Thursday, January 09, 2014

Jane Jacobs strikes again

As Sam Roberts notes in today's New York Times, the ghost of Jane Jacobs seems to be thwarting grand development plans in Greenwich Village. At issue are grand expansion plans by New York University, which a judge has put a hold on because of three strips of land that are technically still considered public streets, but for decades have been used as parkland and playground space, along La Guardia Place just south of Washington Square Park. Master builder Robert Moses schemed to make that north-south thoroughfare, previously known as 5th Avenue South and before that Lorenzo Street, a feeder arterial for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane elevated highway that would have roared down Broome Street in SoHo, connecting the Holland Tunnel and the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges vaulting the East River. Jacobs helped put a stop to that proposal -- one of four cross-town expressways Moses envisioned, with the Cross Bronx being the one he successfully executed -- and was famously arrested after one raucous public hearing in April of 1968, after the stenotype record was ripped to shreds and thrown in the air like confetti. So the feeder route was never built, the parks and playgrounds emerged on the strips of land eyed for roadways, and thus a judge decreed they were de facto parks that couldn't be messed with, as part of NYU's plans. History is getting a bit blurred here. Robert Moses first proposed in the mid-50s a roadway through Washington Square Park -- one lane would have gone right under the iconic Washington Square arch -- as an extension of 5th Avenue, as a local traffic congestion solution, and to give his superblock project, Washington Square Park, a 5th Avenue address. Lomex, as it came to be known, came along a bit later, in earnest beginning around 1960. The proposed corridor, of course, ran east-west, and was nearly six blocks south of Washington Square Park. Thus the extension of 5th Avenue through the park and across Houston Street to an interchange at Broome Street would have been a road on the way to Lomex, but not technically Lomex. The park roadway and reconstruction of Lorenzo Street could have happened without Lomex, and indeed it was initially proposed as such. Jane's opposition to this initial proposal was the first of three major battles described in my book Wrestling with Moses (by the way you won't find this in Robert Caro's The Power Broker, great as it is; Jane Jacobs is nowhere mentioned therein). But all this is mere details for true Jane Jacobs champions. The denizens of Greenwich Village are thrilled to have beaten back NYU, although as former parks commissioner Adrian Benepe points out, two of the strips of land would be formally made into enhanced parks at NYU's expense, as part of the expansion plans. Bloomberg's James Russell has an equally nuanced take on this latest Village kerfuffle (one of Jane's favorite terms).