At the far western end of Canal Street near the Hudson River, cars, cabs, and heavy trucks muscle their way to the Holland Tunnel and Manhattan Bridge, whipping past a desolate scrap of land. Bordered by concrete slabs and littered with piles of rebar and stacks of lumber, the wedge-shaped spot looks like a junkyard. But it once was— and, some argue, still is— a park, with a history marked at turns by glory and degradation. Now its future is the subject of a lawsuit by downtown residents who claim that a massive road-building project will maim it forever.
Warning that government plans “are about to eviscerate Canal Street Park,” Tribeca residents have sued city, state, and federal agencies in an attempt to reclaim one of the city’s oldest parks, which, they argue, was wrongly taken from the public decades ago. Earlier this month, State Supreme Court Judge Franklin Weissberg issued a temporary injunction to protect the land until February 1, when he will hear arguments in the case.
Claims that the park would be irreparably damaged seem, at first glance, rather grand. That severe damage has already been inflicted is obvious. For at least the past decade, the land has been home to more snowplows than snowmen. In fact, it is now used to park garbage trucks, plows, and the cars of employees stationed at a nearby sanitation garage. The city itself hasn’t considered the triangular lot at Canal and West streets a park at all since 1930, when the parks department turned it over to the borough of Manhattan, in part to install a sewer system beneath it.
But only eight years ago, the future of this forlorn patch looked brighter. In plans drawn up that year for Hudson River waterfront parks— intended to accompany an improved West Side highway— the triangle is depicted once again as a park, a small but cheerful oasis that appears in sketches surrounded by trees and serving as the inland terminus of a recreational pier.
The gloom returned this spring, however, when the parks plan was passed into law in Albany: Canal Street Park was not in the package. Instead, on a proposed state roadmap of the area, the trees are gone, and traffic lanes added. At best, the plans show the triangle as a refuge for pedestrians trying to dodge an onslaught of traffic battling east.
“The lights here are geared for cars, not pedestrians,” says Barbara Siegel, an artist who has lived at Canal and Washington streets for 20 years. “As it is, you take your life into your hands crossing the streets around here.”
Canal Street Park’s destiny is complicated because it is enmeshed in what is probably one of the most ambitious, and almost certainly the most protracted, road-building endeavors this city has ventured. Currently called The Route 9A Reconstruction Project, it is the offspring of the failed Westway, and a descendant of Wateredge and, before that, a plan simply known as Interstate 478. With a constant goal of “improving” traffic conditions on Manhattan’s West Side, the undertaking has been a decades-long ordeal for roadbuilders, drivers, and neighborhoods alike.
The most current plans— paid for primarily with Federal Highway Administration dollars and sponsored by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT)— would use most of the erstwhile Canal Street Park site to help herd traffic eastward. Under the scheme, traffic lanes in the vicinity of Canal, West, and Washington streets will be increased from eight to 14, mainly by adding two sets of two-way lanes along Canal, separated by the triangle. But with no more lanes added to the Holland Tunnel’s four, residents say the plan further chokes their already sclerotic local streets, where fistfights and even fruit throwing (not to mention vehicular and pedestrian accidents) are not unheard of. The plan might speed up 9A, they say, but only by moving bottlenecks further inland.
“The traffic now is unacceptable, but this would make it even worse,” says Jack Lester, the attorney representing Tribeca residents. “It takes a terrible situation and makes it a disaster.” The residents’ suit includes affidavits from Canal Street business owners who worry that the NYSDOT plan will interefere with deliveries, a real estate agent who alleges the changes would make commercial space unrentable, and an elderly tenant who fears having to dodge traffic to catch an uptown bus.
The Tribeca residents argue that NYSDOT failed to adequately inform them of its plans for Canal Street. In a November 18 letter, Community Board 1 chair Anne Compoccia complained that “these changes were apparently buried in hundreds of pages of engineering drawings” that eluded the community, including elected officials. City Council member Kathryn Freed, for instance, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Alex Dudley, a spokesperson for NYSDOT, says the plans were part of publicly available documents, and that “for anyone to say that it wasn’t available isn’t truthful.” Dudley called the outreach on the project “historic.” So how could elected officials be unaware of NYSDOT plans? “I’m not sure how that could happen, but certainly the 9A paper is a large document, and certainly we were concentrating on items that we felt would be controversial and of concern to community. Perhaps this one was overlooked as not being controversial mostly because the triangle would not be impacted.”
Dudley bases that reasoning on NYSDOT’s position that the land is not a park now; routing traffic around what is currently an informal parking lot is not much of a change. As for the 1990 sketches that show the land as a park, Dudley says, “That was a wish list, not a binding document.”
The residents argue that the land’s status as a park relies not on the 1990 sketches but on a 68-year-old legal error: when the parks department in 1930 turned Canal Street Park over to the borough of Manhattan, it did so without required state legislation, making the entire transfer void. Chris Reo, the corporation counsel attorney representing the city, would only say that he is “investigating the allegations.” His answer is due to Judge Weissberg January 15.
Dudley maintains that NYSDOT’s plans could remain intact even if a judge orders the land to be reclaimed as a park. But such an order could jeopardize the plans, since the original park runs all the way to the intersection of Washington and Canal streets— well into NYSDOT’s planned traffic lanes.
The lawsuit documents the triangle’s long and alternately venerable and tawdry past. Set aside as a “country market” in 1833, by the 1860s it had become a dumping ground for bricks, ashes, and market detritus. In 1871, the city cleaned up the park, ringing it with iron railing from City Hall Park.
In 1888, the park was redesigned by Calvert Vaux (who, with Frederick Law Olmsted, designed Central and Prospect parks) and rededicated as part of a city-wide push for small parks; with one-third of an acre, Canal Street Park was the largest of these. It remained the city’s flower market until 1891, but in 1897, a Small Parks Commission report recounts police complaints that “many worthless bums” crowded out the “decent people” trying to use Canal Street Park.
Still, the oasis at the foot of Canal Street couldn’t have been entirely unpleasant. In 1894, writer Thomas Janvier noted that the maritime feel of Canal Street Park was such that “merely to sit for a while in that park is to give one the feeling of having gone upon several long journeys. . . . ” It’s a feeling that commuters trying to navigate their way along 9A might feel today, but without the pleasure Janvier implies.