The Gowanus Expressway

The Gowanus Expressway is a southern extension of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway which runs over Third Avenue in Sunset Park and connects the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel approach, Prospect Expressway, the Belt Parkway and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

The highway began life in 1939 under the czarship of Robert Moses as the Gowanus Parkway. The parkway was built through Sunset Park on the pillars of the Third Avenue BMT Elevated Line (aka 5th Ave El, opened 1893), a design choice that also facilitated approval of the project since it would simply replace an existing structure. The creation of the parkway had the effect of physically splitting the tightly-knit communities in the neighborhood and contributing to the blight that would soon afflict the area. Construction of the highway and ancillary ramps required condemnation of many homes and businesses on the avenue (over considerable community opposition), which further compounded the civic injury. The parkway was completed in August 27, 1942 with the opening of the Hamilton Avenue Drawbridge over the Gowanus Canal, thus permitting direct travel over Sunset Park from the Belt Parkway on the south end into Red Hook on the north.

As highway traffic and expansion blossomed in the years following WWII, the need for upgrade of the Gowanus Parkway became obvious. In 1950, the NYC Board of Estimate approved a six-lane viaduct over the Gowanus Canal that would connect the Gowanus Parkway with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Prospect Expressway. In 1955 the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (aka Robert Moses) and the Federal Bureau of Public Roads recommended widening of the Gowanus Parkway into a six lane expressway. The widening began soon after approval and entailed further demolition and condemnation along Third Avenue. To the south, the expressway was extended to the approach to the new Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which involved extensive demolition and displacement in the Bay Ridge neighborhood south of Sunset Park. The expressway was completed in time for the opening of the new Verrazano-Narrows bridge to Staten Island in 1964.

Despite the extensive amount of money spent on the conversion from a parkway to an expressway and the route's official designation as part of the Interstate Highway System, the new Gowanus Expressway was really a pre-modern structure with short on-ramps, no shoulders and an abundance of tight curves. The subsequent decades of harsh traffic and weather conditions made it a prime candidate for replacement, although the considerable difficulty and expense of such a project have (as of this writing) stalled any progress. The vast array of proposed replacement options include a complete reconstruction of the elevated structure, a variety of different tunnel configurations, devolution to an at-grade boulevard or ideas as radical as a complete transposition of the route to a massive multi-span cable-stayed bridge high above the industrial waterfront on First Avenue.

Given the explosion of real estate prices in New York City in the 21st Century (and with the presence of fairly good subway service), the large warehouses in Sunset Park would seem to be prime candidates for residential loft conversions. However, ironically, the blight of the Gowanus Expressway probably depresses real estate values in the area and offers some protection to these buildings in a way that probably has Robert Moses spinning in his grave.

For more detailed information on the history of the Gowanus Expressway as well as proposals for its replacement, see

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Gowanus Expressway
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Gowanus Expressway
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Under the Gowanus Expressway
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Gowanus Expressway
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Gowanus rised in the distance past row houses on 60th Street just east of the Brooklyn Army Terminal
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Row houses on 52nd Street in Sunset Park
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Commercial 52nd Street
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Old rowhouses amidst businesses on 52nd Street

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