May 16, 2008
Lose that highway

Imagine if instead of building more highways we got rid of some of them, or at least relocated them.

Oklahoma has a radical solution for repairing the state's busiest highway.

Tear it down. Build a park.

The aging Crosstown Expressway -- an elevated 4.5-mile stretch of Interstate 40 -- will be demolished in 2012. An old-fashioned boulevard and a mile-long park will be constructed in its place.

Oklahoma City is doing what many cities dream about: saying goodbye to a highway.

More than a dozen cities have proposals to remove highways from downtowns. Cleveland wants to remove a freeway that blocks its waterfront. Syracuse, N.Y., wants to rid itself of an interstate that cuts the city in half.


In the 1950s and '60s, mayors, governors and planners thought downtown highways would help keep cities alive by paving the way for suburban commuters to get in and out. Today, many of those same groups view downtown highways as a plague, wrecking neighborhoods, dividing cities and blocking waterfronts. Many big cities have long-term plans that call for eliminating some downtown highways or reducing their scale.

The future of many of these highways will be decided in the next few years because the old roads are nearing the end of their life expectancies. The federal, state and local governments must decide whether it's smarter and cheaper to renovate highways or to build new routes.

Some cities want traffic routed around downtowns. Others want tunnels or highways that pass under streets. A number of cities want to close highways and replace them with -- nothing.

In Oklahoma City, the interstate will be moved five blocks from downtown to an old railroad line. The new 10-lane highway, expected to carry 120,000 vehicles daily, will be placed in a trench so deep that city streets can run atop it, as if the highway weren't there.

The old highway will be converted into a tree-lined boulevard city officials hope will become Oklahoma City's marquee street.

By tearing down the Crosstown Expressway, the city hopes to spur development of 80 city blocks stretching from downtown to the Oklahoma River -- an area that contains vacant lots, car repair shops and a few small homes.

"We've always been a good place to live, but we've never had a city we could show off," Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett says. "Moving the expressway makes it possible for a day to come when hundreds or thousands of people will live downtown."

Imagine what Houston's downtown might look like if the elevated highways that bound it had been built as tunnels instead. Midtown, south of the I-45 Pierce Elevated, might not have been the blighted wasteland that served as post-apocalyptic Detroit in the Robocop movies back in the 80s. The just-beginning-to-gentrify areas immediately east of US59 might have been a part of downtown all along instead of being spoken of as an extension of its boundaries. Obviously we can't know what things might look like now, but it's an interesting thought experiment.

And it's something we should think about, because there's clearly value to be added by not situating highways where they will detract from the surrounding areas.

Many unpopular highways run along rivers or lakes. The path made sense when they were built because the route was flat, in existing rights-of-way and connected highways and busy ports.

Now, especially in old, industrial cities, waterfronts are often vacant, leaving the prettiest scenery blighted by highways carrying traffic passing through.

Cleveland wants to convert its West Shoreway, next to Lake Erie, from a 50-mph freeway into a tree-lined boulevard. "There was less appreciation for the scenic value of waterfront when the shoreway was built," says Cleveland Planning Commission director Robert Brown. "We need to connect the city to its parks and lakefront again."

That's not our problem in Houston, but our highways still pack an awful lot of ugly in them. Think about how I-45 from Intercontinental Airport into downtown looks now, and then consider the vision presented by the I-45 Parkway. Which looks better to you? Sure, that vision costs more, but the aesthetic has value, and that value should be taken into account when considering the costs of each alternative if we want to make a fully informed decision.

In other cities, highways cut cities in half. "It's our very own Berlin Wall," Syracuse, N.Y., council member Van Robinson says of I-81.

Like many urban interstates, I-81 demolished a black neighborhood. The interstate has created a tale of two cities: thriving Syracuse University on one side, struggling downtown on the other.

I-45 did that, too, to the Fourth Ward and Freedmen's Town. Those neighborhoods are revitalizing now, but in doing so they are pricing out the folks who were there before it was cool. And, as is typical for Houston, the rebuilding of those neighborhoods wipes out much of its history. Some of that can and will be preserved, but no matter what happens, the people who were displaced, and the people who wound up on the "wrong side" of the metaphorical tracks can't ever be compensated enough for what they lost.

Anyway. I don't ever foresee Houston seriously considering these options - we recently spent a ton of money renovating the Pierce Elevated, so even if we would consider them, it wouldn't be any time soon - but it's worth thinking about, if only to imagine what it might be like.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 16, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Seattle has been fighting the same fight for decades. Back in the 1950s, US 101 was built as a double decker viaduct freeway right along the downtown Seattle waterfront effectively cutting off the waterfront from downtown. Now the viaduct is crumbling and seismically unstable and the debate is how to replace it. The movers and shakers want an impossibly expensive tunnel freeing up the waterfront land for upscale development. Anti-tax commuter types and business dependent on transport want the viaduct rebuilt as is. And the green community activist and urban planner types want the viaduct replaced with a ordinary street-level boulevard with wide sidewalks.

In the end, the city has no money for any of those 3 options so they do nothing year after year until someday in the next earthquake it will fall into the sound killing hundreds.

Portland is the city that did it right. They ripped out their waterfront freeway decades ago and turned the inner loop freeway 405 into a sunken freeway along the west edge of downtown that is not very obstructive because the regular street grid is unobstructed. All the cross streets simply bridge the sunken freeway and you don't see it until you are right on top of it.

Portland also has the smallest city blocks of any major city I've seen. The size of the city block makes a big difference in pedestrian friendliness I've found. Houston and most Texas cities have very large city blocks with wide streets compared to Portland's smaller blocks and narrower streets. Downtown San Antonio is another city with small city blocks and that gives it a more vibrant feeling

Posted by: Kent on May 16, 2008 8:29 PM