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Opinion: For new Tappan Zee, looks matter

A new bridge

A new bridge Photo Credit: Pool Photo

Nicholas Dagen Bloom is an associate professor of social science at New York Institute of Technology and co-editor of the forthcoming "American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition." Adrian Berezowsky is a lifetime resident of Sleepy Hollow and vice president at IVI International, Inc. a real estate and environmental consulting firm headquartered in White Plains.

 

New York State is in danger of accidentally destroying one of its great scenic resources.

The Hudson River Valley has attracted visitors and artists for centuries and remains an iconic and priceless American landscape. This is especially true of the stunning Tappan Zee tidal estuary, a 10-mile long, natural widening -- about three miles across -- of the Hudson between Rockland and Westchester counties. Dramatic changes to this national treasure should be approached with great trepidation, particularly when it comes to the fast-track replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

In the recent hurry to secure a new crossing, the state is falling into a pattern of short-term thinking -- the kind of thinking that was supposedly discredited. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, almost everyone thought it was reasonable to bulldoze the incomparable Penn Station, or that it made sense to smash highways through historic neighborhoods. Today, we can't imagine how anyone could destroy something extraordinary in the name of expedience.

Yet we're on the verge of making a similar mistake on the Hudson.

When the new Hudson River Crossing is finished, we'll surely wonder why we didn't demand more beauty and care. While both the state and federal governments have fast-tracked the approval process, there is no question that the public has a right and a duty to demand the most magnificent bridge possible. So far, not only are we nowhere near that outcome, but it has pretty much been ignored.

The proposed Hudson River Crossing, as described in the recently released Draft Environmental Impact Statement, is not a bridge at all, but a 10-lane highway that happens to go over water. It destroys this breathtaking stretch of the Hudson by failing to celebrate the river's presence. The majesty associated with New York's great bridges -- the George Washington, Verrazano and Brooklyn bridges -- is conspicuously absent from the proposal.

Bridges should inspire visitors and enhance their surroundings. But this crossing will only detract from the stunning towns and landscapes it blasts through.

 

So why aren't more people worried? Because the expedited Draft Environmental Impact Statement, developed by the state Department of Transportation, is one of the most compelling and misleading documents produced by the state in half a century. Robert Moses would be proud to have produced a document of such rhetorical and visual power. But at least his Verrazano Bridge is graceful and exhilarating to cross. Alas, those who love the scenic landscapes of the Hudson River are getting a bland, 10-lane highway crossing on a scale that the DOT does everything possible to mask in the report.

The "visual and aesthetic resources" section of the statement, for instance, downplays the projected visual impact of the new bridge up and down the Hudson. Yet this will be a three-mile long, double-span bridge that, like the current Tappan Zee Bridge, will be visible from points up to 15 miles in either direction. Somehow, the statement's authors claim that historic landscapes at Lyndhurst or Kykuit (both less than two miles away), or any of the dozen or more historic districts and parks stretching from Yonkers to Peekskill, are "not expected" to be negatively affected. That's hardly believable.

Close up, the impact will be even more powerful and disturbing. The new crossing is up to 70 feet higher than the current bridge on the Rockland side, and in every version features massive concrete piers and a thick concrete roadbed that will have a dramatic negative impact. The images in the report bring home what everyone knew all along: This is not one bridge but two, each almost as large as the current Tappan Zee Bridge.

From many angles, the piers of the two bridges will combine visually to create a solid concrete wall. The report acknowledges that in the new crossing "the piers would be thicker than those of the existing bridge" but quickly notes that "the effect of the project on viewers would be largely contingent upon the extent of the change to visual resources, the proximity of the view, the extent of view duration, and the sensitivity of the viewer."

In other words, if you love beauty and spend time in the area, the State of New York apologizes in advance for ruining the view.

 

The final bridge may actually end up worse than the study's simulations. The "design-build" system of contracting leaves final design choices to the winning contractor. While state officials have claimed that aesthetics will be taken into account in the bidding process, the truth is that there will be no way to stop a contractor from cutting corners, particularly as costs inevitably rise.

As currently conceived, the Hudson River Crossing does not meet the standards of beauty that New York is famous for and that were achieved decades ago in both the George Washington Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has a tremendous opportunity to enhance the splendor of this region and create an enduring legacy, but the current planning process appears destined to detract from one of America's most treasured and storied landscapes.

History tells us that New York will end up spending a lot more money and time than planned on this crossing. Shouldn't the result be a more beautiful Hudson River?

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