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Time To Accelerate Freeway Teardowns?

Neal Peirce / Sep 02 2010

For Release Sunday, September 5, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceIs America ready to tear down more of the elevated expressways that ripped through its cities in our post-World War II freeway building boom?

It may well be. In New Orleans, there’s a concerted citizen-led campaign, backed by the national Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), to demolish 2.2 miles of the elevated Interstate-10 Claiborne Expressway as it plows into the city from the northeast, past the French Quarter and ending near the Superdome.

The New Orleans roadway may be the most poignant of the separate cases that CNU makes for taking down 10 major U.S. downtown freeways. The expressway was constructed to run straight through — and over the wishes — of the heavily African-American Treme neighborhood, where the city’s Creole aristocracy had once held sway.

But it’s more of a spur than an essential part of the interstate system. And its consequences have been grim. Old Claiborne Avenue, with its generous, oak-shaded median, a walkable neighborhood center with a history of picnics, Mardi Gras parades and black marching bands, literally disappeared under the broad new route that backers claimed would carry traffic and prosperity into downtown New Orleans.

The number of businesses along the freeway’s path literally collapsed — from 132 in 1960 to 35 in 2000. Poverty and decay reigned, the stark expressway section creating a hostile no-man’s land around it.

Today the Claiborne expressway “is an aging interstate… nearing the end of its useful life and beginning to deteriorate,” requiring frequent maintenance and “possibly reconstruction to carry traffic safely,” according to the exhaustive new report advocating its demolition, issued jointly by CNU and the local Claiborne Corridor Improvement Association.

It would make no sense, the report suggests, to spend the $50 million the Federal Highway Administration’s national bridge inventory says might be needed just to repair or replace the Claiborne expressway’s seriously decayed interchange ramps.

In Milwaukee, where Jon Norquist — then mayor, now CNU president — led the successful effort to dismantle the Park East Freeway, the bill for teardown and putting a surface street system in place was just $30 million, compared to $80 million to rebuild the freeway.

In fact, teardowns, at least on unessential interstate links, may start looking more attractive nationally as the U.S. Department of Transportation struggles to come up with sufficient maintenance budgets to keep up the elevated freeways passing their effective 50-year lifespan point.

Jack Davis, former newspaper publisher and co-chair of the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Association, makes that point, adding that the nation “has a looming balloon payment” for the elevated roadways, all of which are far more expensive to maintain than surface boulevards.

The CNU position is that regular urban grids, minus the expressways, raise property values, increase mobility, restrain sprawl, and make for far more successful cities.

The normal roadways foster, says Norquist, “compact, pedestrian-friendly and mixed-use neighborhoods with interconnected networks of streets” — a system that works well as space for drivers and pedestrians alike. The new CNU pitch to federal highway planners is to fund improvements for surface level road systems rather than big dollars into viaducts, tunnels and elevated highways.

Varieties of roadways, it’s argued, are also better for ambulances or police, or for the movement of masses of vehicles in emergency evacuations when a single clogged interstate link can cause acute traffic stoppage.

In New Orleans, sentiment for taking down the expressway seems high. The new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, has indicated he’s open to the idea, as have several city council members.

Meanwhile, demolition of sections of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, the monstrous waterfront eyesore damaged by a 2001 earthquake, has begun despite a dispute over financing a deep-bore tunnel to replace it.

Disasters took out two other famed freeways. The first was New York City’s West Side Highway, which experienced a catastrophic collapse in 1973 and was eventually replaced by a boulevard with a parallel river front bicycle path. And then, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake forced closure and led to eventual demolition of San Francisco’s Central Freeway. It would be hard to find many New Yorkers or San Franciscans who would want either expressway back.
And the CNU lists eight other “freeways without futures” — deserving of demolition and restoration of the natural street patterns. They include Route 34 in New Haven Conn., Interstates 81 through Syracuse, N.Y. and 64 in Louisville, Ky., Route 29 in Trenton, N.J., the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx, N.Y., the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, the Skyway and Route 5 in Buffalo, N.Y., and the 11th Street Bridges and the Southeast Freeway in Washington, D.C.

The timing, as the nation turns away from far-out sprawl and more to center cities, should be perfect — atoning for the last generation’s racially-tinged land seizure, making use of prime urban land to create livability, and opening up choice new economic development sites.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. John Watt
    Posted September 2, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    The two “freeways” that were pulled down in San Francisco were both basically grossly extended on-ramps that really never carried much traffic, and really didn’t go anywhere useful. Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, although old, does carry a lot of traffic that can’t be handled elsewhere. (I live here and use it regularly.)

    A good example of a city without freeways is Vancouver, BC, which doesn’t have any. It does have many really wide streets and an excellent transit system, mostly consisting of electric buses. Driving is not something that you HAVE to do to get to work there.

  2. Jason Bezis
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    The most famous San Francisco freeway demolition is the Embarcadero Freeway (State Route 480), which was torn down in 1991. San Francisco’s Central Freeway (U.S. 101) also was demolished, but the portion of it southerly of Market Street was re-built as a freeway; the portion northerly of Market Street was re-opened as the Octavia Street expressway in September 2005 (not in 2002, as the Congress for the New Urbanism website says — see San Francisco Chronicle of Sept. 8, 2005). There was a third freeway demolition in San Francisco (Interstate 280 from Third to Sixth streets) that is often overlooked because it sat unused by traffic for 25 or so years after it was constructed circa 1973. Its dead-end was across Third Street from the site of today’s San Francisco Giants stadium. Had the I-280 extension to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge been completed, it would have run through the site of today’s baseball stadium.

