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NYC officials revive Lower Manhattan Expressway

On this day in 1964, the New York City Board of Estimate votes to revive a controversial plan to build a 10-lane, $100 million elevated expressway across Lower Manhattan from the Holland Tunnel on the west to the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges on the east.

In December 1962, the same board had refused to approve plans to build the road: its members had unanimously agreed that it was not really needed to alleviate cross-town traffic congestion and that, in any case, it would destroy the crowded and historic residential neighborhoods in its path. However, fervent lobbying by highway advocates like the powerful urban planner Robert Moses, along with the heavy-construction companies who stood to profit from the road-building itself, persuaded city officials to reconsider. This time, the board gave the expressway the go-ahead, and in 1965, Mayor Wagner promised that he would break ground on the project “as quickly as possible.”

At the same time, the anti-highway protest was gathering momentum. The proposed road would cut straight across the city along Canal and Broome Streets, destroying the neighborhoods we now known as TriBeCa and SoHo and displacing 1,972 families and 804 businesses. Since the Board of Estimate had vetoed the road the first time, the pro-highway forces had worked to address some of the criticisms they’d faced: Moses offered to build a $9 million apartment complex that would house 450 displaced families, and city officials declared that there was plenty of room for the rest in high-rise housing projects. Still, the people whose homes and jobs were threatened joined forces with preservationists and other anti-road activists, dug in their heels and fought back. The well-known urbanist Jane Jacobs, who served as chairwoman of the Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway Committee, called the highway a “monstrous and useless folly”: besides turning people out of their neighborhood, she argued, the road would actually make traffic congestion worse. (As another anti-highway activist put it, the proposed expressway “would only serve as an elevated parking lot for added traffic waiting to funnel into the bottleneck.”)

Thanks to the efforts of Jacobs and her allies, the tide of public opinion began to turn against the building of urban highways across the country, and a 1968 study that predicted elevated carbon-monoxide levels in the air around the Lower Manhattan Expressway sealed the road’s fate. The Board of Estimate officially abandoned plans for the highway in 1969.

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