mayor Rudy Giuliani wanted to build a new baseball stadium for the New York Yankees in the area, an idea that fizzled quickly. A few years later, Mayor Bloomberg also looked to build a stadium as part of the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. That project went down to defeat partly because Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea residents vociferously opposed it. Such megaprojects likely would have had little positive economic impact on the West Side, just as the Javits Center, the 1980s-era complex that takes up much of Eleventh Avenue, has been an economic bust. Convention centers and stadia in otherwise isolated areas like the old West Side tend to attract visitors, not residents, and those visitors often don’t bother to eat at local restaurants or shop in local stores.

Government can spur economic and population growth by building infrastructure, but it must be of the right kind. With Westway dead, New York State and City turned to doing just that on the Far West Side. In 1990, with the underground highway a no-go, the state had to figure out what to do with the West Side’s Hudson River waterfront. Then-governor Mario Cuomo signed legislation that preserved the land for what would become Hudson River Park. It took another half-decade—and another governor—for construction to begin, thanks to $100 million from the state and $100 million from the city. Former governor George Pataki recalls the pushback that he got on the state-funding side. “They said you are building a $100 million sidewalk for liberal West Siders who didn’t vote for you,” he said—“they” being members of his own Republican Party. But Pataki views the park, which opened to the public ten years ago, as a key part of his legacy. “We brought New Yorkers back to their waterfront,” he says. “You couldn’t get to the river before. There was no public access.” The park, always crowded with joggers, dog walkers, and (in warm weather) sunbathers, is now an inextricable part of Manhattan. But it took courage and vision for Pataki and Mayor Giuliani, on the city side, to provide the initial funding.

The park “actually was crucial” in encouraging private-sector development on the Far West Side, maintains Oskar Brecher, head of development for the Moinian Group, which has since built two rental towers and a condo tower (now sold out) in the area. The park was, in part, a response to “a major revulsion against a belt of highways around Manhattan” and “the first major step” in making the river a part of the city, he says. Residential developers Larry Silverstein and Douglas Durst also see the park as one of the amenities that make their nearby apartment buildings attractive to tenants. Not only does the park provide recreation space for its neighbors; it offers a way to get places fast. As Brecher, Durst, and Silverstein point out, some residents of their apartment buildings use the park’s bike path—the most heavily pedaled in the country—to zoom downtown.

The West Side’s expansion wouldn’t have happened without the extraordinary crime turnaround under the Giuliani and Bloomberg mayoralties. Back in the higher-crime period, West Side residents, especially in Hell’s Kitchen, often had to keep order in a more hands-on way. Tom Cayler, an artist and actor, recalls how he first had to get “permission” from “Paulie,” a neighborhood ice proprietor and unofficial enforcer, before his landlord would let him rent. One time, Cayler was riding his bike up Tenth Avenue and a driver “almost clobbered me,” he remembers. “The guy in this huge SUV slams on his brakes and starts yelling, ‘Get the fuck out of the way, faggot!’ ” The man got out of the car and assumed a threatening stance. “Paulie is sitting in front of his ice store,” Cayler continues. “He was [always] afraid someone’s kid would get hit. . . . He hears me, sees me, reaches inside the store, grabs a Louisville Slugger, and comes running.” As the driver clambered back into his car, Paulie swung the bat and took out “the guy’s right front headlamp.” Afterward, Cayler cried: “The guy could have had a gun!” Paulie retorted: “Oh yeah, good for him,” and pulled up his shirt to show Cayler a pistol.

Giuliani took a more systematic approach to public order, as did Bloomberg, and the West Side became much safer. The Midtown North police precinct, covering the northern part of the area, saw 16 murders in 1990; in 2012, it had four. Midtown South had eight murders in 1990, and just one 12 years later. The 10th precinct, which includes Chelsea, went from six murders to three. Other crimes plummeted just as dramatically. In 1990, the three precincts reported 7,123 robberies; in 2012, the figure was 419—and no, that isn’t missing a digit. The “change in public safety” transformed “people’s willingness to be here,” observes Sandy Hornick, who recently retired after more than 30 years in the city’s planning department and now consults on the same matters. The city’s meeting “people’s basic expectation to live in personal safety” was crucial to getting tenants for the apartment buildings that he has put up on the Far West Side, says Silverstein.