  3. Posted September 3, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    The Onondaga Citizens League issued a study report last year, advocating a highway to boulevard approach for I-81 in Syracuse in order to reconnect downtown to the adjacent “eds and meds”, increase development opportunites, improve traffic flow, and create a better and healthier environment.

  4. Posted September 3, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    For those seeking to make the case for this type of change, there is an interesting analogy from the world of public housing. High-rise developments on sterile super-blocks emerged from the same anti-urban design mindset that gave us elevated super-highways through urban neighborhoods. The restoration of the street-grid and more human scale design through the Hope VI process has not only provided better quality housing, it has had a dramatically positive effect on market values in the surrounding blocks.

  5. Alfred W. Barry III
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    We have worked on a similar plan that has been proposed by a private property owner (Edison Properties) for the lower part of the Jones Falls Expressway (I-83) that was constructed over 40 years ago and divides downtown Baltimore from the growing Johns Hopkins Hospital campus and a planned rebuilding of the Oldtown neighborhood. Conceptual master plans and economic impact studies indicate that over a billion dollars of benefits would result. The city has evaluated the proposal and is including the concept in its Oldtown Master Plan, but has not committed any funding, preferring to “patch” the road until its life expectancy runs out around 2050 and the expected replacement cost rises to almost half a billion dollars. An interesting concept is to tie this removal with the daylighting of the original Jones Falls enclosed in three massive culverts before it empties into the Inner Harbor. No less an authority than Walter Sondheim, the late dean of downtown Baltimore development, called the construction of the Jones Falls Expressway, the worst planning mistake for downtown Baltimore.

  6. Posted September 3, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Neal, I could not agree with you more on urban freeways; well, maybe a little more. My perspective goes back to St. Paul, Minn., where I-94 cuts through the heart of the city where the former Rondo Street once was. North of Rondo was principally black, south was principally white. Articles I have read described Rondo as the melding point where blacks and whites merged with the result of keeping any racial tensions in check. Rondo businesses were owned by both whites and blacks and did business with both races. Differences were settled in amiable fashion.

    When freeway I-94 was built, Rondo disappeared with the freeway created a dividing wall and trouble followed. Charting shows how many shootings, murders and other problems occur on either side of the freeway. It ripped up valuable property and combined with I-35E creates a huge paved area where once stood historical building residences and divided the downtown from the lovely state capitol.

    Urban freeways are extremely costly to build when compared to rural interstate highways and contain many bridges, many of which are not properly maintained (witness Minneapolis’ bridge collapse). Much of this freeway will likely have to be fully repaired or replaced and I would hope the good people of St. Paul vote to throw it out.

    Urban freeways took land from private citizens, both personal and business, and led to the flight to the suburbs where new big block buildings enticed shoppers away from the core city. Many urban cores decayed as you have so often written about and I cheer those cities that have made valiant efforts to re-build their cores.

    Removing the freeways would also go a long way to help rebuilding those cores and rather than costing a bundle of money to build un-necessary urban highways, cities would have more funding to help rebuild those cores. Its a win-win situation.

  7. Posted September 3, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I hope you will take a moment to explore, and browse the Internet for more on the effort to remove I-70 in downtown St. Louis. As you may be aware, there is an international design competition wrapping up to reinvision the Arch and surrounding National Park and connections to the city. All five of the finalist design teams have expressed their desire to have I-70 removed. The National Park Service has also publicly stated that they want I-70 removed. You can find more coverage of the design competition and City to River’s efforts at

  8. Robert G. Justice
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Dear Neal:
    I can’t argue with this approach of taking down useless freeways, however, I disagree with the approach that most enviromentalists take of destroying needeed facilities before building what we need to replace them. Take for example the stance taken against coal powered electrical plants. If Robert Redford, Al Gore and Robert Kennedy Jr. had their way we would shutdown all coal
    power plants and replace them with wind power. First that will not work and secondaly an intelligent plan would be to build one new 95% efficient coal gasification
    plant and afterwards shut down three current 30% efficient plants. I love what Citiwire is trying to accomplish, however, we need to do things smartly and in a logical way.

  9. Posted September 4, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the article. We’re going through the same debatesabout our ‘unfinished freeways’ in Cape Town at the moment. See

  10. Michele Rosenberg
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    To Alfred Barry:

    Comments on daylighting parts of Jones Falls Expressway were very interesting. I know this is a concept that Gabriel Kroiz is promoting. I testified at a Baltimore Regional Transportation Board meeting concerning this because work was being discussed for improvements on one of the streets involved and was told that this could not be considered at all.

    Do you know something that I don’t know? Or is this just a dream which does not involve city planners?

  11. Neal Peirce
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Rcvd from Mike Munk, Portland, Oregon:
    An early removal of a freeway was in 1977, when Portland Ore moved the Harbor Freeway, which ran along the west bank of the Willamette river downtown, and replaced it with Tom McColl Waterfront Park. Ever since it has been a popular and heavily used park.

  12. Posted September 8, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Seee new report “More Transit = More Jobs,” by the folks at Transportation Equity Network. That is the answer, one told decades ago, when NYC’s Westside Highway simply fell down. The community fought off the “big plan” an the result today is very pleasant and very adaptable to many the new ways we now have to get around town.