The History of Chelsea
It was somewhat fortunate for Chelsea that New York City was one of the last major United State’s ports to rethink its waterfront. Over the long hawl, planners got to review the good, bad, and ugly of what other cities had already built. And, although several generations might have missed out on the waterfront experience, the result is a marvel to the local leadership, civic groups, horticulturists, artists, and the community that has guided the rebirth of Chelsea’s shore along the Hudson.
Innovation of the late 1950’s and 60’s moved ports to accommodate new super-sized container ships. Jet travel also replaced most passenger ships and cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Seattle, Toronto, Norfolk, Vancouver and San Francisco, began reinventing their waterfronts into mix-use destinations. Meanwhile, New York City’s westside piers lay mostly abandoned and it’s elevated highway rusting into decay.
It wasn’t until 1973 when a dump truck loaded with paving material meant for another highway-repair fell through the elevated highway, near 12th Street, that the need for a new highway became a top priority. A replacement plan, known as Westway, backed by then Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay, called for 220 acres of
new landfill stretching to the outer border of the pier’s line and an underground highway dug below. By 1981 the massive project had secured $1.7 billion from President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Transportation.
The Westway Project ran into public resistance. Residents along the Hudson River were all too familiar of how Battery Park City —a landfill created by soil and rock excavated during the construction of the World Trade Center—became a wall along the river, built by private and commercial development. Others felt the project was a colossal waste of money. In 1985, Westway got its final dagger when the courts denied the project the required environmental permits. The argument was that landfill would displace the breeding grounds of the stripe bass fish amongst the many pier piles.
In 1986, then Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor Edward Koch formed a 19 member task force to make recommendations for a Westway replacement plan. Of the $1.7 billion in federal highway funds, $1.01 billion would be allocated toward mass transit, with the remaining $690 million, and an additional state contribution of $120 million, going toward a new highway. Among those serving the task force was Chelsea’s own Robert Trentlyon, publisher of the Chelsea Clinton News, and president of the Chelsea Waterside Park Association that he had begun the previous year. The CWPA advocated for a waterside park at 23rd street. CPWA even hired Thomas Balsley, an architect fresh out of college.
The Cuomo and Koch task force not only examined the existing highway space but also reviewed other waterside projects scattered across the city and globe. In early 1987, the task force recommended a continuous 6 lane roadway, bicycle path and walkway to be
built as a single project under the watchful eye of a single entity (which later became the Hudson River Park Trust). The plan included many highway crossings from Battery Park to 59th Street, making the shoreline easily
accessible to pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists and skaters .
Under Trentlyon’s urging, it also recommended a waterside park where a sharp curve at 23rd street needed to be realigned by taking over a portion of the pre-existing Thomas Smith Park and a commercial property on 24th Street. The new park would include the rest of that commercial land, stretching from 22nd street & 24th street and Eleventh Avenue to the river’s edge.
Robert Trentlyon and his CWPA warriors, such as Pamela Wolff, Doris Corrigan, Edward Kirkland, and Tom Duane, along with electeds State Senator Franz Leichter and
Assembly member Richard Gottfried and later Christine Quinn continued the hard fight for Chelsea Waterside Park. This later included the battle of making Piers 62 and 64 into an open park spaces offering incredible views of the river. —Donathan Salkaln
Special thanks to Pamela Wolff, who's exstensive records provided much information and graphics to this history page. Below are recollections from CWPA’s founding President:
Built By A Herculean
My devotion to Chelsea can be traced back to 1965 when I, friends, and neighbors bought the existing local weekly newspaper, the Chelsea Clinton News. We covered local news and took strong positions on issues. I was the publisher and wrote all the editorials. What I quickly realized was that Chelsea had practically no parkland. Out of one square mile we had only seven acres of parks. There was no real access to the waterfront. The nearest park land to the Hudson River was a small patch of green with some old sycamore trees called Thomas Smith Park. It was a triangle between the West Side Highway, 11th Avenue, and 23rd Street. At that time, 23rd Street went all the way to the highway. The elevated West Side Highway cast its shadow on the little park. What to do?
