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Freeway Removal Hits a Roadblock in the Bronx

Freeway Removal Hits a Roadblock in the Bronx
NYC Dept. of Transportation

Reports of the death of the Sheridan Expressway have been greatly exaggerated.

For years, neighborhood advocates have been pushing for the removal of this elevated freeway in New York City’s South Bronx, and it looked like they had a decent chance of winning their fight to replace the aging structure with parks, housing, shopping, and reconnected streets. The Sheridan has been something of a poster child for the increasingly popular concept of urban freeway demolition. It was number two on the Congress for the New Urbanism’s list of “Freeways Without Futures,” and it made the Urban Land Institute’s short list of potential teardown projects as well, in part because of a federal TIGER grant that was awarded to New York to study options for the future of the 1.2-mile strip of asphalt, options that explicitly included removal.

But the city announced this month that it will no longer consider tearing down the road, which carries only about 30,000 vehicles per day (surrounding roads see as many as 127,000 vehicles per day). Instead, the focus will be on rehabilitating the highway. Responding to questions from WNYC’s Transportation Nation, a city official cited concerns about truck traffic headed for the nearby Hunts Point Produce Market, the city’s main wholesale outlet for fruits and vegetables, as well as other potential traffic problems.

Veronica Vanterpool of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign says that the coalition of advocates for removal, the South Bronx River Watershed Alliance, will push to get the city to reconsider. "All of us in the larger South Bronx community are very disappointed," she says. "We thought it was very shortsighted. It’s really incongruent with many of the progressive transportation policies that Mayor Bloomberg has been promoting."

Vanterpool points out that the administration is subsidizing the relocation of the grocery delivery service FreshDirect to the Bronx, even though that will mean increased truck traffic for the borough. The FreshDirect deal has triggered a lawsuit from residents and neighborhood advocates who charge that the project has not gotten sufficient environmental review.

Bronx Congressman José Serrano, whose district includes the Sheridan, issued a press release saying that he wants the city to reconsider the removal option:

Our community has spent years dealing with the burden of much of the unwanted activities from other parts of the city. We have begun to reclaim natural spaces and to improve the physical spaces in the Bronx. This study of the Sheridan Expressway is an integral part of that movement towards equity for our borough in our environment. It is not right to remove a potentially life-changing option from this study.

As Eric Jaffe wrote in his series on the "death row" of urban highways a few months back, cities around the country have been considering freeway demolition as a way of healing downtowns that have been divided and deadened by roads for generations. In places where demolition has gone forward, such as San Francisco and Seoul, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

But the case of the Sheridan, which is seemingly an ideal candidate for destruction, shows just how difficult it can be to get a road taken down. Once a freeway is in place, it takes on a life of its own, an aura of inevitability. In San Francisco’s case, earthquake damage spurred the teardown of the Embarcadero Freeway. In the Bronx, there are no earthquakes, just entrenched ideas about how public space should be used, and whether trucks or people should have priority. Despite all the excited talk among urbanists about the benefits of freeway removal, antiquated roads like this one still have brute staying power.

There will be a meeting of Sheridan stakeholders later this month, and TSTC’s Vanterpool says that she expects a lot of talk about getting removal back on the table.

"The Sheridan Expressway is choking the Bronx," she says. "A lot of community members have a lot of questions about this. There is a lot of momentum. We’ve seen in this country and other countries, that what seems impossible is doable."

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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