A West Side Fiasco
October 13, 2004
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
A COALITION of West Side groups claims it just served the public good by defeating Donald Trump's plan to close the West Side Highway's 72nd street exit ramp. In fact, it wasn't Trump's plan, and the public has been disserved. The coalition has managed to abuse the environmental-review process to increase the odds of a West Side traffic nightmare.
The battleground is the $3 billion Riverside South development — 5,700 apartments being built between 59th and 72nd Streets above the Hudson River. Virtually every detail of the huge project, which was first proposed and then halted in the early 1980s, was worked out in the early 1990s by a team of government officials, community activists and developer representatives.
This was a model of community participation, encompassing individual citizens as well as eminent groups such as the Municipal Art Society. Many West Siders were involved, including those living on West End Avenue, which lies just east of Riverside South.
With rush-hour traffic already bumper-to-bumper on West End back then, residents didn't want more. And the review process heeded their concerns and addressed them — with the result of closing that ramp.
To alleviate traffic from Riverside South without worsening conditions elsewhere, the city required the developers to build a new north-south road, Riverside Boulevard, to run along the west side of the project. It would connect to Riverside Drive at 72nd Street — whose exit ramp, a host of engineers and lawyers agreed, would have to be closed to provide room.
This was not only well publicized from the start, city officials stipulated it as a requirement in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Not connecting the new boulevard to Riverside would have been cheaper for the developers — but would have produced the kind of traffic mess everyone was trying to avoid.
And a traffic mess is what we're now likely to get.
The West Side coalition announced Friday that state Supreme Court Judge Doris Ling-Cohan has agreed to block the closing of the 72nd Street exit. She prohibited "any further construction, demolition or other work" until city officials had conducted traffic impact studies on the coalition's claims of increased traffic on residential streets, decreased pedestrian safety, and fewer parking spots. (The city's still deciding whether to appeal.)
All these matters were well-covered in the 1992 review — but the judge simply proclaimed that to be inadequate and outdated. Assemblyman Scott Stringer bragged, "The West Side did something we haven't been able to do in some time — we fired Donald Trump!"
But Trump is not the project's developer (that's a group of Hong Kong investors ), but simply a limited partner. More important, what's been fired is common sense. Keeping the exit ramp open will produce terrible traffic, forcing all cars leaving Riverside South to converge on 70th Street.
Michael Bradley, executive director of Riverside South, says "no one is proposing to close the ramp for spite or advantage, but simply to make traffic flow better." All sides, he notes, "looked at all the options in 1992 and again in the last couple of years. There is no way to build the connection between the two roads safely without closing that ramp."
It's the usual New York engineering problem — not enough room — made even more serious by the multiple elevations of the existing roads, parks and developments.
Carved out of a wasteland of abandoned rail yards and bordered by obsolete roads, Riverside South had its share of transportation problems from birth. But the developers worked out good solutions, after exhaustive studies and in conjunction with city officials and community groups. Now those solutions have been overturned by a judge directing city officials to conduct a new round of studies and to file a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.
Because the ramp closing was mandated in the original EIS, opponents hope that the judge's decision will trigger a new and costly round of environmental review.
Environmental-review lawsuits have become the weapon of choice for disgruntled citizens seeking to stop projects they don't want in their neighborhoods. But in this instance, the West Side already has the project. Now it's going to have the traffic as well that the EIS had tried to mitigate.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2004 New York Post
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