Longtime residents are struck by the improvement in safety. James Houghton, the director of the Signature Theater on 42nd Street, has lived on the West Side for nearly three decades and was burglarized “four times in one year” in the bad old days, he tells me. During the late 1980s, “crack addicts lined Ninth Avenue,” says Christine Berthet, a Hell’s Kitchen resident since 1979. By the mid-1990s, she knew that things had become different when she “saw parents out walking with their children after six o’clock.”

The broader citywide crime decline has also affected the West Side positively. To the east, a rejuvenated Times Square became a place where people again wanted to work, and some of those workers wanted places to live nearby, increasing housing demand on the West Side. To the south, dramatically improved safety attracted people looking for apartments in Greenwich Village. But landmarking restrictions restricted supply. They turned to the West Side instead, where Chelsea’s old industrial buildings were available for conversion, and zoning allowed developers to build taller on Hell’s Kitchen’s avenues, making supply more flexible.

Private-sector entrepreneurs have played an essential role in the West Side’s rise, too, looking at once-decrepit streets filled with chop shops and parking lots but seeing, and then achieving, grander possibilities.

Roland Betts is one of those entrepreneurs. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, he recalls, he would take his then-teenage daughter figure skating at the Sky Rink, located on the top floor of an office building at 33rd Street and Tenth Avenue. A movie financier at the time, Betts got to know the Sky Rink’s managers, and they asked him to join their board in 1989. A problem soon arose: new owners had taken over the office building, and they wanted the rink out. “They didn’t like people coming through the building, in the elevators, with their skates,” he says. The new owners asked him: “How much do we have to pay you to leave?”

Betts and his eventual business partners had a mission: find a 20,000-square-foot, column-free space in Manhattan for a new rink. “The only place to look was rooftops,” he recounts—until someone told him to look at the Hudson’s rotting Chelsea Piers. Pier 61 “was disgusting,” Betts says. “There were dead animals. The roof and walls were collapsing in.” And there was no inviting park surrounding the site, as there is today—chain-linked fence and razor wire cordoned off debris from the ruined highway. But Betts saw immediately that the site “could fit two long rinks comfortably.”

Unfortunately, the New York State Department of Transportation owned the piers, a legacy of its ill-fated attempt to build Westway. “Under state law, the longest lease I can give you is a month,” the bureaucrats told Betts. The only way to get a long-term lease—without which, financing for construction would be impossible—was for the state to hold a public auction. The state was willing to go that route, but only if four piers were leased together—far more space than Betts and his partners needed.

They weren’t deterred. Once they started paying attention to the ice-rink business, Betts and his partners realized that a larger recreation and athletic complex could be profitable. If there’s demand for skating, they figured, there must be demand for other sports. They decided to build a world-class facility offering everything from gymnastics and baseball coaching for children to adult-league ice hockey; people would come because there would be nothing else like it in New York City. After convincing Governor Mario Cuomo to hold a bidding process, the partners wound up bidding more than twice their original planning estimate. They finished third financially, but the state liked their plan best—“other bidders wanted to park cars here,” Betts explains—and awarded them the lease in 1992.

Building what became Chelsea Piers was far from easy. “Twenty-seven city, state, and federal agencies had to sign off on everything,” says Betts. But Chelsea Piers broke ground in 1994 and opened the next year. It was a smash hit. “It’s not a club,” Betts observes. “It’s available to anybody.” With 4 million visitors annually, Chelsea Piers does easily twice the business that Betts first projected. And it runs on a New York schedule: Wall Streeters play hockey at 1 AM, while figure skaters can show up before daylight, and kids practice soccer in the afternoon.

Chelsea Piers has helped transform the area, as Betts underscores. Back then, “we were definitely in a lousy neighborhood,” he says—a reality reflected in the grime-covered building facades, a product of decades’ worth of pollution from the old elevated highway. “The neighborhood you see today was not here.” Unlike the Javits Center, Chelsea Piers is for New Yorkers, so it helped build up residential areas to the east, south, and north. Families with children flock to Chelsea Piers and the Hudson River Park, which together serve as a big backyard.

Real-estate developers, too, saw promise on the West Side long before New York conceived of the Hudson River Park. Silverstein, best known for rebuilding the World Trade Center site over the past decade, remembers a fellow property owner in 1984 offering to sell him an entire block—at the time a parking lot—on 42nd Street between the Hudson River and Eleventh Avenue for $20 million. The lot was zoned for low-rise industrial, but Silverstein envisioned another purpose for it. Despite the wreckage along the Hudson, “the views were beautiful,” he says. “The Hudson River was there.” Silverstein remembers thinking: “This is a good piece of real estate.” But he wanted assurances that he could build something there.

