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Fighting Westway: Environmental Law, Citizen Activism, and the Regulatory War That Transformed New York City

Responsive Government

From 1971 to 1985, battles raged over Westway, a multibillion-dollar highway, development, and park project slated for placement in New York City. It would have projected far into the Hudson River, including massive new landfill extending several miles along Manhattan’s Lower West Side. The most expensive highway project ever proposed, Westway also provoked one of the highest stakes legal battles of its day. In Fighting Westway, CPR Member Scholar William W. Buzbee reveals how environmentalists, citizens, their lawyers, and a growing opposition coalition, despite enormous resource disparities, were able to defeat this project supported by presidents, senators, governors, and mayors, much of the business community, and most unions. Although Westway’s defeat has been derided as lacking justification, Westway’s critics raised substantial and ultimately decisive objections. They questioned claimed project benefits and advocated trading federal Westway dollars for mass transit improvements. They also exposed illegally disregarded environmental risks, especially to increasingly scarce East Coast young striped bass often found in extraordinarily high numbers right where Westway was to be built.

Drawing on archival records and interviews, Buzbee goes beyond the veneer of government actions and court rulings to illuminate the stakes, political pressures, and strategic moves and countermoves that shaped the Westway war, a fight involving all levels and branches of government, scientific conflict, strategic citizen action, and hearings, trials, and appeals in federal court. This Westway history illuminates how high-stakes regulatory battles are fought, the strategies and power of America’s environmental laws, ways urban priorities are contested, the clout of savvy citizen activists and effective lawyers, and how separation of powers and federalism frameworks structure legal and political conflict. Whether readers seek an exciting tale of environmental, political, and legal conflict, to learn what really happened during these battles that transformed New York City, or to understand how modern legal frameworks shape high stakes regulatory wars, Fighting Westway will provide a good read.

Reviews for Fighting Westway

"Finally! The first thorough, truthful account of one of the great environmental battles of the twentieth century! William W. Buzbee captures in rigorous detail the successful fight a group of dedicated citizens waged against the major economic and political powers of the day. Westway was a victory for honesty, principle, and the rule of law. Long live the Clean Water Act and the Hudson River striped bass!"—John H. Adams, Founding Director, Natural Resources Defense Council, coauthor of A Force for Nature

"Fighting Westway is the definitive account of the fifteen-year struggle over Westway. An infrastructure project proposed for Manhattan's West Side, Westway would have significantly changed the cityscape of New York City. William W. Buzbee tells the compelling story of how an unlikely collection of citizen activists, politicians, scientists, and public interest lawyers defeated a mega-project backed by New York’s most powerful business and civic leaders. The dramatic story of the battle over Westway serves as a masterful case study of how today’s regulatory wars are waged across the United States. By weaving together the many different, overlapping roles played by politics, regulatory agencies, environmental science, grassroots advocacy, and public interest lawyering, Buzbee reveals the structure in which public policy is often made today."—Richard Briffault, Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation, Columbia University Law School, coauthor of State and Local Government Law

"Finally we have a much-needed historical analysis of the embattled West Side Highway Project, known as Westway. It's a page-turner as the reader seeks reasons for, and the outcome of, the “wars" that were fought over the future of Lower Manhattan’s Hudson River waterfront from the 1971 Plan to the conclusive court decision. William W. Buzbee has amalgamated governmental, political, civic, and legal documents and interviews with participants into an insightful and thought-provoking story about the travails of a large physical project in the post–Robert Moses era.”—Ann L. Buttenwieser, author of Manhattan Water-Bound

"Fighting Westway has much to teach us about the dynamics of environmental disputes, the role of courts, and the history of a great American city."—Daniel Farber, Sho Sato Professor of Law and Co-Director, Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, University of California, Berkeley, author of Eco-Pragmatism University of California, Berkeley, author of Eco-Pragmatism

"Fighting Westway provides a deep and highly nuanced analysis of a landmark environmental battle that, though it took place two decades ago, remains highly relevant in today's fractious political economy."—Thomas O. McGarity, Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair in Administrative Law, University of Texas School of Law, author of Freedom to Harm: The Lasting Legacy of the Laissez Faire Revival

"William W. Buzbee's absorbing history unearths the complex and fascinating events, personalities, and regulations that conspired to create one of New York's most public failures of city planning—and one of its most memorable triumphs of citizen activism. At the beginning of a new mayoral administration, this book is a timely reminder that urban advocacy is never out of fashion in the city that never sleeps."—Elizabeth L. Bradley, author of Knickerbocker

"Fighting Westway is a very good book on a rich topic. William W. Buzbee has done impressive research and is well acquainted with environmental litigation in general and his main protagonists in particular."—Oliver A. Houck, Tulane University Law School, author of Taking Back Eden: Eight Environmental Cases That Changed the World

Responsive Government