This didn't just sort of happen. Robert Moses intentionally built the Van Wyck that way so there wouldn't be room for a train to the plane. An unfortunate city planner named F. Dodd McHugh argued for buying an extra 50 feet of right-of-way to build a rail line. Moses refused, McHugh was demoted and humiliated, and the $30 million Van Wyck was a traffic nightmare from the moment it was opened in 1949. It was designed to carry 2,630 vehicles per hour but passed that mark almost immediately; today, that number is 6,250.
Technology has outfoxed Moses -- it's now possible to build a support on that narrow median that can bear the load of a rail system. This is precisely what the Port Authority, with the backing of the governor and the mayor, is trying now to build. It would be part of a larger $1.5 billion JFK transit project that would include -- finally -- an elevated loop that would make six stops around Kennedy's terminals. The $600 million Van Wyck spur, to be financed primarily through $3 surcharges collected from passengers at the area's three airports, would be a nice piece of historical revenge, except for the fact that the plan is deeply flawed.
To wit: It's not a one-seat ride. The Van Wyck line would run only to Jamaica Station, where it would meet subway and LIRR lines. In other words, people would have to transfer to it from the E, J, and Z lines, which are not exactly your most convenient subways to begin with. If, for example, you were at Grand Central, you'd have to take the No. 7 over to Eighth Avenue, and then get on the E, and then, once you reached Jamaica Station, schlep to a different platform and get on the other train. All with luggage.
At least it's something, whereas what we have now is nothing. But consider this: Right now, there is an unused rail line, just sitting there, already built, that could be the basis for a one-seat ride. Nelson Rockefeller proposed using this line, a branch of the LIRR that was closed down in the early sixties, as a train to the plane back in 1968. This route, the Rockaway cutoff, runs parallel to Woodhaven Boulevard up to Rego Park, where trains would meet the main LIRR lines and come into Manhattan. It died under Rocky because of intense opposition from Forest Hills residents. That opposition is just as strong today, meaning that the route, backed by the Committee for Better Transit and others, probably won't happen.
So last week the City Planning Commission voted twelve to one to approve the right-of-way usage for the Van Wyck plan, even though virtually every commission member denounced it. The City Council could stop it, but Queens politicians and the construction trades are behind it. Proponents say that once the LIRR links to Grand Central mentioned above are completed, then work can commence to convert the Van Wyck spur into a one-seat ride. But that's at least a decade, and quite a few ifs, away.
4. THE WATERFRONT
When the Manhattan street grid was laid out in 1811, says Kent Barwick, director of the Waterfront Project, skeptics looked at the plan and noticed something: no parks. "The planners' defense was 'The river is our park,' '' Barwick says. "And for a few years, it was."
But not for long. Once New York exploded as a commercial shipping center, the waterfront was for work, not play. Whereas Chicago made sure from very early on to dedicate the Lake Michigan waterfront to public use -- public enjoyment of the waterfront as a principle of good governance dates to the Emperor Justinian, and is specifically mentioned in the Magna Carta -- New York built almost no waterfront recreation area in midtown. Long after the commerce died, and after other cities reinvented their waterfronts, New York's sat there, unusable. "This is one of the greatest man-made places on earth, ironically living side-by-side with one of the greatest ecosystems on earth," Barwick says. "And we're completely out of touch with it."
Finally, things are happening. Most dramatic is the $350 million Hudson River Park project, which will unite the Battery and Riverside Park in an uninterrupted greenway. Of the 37 piers there, 13 will be dedicated to public uses, either passive (sunbathing, fishing) or active (cafés, ballfields). The West Side -- er, Joe DiMaggio -- Highway will be rebuilt, as is already happening downtown, and in between the road and the piers, there'll be benches and bike paths and greenswards and trees. It's happening under the leadership of Jim Ortenzio, whom Pataki appointed to head the project two years ago. Ortenzio runs things out of a rent-free trailer near Stuyvesant High School -- having moved the Hudson River Park Trust out of Fifth Avenue office space that was costing $200,000 a year -- and says Pataki keeps after him: "He calls me ten times a year, maybe once a month. 'Jimmy, where's the park?' " It's not there yet -- just a small piece, between Christopher and 12th Streets. But the whole thing is supposed to be done by 2005 -- at a cost lower than that projected in 1990.