Sheridan Expressway: Did the Takedown Get Taken Down? That doesn’t mean other options can’t work

The city rules out a plan to tear down the Sheridan Expressway, saying it would cause too much traffic and cost too many jobs.

For such a short highway, the fifty-year old Sheridan Expressway generates a lot of unhappiness.

“I don’t even know if you could call it an expressway,” said Elena Conte, an organizer at the Pratt Center for Community Development. “It’s a fragment. It’s a mile and a quarter long.”

It was planned by Robert Moses, whose original idea was to continue it through the Bronx Zoo. But local residents – not to mention the zoo and the New York Botanical Garden – opposed an extension and, in the 1970s, those plans were dropped.

But some Bronx residents have never made peace with even an abbreviated expressway. Activists, working together as the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, have for years been working to tear the highway down. In 2006, WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein went up to Bronx with the Pratt Center’s Joan Byron.

“There are three schools right on the expressway,” said Byron. “So by redeveloping this as residential and parkland, those schools would have a green connection right across to the river.” (A video of the plan is below.)

One of the supporters of this tear-down is Bronx congressman José Serrano. Two years ago he secured a $1.5 million federal grant to study three different options for the Sheridan: keep it, modify it, or take it down altogether. “The initial agreement we had, the understanding we had, was that they were going to look at everything,” he said.

New York City won’t complete the study until next year. But officials recently said the removal scenario had “a fatal flaw” and it would no longer be considered.

“What I’m concerned about, what the community is upset about, what we’re all upset about, is that they immediately took off the table the possibility of full removal of the Sheridan,” said Serrano. “We just think that’s totally unfair and improper.”

But as much as some wanted the highway gone, others say it’s a vital piece of the road transportation network.

“Well, we were completely dead set against that and have been since the dawn of time,” said Matthew D’Arrigo. He’s co-president of the Hunts Point Market, the massive food distribution center located off the expressway.

“Without the Sheridan,” he said, “a thousand trucks a night would have just one way to get to this market.”

He says the market hasn’t been shy about making it known that taking down the Sheridan could jeopardize its ability to do business – and the thousands of jobs it brings to the Bronx.

“Everybody. Everybody. Everybody knows our position on that,” he said.

Right now, the market is in the middle of negotiations with the city for a long-term lease. After this weekend, if it doesn’t reach a deal with New York, Hunts Point Market can start talking to other places. Like New Jersey.

Privately, officials told WNYC that fear of losing the market prompted the city to drop the removal option.

But recent a press conference in the Bronx, Mayor Bloomberg said the decision was driven by data, not politics. “All of the traffic studies show that it would not be feasible to do that,” he said.

Predictions that losing a highway would cause traffic hell have been wrong before. Sam Schwartz – also known as Gridlock Sam – worked for the city DOT in 1973, when part of the then-elevated lower portion of the West Side Highway collapsed. In a 2010 interview with WNYC, he described what happened.

“People panicked,” he said. “They thought that was Armageddon. They thought that was the end.”

It wasn’t the case. Traffic on some roadways did go up. “We had trouble tracing one-third of the people and it wasn’t that they weren’t coming in,” Schwartz said. “When we looked at transit, transit went up. We had the same number of people coming in, but they weren’t coming by car.”

Schwartz wouldn’t comment specifically on the Sheridan, but cities like Milwaukee, San Francisco and Portland all say they’ve seen big economic and environmental benefits when urban highways have been torn down.

New York City DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan called that comparison flawed.

“I think you know the Bloomberg administration has been very innovative when it comes to traffic engineering,” she said. “But in this instance this particular option didn’t work — but that doesn’t mean other options can’t work here and we’re going to continue to explore them.”


That doesn’t mean other options can’t work

Sustainable transportation advocates in New York City have been campaigning for years to tear down the Sheridan Expressway, a lightly used 1.25 mile stretch of four-lane highway in the Bronx connecting the Bruckner Expressway with the Cross-Bronx expressway. It was built in 1956-1958 and named in honor of Arthur V. Sheridan, Bronx Borough Commissioner of Public Works, who oversaw construction of the Cross-Bronx under Bob Moses and was killed a car crash in 1952 while driving to pick up his eleven-year-old son. It was planned to continue north as an elevated expressway above Boston Road, all the way to Co-Op City, but those plans were abandoned in 1971 after years of protests.

Teardown advocates hang out on the Sheridan Expressway during rush hour, 5:30 PM, July 15, 2009. Photo: Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The Sheridan Expressway should never have been built. It cuts the residential neighborhoods to the west off from the Bronx River. At the time it was built you didn’t want to go to the Bronx River, but now it would make a nice riverwalk. For cars it is redundant with the Bronx River Parkway, and for trucks it is redundant with the Bruckner and Major Deegan Expressways. I have a double standard for redundancy: for transit and freight trains it’s good, but for cars it’s bad, and the very simple reason is that we want to encourage people to take transit and ship by train instead of cars and trucks.

The New York State Department of Transportation was always hostile to the idea of tearing down the Sheridan, and recently we heard that the City Departments of Transportation and City Planning have abandoned the possibility of tearing it down. Advocates were disheartened, but today Transportation Nation provided a ray of hope, courtesy of City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan:

“I think you know the Bloomberg administration has been very innovative when it comes to traffic engineering,” she said. “But in this instance this particular option didn’t work — but that doesn’t mean other options can’t work here and we’re going to continue to explore them.”

I have another option that I hope Sadik-Khan and her colleagues will explore: let’s tear down the Bronx River Parkway instead, from the Bruckner to the Cross-Bronx.

Steve Anderson tells us, “The proposed expressway was to serve vehicles that could not travel on the Bronx River Parkway, whose extension into the Bronx was in the design stages at the time.” As I mentioned above, there is a mile-long section of the Bronx River Parkway that also connects the Bruckner and Cross-Bronx Expressways. The Sheridan serves cars, trucks and buses, but the Parkway serves only cars.

As we saw last month, this section of the Bronx River Parkway is no picturesque historic drive. It’s a dangerous six-lane highway built in 1950 on eight blocks that used to be low-rise apartment buildings. If it were torn down, new apartments could be built to replace them, perhaps with a greenway in part of the old right-of-way. It might not be as big a triumph as tearing down the Sheridan, but it would be a lot better than nothing.

In fact, section of the the Parkway just north of the Cross-Bronx is the part that’s elevated over the subway yards and the zoo, the site of the crash that killed seven people. Governor Cuomo is planning to spend 232 million dollars to replace that elevated section. As I suggested in May, that project is a huge waste of money. We could make it a lot safer by rebuilding it as a four-lane road with shoulders and a parallel greenway, at least from Pelham Parkway south.

Is tearing down this redundant section of the Bronx River Parkway one of the “other options” that Commissioner Sadik-Khan had in mind? If not, let’s hope she adds it to her list.


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