Silverstein went to Mayor Ed Koch to explore rezoning the property. “They finally gave me flexible zoning in 1987,” he says. “I was thrilled.” But ensuing litigation (from a private party upset about the zoning) and the early-1990s real-estate market crash kept Silverstein from building anything for years. In 2000, he finally opened his first project for the block, a 921-unit rental building, and he finished another rental tower about a decade later. Tenants flocked to both buildings. Five mayors ago, when the state and city were still fighting the Westway war, Silverstein saw that someday people would want to live on what was then no-man’s-land. When everyone else finally saw the same thing, the developer was there to meet the demand. “It took 26 years” for the first building to open,” says Silverstein. “But it rented up fast.”

Cultural groups long ago saw potential for the West Side. In the mid-1990s, as it was about to lose a smaller, rented theater space downtown, the Signature Theater looked north and west for a new home. “Artists are often pioneers,” director Houghton reflects—after all, they usually don’t have the money to go where people already want to be. West of Tenth Avenue, Houghton located a building that could house a midsize theater. “It was a very depressed part of 42nd Street. The landlord was amazed to get someone.” At the time, Houghton says, “it was a tough thing to get people to walk that far west.” But people did so as the West Side got safer. “I watched it go from a place with extremely high crime rates to a place to walk.” In 2012, Signature opened a bigger space, designed by Frank Gehry, that holds three intimate performance spaces, “the first new theater arts center in 40 years in the city,” Houghton says with pride. Signature was able to build it because of private-sector growth and smart zoning: the Related Companies development firm wanted to build a high-rise apartment tower but had to offer a bonus to a cultural group to do so.

Private efforts spearheaded the development of Chelsea Piers, which draws 4 million visitors annually.
Michael S. Yamashita/National Geographic Creative
Private efforts spearheaded the development of Chelsea Piers, which draws 4 million visitors annually.

Just as the West Side benefited during the Bloomberg era from earlier decisions and battles, future generations may benefit from the mayor’s own efforts, and not just in maintaining safer streets. In mid-2014, thanks to Bloomberg, the Far West Side will get a new subway stop, the first on Manhattan’s West Side since the Great Depression. In 2006, Bloomberg announced the extension of the Number Seven line from Times Square southwestward, to Eleventh Avenue and 34th Street. The city planning department had first floated the idea in 1999, but the mayor brought together the money. The city is also building a new park and boulevard to break up the long block between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues in the low 30s. The new park will stop where the High Line elevated rail park, which opened in 2009, begins. Together, the two parks will link the more isolated parts of the Far West Side with Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.

Albany and city hall directly jump-started one major Bloomberg-era investment. State and local government spent nearly three decades exploring a host of bad options for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Hudson Yards site—also in the low 30s, between Tenth Avenue and the river—that included the aborted Olympic stadium and another convention center. Finally, starting about five years ago, the city and state launched a bid process that resulted in today’s activity: Related Companies is building a mix of office and residential towers there, as well as a Fairway supermarket and other stores. In the same Hudson Yards area, developers from Moinian to Extell are building another 3,084 apartments—with room for at least 17,000 more.

Bloomberg’s enthusiasm for urban biking has also benefited the West Side. The area was less attractive than more central parts of Manhattan for so long because it was hard to get to, with no subway running (yet) west of Eighth Avenue. But waterfront residents can now take advantage of the mayor’s (albeit incomplete) bike-lane network and Citi Bike initiative to get to the center of Manhattan for work or shopping. And thanks to Bloomberg, New Yorkers can bike up and down protected lanes on Eighth and Ninth Avenues. “The bike lanes are terrific,” says Berthet, who cofounded a traffic-safety organization called Chekpeds.

It’s now Mayor Bill de Blasio’s job—and that of current and future governors—to build on the past few decades’ successes. One issue that Bloomberg didn’t tackle was taxes. Developers from Silverstein to Durst say that high property-tax levies on residential rental buildings—five times higher than property taxes levied on single-family homes, and higher than co-op and condo taxes, too—discourage new rental construction. The problem is particularly acute right now, as global demand for condo buildings has soared.

