Lessons From 200 Years Of Failed New York City Megaprojects

History’s biggest failures offer a few hints for the present.


Our infrastructural report card isn’t good. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a D+ grade and estimated that $3.6 trillion of investment is needed by 2020. We’re already seeing the escalating consequences from decades of neglect–the ongoing Flint water crisis, drivers wasting an average of 40 hours per year stuck in traffic, collapsing highways, and congested transportation systems.


Yet that’s not for lack of ambitious infrastructural proposals over the decades, as demonstrated in Never Built New York (Metropolis Books, 2016), a new tome by architecture writers Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin. The book chronicles conceptual plans for everything from skyscrapers to pneumatic subway systems and utopian housing plans, all of which failed to make the jump from paper to reality.

“The drawings in this book . . . are for me not a compendium of nostalgia, regret, or opportunities missed,” writes architect Daniel Libeskind in Never Built New York‘s introduction. “They are, on the contrary, drawing the open mind to rethink the built and unbuilt.” (He might be biased, though, since two of his projects are included in the book, the “Gardens of the World” skyscraper and his Tower at One Madison.)

Many of these projects hold lessons that ring true today: Keep projects contextual, work with communities to develop ideas that make sense for a particular location, and make sure municipalities have the financial resources to get the project underway. Today, as infrastructure is once again part of the national conversation, examining old projects through a contemporary lens and learning from their mistakes takes on new significance.


Understand The Business of Bureaucracy

Over the course of two-and-a-half years, Lubell and Goldin combed archives, libraries, newspaper clippings, and history books to uncover projects that sought to remake New York City. Previously, the writers co-authored Never Built Los Angeles, a book about unbuilt projects in Southern California. While L.A. and New York are architectural capitals in the United States, the cities are faced with deeply different challenges that materialize in the conceptual projects. Designers in L.A. were given a tabula rasa–a symptom of the West Coast’s swathes of open space. New York, on the other hand, is a product of centuries’ worth of layering and spatial scarcity.

“At some level New York is a victim of its own success and has always been addressing the problems stemming from being a teeming mercantile city,” Goldin says. “You can’t cross the street, or get from one place to another. This happens very early on in the city’s history.” In 1866, a guidebook called the cacophonous streets of Lower Manhattan–which were clogged with stagecoaches, trucks, and carriages–“a Babel scene of confusion.”

In the 1860s, civil engineer Egbert Viele proposed a project called the “Arcade Underground Railway,” a series of subterranean esplanades, train tracks, and storefronts. While New York State legislature adopted his plan, it eventually faltered because of concerns that it would infringe on property rights and that it involved giving up public land for private gain–a debate that still rages today.


Other “visionary” transit projects abounded over the following decades. In 1870, Alfred Ely Beach proposed a pneumatic subway for Manhattan (an antecedent, in some ways, to the Hyperloop). It was approved by the legislature through the 1872 Pneumatic Bill, but vetoed by the governor because he thought it conflicted with another subway business. “You need a lot of money and power to get anything done [in New York],” Lubell says. Meanwhile, in 1925, architect Raymond Hood–who designed 30 Rockefeller Plaza–proposed integrating 50-story apartment buildings with the support towers of suspension bridges to tackle congestion in Manhattan–an effort to turn water into habitable land.

In another effort to make the city more hospitable, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown proposed a 90-acre park over a subterranean highway along Manhattan’s West Side called Westway Park. Environmentalists and community groups spoke out against the project, debuted in 1984, which eventually lead to its demise. “The park got chewed up in environmental disputes,” Goldin says. “Protected court proceedings revealed that people viewed it as a way to leverage property values on the West Side whereas planners and developers were thinking about open space and opening up the river to public access. You have these two sides who are incapable of talking to each other and who are speaking different languages. That’s close to the modern problem we face with proposals where you don’t even have a common language. When something is proposed, it’s immediately challenged for all the wrong reasons.”

