New York City as we know it today exists under the shadows cast by the ghost of Robert Moses. From the bridges that connect the boroughs to roads congested with automobiles to the elevated highways that cut through neighborhoods to the lack of airport-centric transit options to the parks and greenspaces we so enjoy, Moses’ influence runs far, wide and deep. We might even miss him.
Last week, as I took a few days off to spend some time in the Caribbean, I left up a short post on the upcoming plans to turn Robert Caro’s The Power Broker into a movie. Who, I asked, should play Robert Moses, and in doing so, I offhandedly called him the villain of the story. The reaction from regular readers was loud: Robert Moses was a man of many hats, but to call him a villain is an oversimplification. By the end of his career, the Master Planner single-handedly set the stage for decades of growth and stagnant transit development, but he also realized a vision for New York City that wasn’t all bad. Although Caro’s book, written at the city’s nadir in the mid-1970s, may have needed Moses to be that villain, his legacy is far more complicated than that.
For all the good Moses did early in his career, he is best known through the prism of Caro’s biography. We know Moses as the man who built low overpasses in order to limit bus access and the people who ride buses to the area around Jones Beach. We know him as the man who wouldn’t move his highways one block over in both the Bronx and Brooklyn, thus destroying two vibrant neighborhoods in the process. We know him as the planner who refused to allow for a rail right-of-way along the Van Wyck to provide better access to Idlewild Airport.
Yet, through the prism of today, we see Moses as the man who got things done, and since the state decentralized the planning process that Moses once helmed, things rather get done with any efficiency and speed. As the conversation flowed on my post last week, I kept thinking about the recent alternatives analysis NYC DOT is conducting for access to La Guardia. The city is trying to figure out how best to improve surface transit into and out of La Guardia airport while tying in those routes with Manhattan and the rest of the city’s transit network. It is a plan a long time coming.
As I’ve revisited from time to time, Mayor Giuliani in the light 1990s tried to grow support for a subway extension to the airport. He secured funding but lost out to Queens NIMBYs. As I’ve dug into that history, I’ve learned that New York City along with the MTA and FTA had engaged in some serious planning. By early 1999, they had identified two alternate routes for the subway extension that would have been included in an environmental impact study. The Federal Register from the time explained:
The 19th Avenue Alternative would be an extension of the BMT Broadway-Astoria Line (“N” Train service) beyond its present Ditmars Boulevard Terminus. From that point, the line would be extended northerly as a modern aerial transit guideway structure along the centerline of 31st Street up to 20th Avenue. From there, the alignment would curve easterly across the Con Edison property to 19th Avenue, where it would continue along the avenue. At 45th Street, the alignment would swing northerly and then enter a tunnel section, in which the alignment would remain as it crosses onto the airport property. After serving the Marine Air Terminal and passing around the runway at the airport’s western end, the alignment would rise onto an aerial section, and extend to two other on-airport stations–one at the Central Terminal Building (CTB) and a second to jointly serve the USAir and Delta terminals.
Sunnyside Yard Alternative would be a branch of the BMT Broadway-Astoria Line (“N” Train service) starting at the Queensboro Plaza Station in Long Island City. From that point, the alignment would extend as a modern aerial transit guideway structure along the northern side of the Sunnyside Yards, and would then pass over and run along the eastern side of AMTRAK’s Northeast Corridor tracks. At approximately 30th Avenue, the alignment would turn east and run along the northern side of 30th Avenue before turning north along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). At that point, the alignment will enter a “depressed section” (where the tracks are below grade but in an “open cut” section rather than enclosed in a tunnel) as it travels along the southern side of the Grand Central Parkway (GCP). As it approaches the airport, the alignment would rise and cross over the GCP to enter the airport. On-airport stations are projected to be provided at the CTB and USAir/Delta terminals as noted above for the 19th Avenue Alternative.
The problem, of course, was that “modern aerial transit guideway structure.” The 19th Avenue alternative included nearly 12 blocks of a new elevated structure through some residential neighborhoods. The Sunnyside Yard plan also would have included new elevated tracks, albeit through neighborhoods not quite as residential as the northern ends of Astoria. Neither were good enough for certain factions of Queens’ politicians. City Councilman Peter Villone, the loudest opponent, called it a “horrible, loud, noisy ugly elevated train line through the heart” of a vibrant neighborhood. “Extending the elevated track will cause unnecessary hardship to residents and businesses in the area,” he claimed in 1999.
Eventually, this NIMBYism killed the project, and today, we’re left with a study that may call for something resembling better bus service. Our dreams and goals certainly have shifted downward over the past 12 or 13 years.
As this torturously slow La Guardia planning process plays out — whatever alternative is selected won’t debut until 2013 — I kept thinking about Moses. Does New York need a Moses that can work through neighborhood opposition to realize a plan that would benefit the city as a whole? We want a Moses whose ideals are aligned with ours when it comes to transportation planning. We want a figure who can cut through countless Community Board meetings and the red tape of planning. But we don’t want a Moses who will run roughshod over too many neighborhoods.
In Queens in the late 1990s, the memories of devastating elevated structures still percolated in people’s minds. These New Yorkers remember what happened along 3rd Ave. in Brooklyn when Moses refused to move the Gowanus to the more industrial 2nd Ave. They saw the way the Cross-Bronx Expressway cut through Tremont. They didn’t want the same, and we’re still paying the price in a never-ending planning process to improve access to a nearby but inaccessible airport. With NIMBYism on the creep and threatening to rise as the population ages, it all almost makes me yearn for Robert Moses and his power to move mountains.