Our savior was a guy who foolishly drove his cement truck up on the elevated highway. The truck was full of cement, went through the highway, and our savior walked away unharmed.
Nobody ever wanted the highway. The highway blocked our access to the waterfront. This was our opportunity. I called a meeting at the old Hudson Guild which was a tenement on 26th Street. Those who came included Doris Corrigan, Ed Kirkland, Pamela Wolff, District Leader Tom Duane, Assembly Member Dick Gottfried, State Senator Franz Leichter, and the woman who was in charge of the Little League. The area we wanted to obtain for a park extended from 22nd to 24th Street and from 11th Avenue to the Hudson River. We named the area Chelsea Waterside Park. The date was December, 1985.
There was great excitement from the Battery up to 59th Street about how to proceed with the demise of the West Side Highway. Mayor Koch and Governor Mario Cuomo set up a 19 member task force to come up with a plan. The committee consisted of five members from state government, five from the city government and three representing the public. I was selected as one of the three. The committee was headed by Arthur Leavitt, Jr., who was chairman of the American Stock Exchange.
There was tremendous activity in all the west sideneighborhoods. What kind of highway should be built, should all the piers be restored, should it all be commercial. We decided that there would be three locations where development was needed to provide the income to support the
park after it was completed. In the meantime, CWPA was busy trying to carve out a section for Chelsea. The first step was to get a drawing of what our park should look like. I fortunately met Tom Balsley at a luncheon celebrating a new apartment house on the Upper West Side. Balsley was the person who had designed the plantings in front of the building. He agreed to help us design the park and made a preliminary drawing. On one bus trip with the other members of the committee to see the entire stretch from Chambers Street to 59th Street, as we got to 23rd Street I yelled “stop the bus”. They stopped the bus and I showed everyone Balsley’s drawing. They looked at it and liked it, and so we planted our flag on both sides of the highway.
Next we had to deal with the state highway department. Tom Duane and I went down to speak to the chief of this section which covered all the state highways in New York City. We told the head and his public relations person what we planned to do. They were very considerate, but when we left, I turned to Tom and said “I don’t think they believe us”. So we got the amphitheater at FIT, 200 people came, all with green balloons, and we got Tom Fox, a lifetime parkie, to give us a slide show, all for the edification of the two highway people.
The highway people climbed aboard.
The next step was thanks to the highway people. They confided that it did not make sense to have 23rd Street continue past 11th Avenue. They could direct traffic around the park. They offered me the block between 23rd and 24th for part of the park. I yelled out “yes we wanted it” without a moment of hesitation. This gift made the entire difference, a promenade instead of a city street, a large playing field and a playground. Balsley, who ended up designing the segment east of the highway, brought back the water geysers from Tokyo as a gift to the park.
The community board, CWPA, and of course HRPT, decided what elements would be in the Chelsea Waterside Park. The next struggle was to design the area west of the highway, the area from Pier 62-Pier 64 and whether the shed on Pier 64 should remain or be removed, so that the pier could become an open area with solitude and great views up and down the river. The shed came down and the pier, which gradually gets higher as one walks out, has become a cherished place for solitude, much desired in this city of continual clamor. We have our annual picnic there.
Was the fight worth it? Of course it was. What a glorious addition to Chelsea and the City of New York.
Below is a slide show produced by Zazel Loven, President of Chelsea Waterside Park Association:
April 29, 2005: Opening of the
P.O. Box 20695
New York, NY 10011
Jack Murrin &
eastern portion of Chelsea
May 17, 2010: Opening of the
western portion of Chelsea
The westside’s shoreline was
neglected for decades.
The original Highway.
The plan to straighten the high-
way gave Robert Trentlyon and Architect, Thomas Balsley the leverage and footprint to design a new park.