Keep Hubris In Check

While Lubell and Goldin would’ve welcomed some of the unbuilt projects–like a McKim, Mead, and White plan to make the Brooklyn Museum rival the Met in terms of scale and grandeur, and a plan to put an opera house in the middle of Rockefeller Center–they’re glad the majority have stayed on paper. One of the most infamous infrastructural projects in New York that was rightly challenged was Robert Moses’s plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (abbreviated as LoMex): A sprawling highway that would’ve forced the demolition of much of SoHo and the West Village. Paul Rudolph contributed to this plan with City Corridor, a pyramidal megastructure over the highway.


“Moses was a progressive,” Goldin says. “He was a registered Republican, but he saw his role as one that would make a city a better place. The parks, beaches, and pools, he opened were idealistic aims to give people–particularly supposedly poorer people–playgrounds and places for recreation . . . LoMex is an extension of an impulse to make the city better.”

Moses was rightly vilified for his plan to destroy neighborhoods in the name of congestion, but wasn’t alone in his obsession with megaprojects. The Bronx Linear City, proposed in 1969 as part of Mayor John Lindsay’s Plan for New York City, would’ve capped the Cross-Bronx Expressway with residences and shops high above derelict neighborhoods. Similarly, the Brooklyn Linear City, proposed in 1967, put forth the idea that a highway could be a nexus for community. Lindsay called it “a dramatic new concept for community development.”

Today, we know that highways are destabilizing forces in cities. These projects looked pretty on paper and helped politicians and architects spin a narrative about saving the city, but looks deceive. “There was a conventional wisdom that the city needed saving, and architects saw them as saviors for the city; I find that dangerous,” Lubell says, pointing out that groups who wanted to tear down Grand Central Station called themselves progressive. “When architects say they’re going to save the city, I raise a red flag because no one entity is going to do that. There’s hubris in saying they’ll make everything better through massive redistricting projects that would totally reformat the way of living in a city. That’s scorched-earth thinking.”


To Lubell, the pendulum swung from the large-scale utopian megaprojects era to smaller projects. “The High Line is an exception and may set the state for more infrastructural interventions.”

Money Talks (And Walks)

While community opposition to certain infrastructural projects lead to their demise–thank you, Jane Jacobs–Goldin points to another force: money. “New York was broke for a period of time,” he says. “Economic shock therapy brings things to a grinding halt, but you can also have a political complexion that is averse to these public expenditures. In the 19th century, it was hard to get Central Park built. You can enter a similar political phase when you have an attitude in government that we’re probably about to embark upon.”

To Goldin, a lesson from the unbuilt projects is about finding a balance between local influence and dedicated financial support from federal sources. “I don’t know what source of financing would exist other than a national plan to address the crisis of our infrastructure,” he says. “Making that money available should come with as few strings as possible. Initiatives have to be local and express local interests and characteristics. It should come from architects and planners who live in these cities and rural areas where the projects are needed. I think the worst thing is trying to impose ‘an’ architectural idea or a singular idea or voice that’s national.”


This election season, infrastructure emerged as common ground; Trump and Clinton supporters agreed that better infrastructure should be a priority. While President-elect Trump has pledged to make infrastructure a key focus, his plans have been vague; he’s mentioned incentivizing private development of public infrastructure through tax breaks in an effort to generate $1 trillion of private investment. Judging from Trump’s affinity for gilded monolithic towers with little stylistic variation or deference to context, and his reliance on private development to subsidize infrastructural projects, there’s plenty of reason to harbor concern over the future of infrastructure in the country.

“Trump’s a builder and it’s not a surprise he wants to build things,” Lubell says. “It could be done in the right way, but considering his track record of recklessness, I’m not sure what is on the horizon . . . We know he likes to design things that are outlandishly large; whether he has the money to pay for them is irrelevant. We need infrastructure, but I don’t think he’s concerned with the money to pay for it. You have to ask, is this a question of ego or out of real need?”

[All Photos: courtesy Metropolis Books]

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.