It’s hard to garner public sympathy for this issue. Tenants grumble about $3,000 monthly rents, but many are likely unaware that their landlords pay, say, $1,000 of that each month to the city—hardly a formula for lower rents. And voters may perceive those who live in “luxury” rentals to be, well, rich, just like the people who buy luxury condos. “But there’s no comparison,” says Silverstein. “It’s a different economy.” The residents of newer rental buildings are Manhattan’s new middle class: people who often have incomes in the low six figures, including couples who make that income collectively and who cannot afford to pay cash for a luxury condo. Condo buyers, by contrast, are increasingly wealthy foreigners. These global investors often don’t occupy their investments; they also don’t rent them out to long-term tenants, as investor-owners once did.

For decades, New York has tried to alleviate high rental real-estate taxes with special abatements and tax breaks, including for Hudson Yards. De Blasio should seek permanently and significantly to lower taxes on rental apartments so that Manhattan’s middle class has somewhere to live. New Yorkers who don’t make six figures should, in turn, remember that without new rental housing to ease demand, upper-middle-class renters will continue to move into older, cheaper housing—pushing prices up for longer-term residents lacking rent protections as well as for less affluent newcomers.

Another challenge is to maintain what the city and state have already physically built. The Hudson River Park, for example, which is supposed to fund itself from pier-lease revenue, faces a chronic operating deficit. Governor Cuomo recently signed a bill to allow the park to sell air rights to nearby developers, but this plan’s success is hardly assured. Each new building will have to go through a land-use approval process, which could take years. Uncertainty and the perception of poor management also keep private donors away. The state and city probably should have created a neighborhood-improvement district instead, levying a dedicated fee on developers a few blocks from the river to keep up this critical infrastructure and giving private-sector developers a say in controlling the park’s construction and maintenance costs. Any deterioration of the park will harm nearby residents’ quality of life and desire to live on the water.

New infrastructure is also critical to future growth. The original Number Seven subway-extension plan called for two stops, not one. The abandoned second stop—farther north, at Tenth Avenue and 41st Street—would have made life easier for people who live north of Hudson Yards and encouraged office construction in the vicinity. The city should build the second stop as part of a more ambitious plan to expand the Number Seven line out to Secaucus, New Jersey; that addition alone would bring many more office workers to the West Side.

Over the long term, de Blasio should think about building aboveground light rail for 42nd Street—a far cheaper transportation option than a crosstown subway. And New York badly needs a new bus terminal, or at least a bus parking lot. As Berthet notes, 8,500 private buses lumber through the West Side every day, including 350 “theater buses” on matinee days. The buses idle on streets, partly because they have nowhere to go. Extending the Number Seven train to Secaucus would alleviate some of this bus traffic, as more commuters could take the train; but even in a best-case scenario, the bigger subway project would take ten years.

To improve both quality of life and safety for residents and visitors, de Blasio should continue Bloomberg’s work in providing more room for pedestrians and bicyclists. Berthet speaks highly of the mayor’s pedestrian plazas and smaller “islands” and “refuges,” including a small-scale project under way now to protect Ninth Avenue walkers from Lincoln Tunnel traffic. While outsiders often say that Bloomberg imposed street-design changes from above, Berthet says that the demand for change came from below—from neighborhood groups like hers. And people want more changes, she says, not fewer.

West Side traffic is a particularly potent symptom of the challenge facing de Blasio: managing the consequences of growth. People want to be in Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, and Hudson Yards. Over the past decade, residents have endured everything from unlawful construction activity to late-hours noise from an ever-growing number of bars on Ninth Avenue as well as, increasingly, farther west. Illegal hotels and youth hostels have proliferated, as landlords and tenants skirt occupancy rules to make an extra buck. It’s telling that the “business community”—including developers with a stake in the Far West Side—was surprised that former city council speaker Christine Quinn lost last year’s Democratic mayoral primary to de Blasio, but the people who live in Quinn’s district—Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen—were not surprised. Quinn lost her own district not because her constituents disagreed with her philosophically but mostly because she often seemed ineffectual or wishy-washy in dealing with these seemingly smaller quality-of-life issues. Quinn’s fate carries a lesson for de Blasio and for new area city councilman Corey Johnson: encourage neighborhood growth, yes; but don’t forget the people who are already living there.

Future government officials seeking to replicate the West Side’s extraordinary growth should also take note. Government alone cannot guarantee success. As Hornick, previously of the city planning department, notes, “building a subway line where people don’t want to go gives you an empty subway line.”

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.

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