Columnist: City Freeway Teardowns: More On Their Way

March 12, 2012
by Neal Peirce

Will the 20th century's urban freeway legacy - interstate roads cutting huge swaths through American cities - be reversed in the 21st?

Increasingly bold urbanists are looking to reclaim lost city land by demolishing segments of the interstates and other massive limited-access super roads.

One reason is obvious: to restore livability to downtowns and neighborhoods that were deeply scarred by massive highways plunging through them. But there is another key motive: belief that demolitions will trigger dramatic flows of new private investment and increased real estate value as the scourged city acres are redeveloped.

The Congress for the New Urbanism has a list of 10 top U.S. cities for possible freeway teardowns, scattered from Buffalo to New Orleans to Louisville. But new proposals keep springing up. A latest example: to demolish (or bury below ground) Philadelphia's elephant on its Delaware River waterfront - the three-mile, 10-lane stretch of Interstate 95 that's stunted development for decades. A citizen activist friend of mine, Stanhope Browne, led a successful fight in the 1960s to depress at least the crucial six-block Penn's Landing area to a below-grade level.

The Philadelphia case was the center of a February forum, organized by Diana Lind, founder-leader of the Next American City organization, featuring presentations by highway removal experts from New York, Denver and Providence. 

"What's to say the highway system of the future must be as it was planned 50 years ago?" Lind asked. "The highway doesn't pay taxes. It doesn't create economic opportunity." 

Seize the opportunity when a roadway such as I-95 approaches time for mandatory overhaul, Lind said. "Think big," she continued, proposing demolition of the entire I-95 stretch through the city to give citizens full and easy access to the waterfront, to open exciting opportunities such as new downtown university campuses, and to create significant rises in tax yields for the city. 

Skeptics will ask: What of today's flows of interstate auto and truck traffic - Where would it go? The roadway is not as indispensable as people assume, Lind replies: the New Jersey Turnpike and other non-urban interstates could accommodate major East Coast north-south through-traffic.

What's easily forgotten is how the deep gashes in America's city fabric occurred. The highway planners of 1950s and '60s seemed unfazed by pushing massive highways straight through cities, devastating minority neighborhoods as well as cutting off waterfronts. It's a dark chapter in our history. As my friend Peter Harnik writes in his Island Press book "Urban Green":

"Waterfronts were blockaded in Portland, Oregon, Cincinnati, Hartford, Cleveland, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Nooses of concrete were wound tightly around the downtowns of Dallas and Charlotte. Trenches of noise and smog cut through Boston, Detroit, Seattle and Atlanta. Stupendous elevated structures threw shadows over Miami and New Orleans. And wide strips of land were taken from large, iconic parks in Los Angeles (Griffith Park), St. Louis (Forest Park), Baltimore (Druid Hill Park) and San Diego (Balboa Park)."

Yet, as some of the intrusive roadways have collapsed, they've actually triggered amazingly rapid recovery and new prosperity. The collapse of a chunk of New York City's elevated West Side Highway in 1973 didn't, for example, cause the traffic Armageddon anticipated. As Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek noted at the Philadelphia Forum, substitution of a ground-level, more modest urban boulevard "has made some of Lower Manhattan into some of the world's most valuable real estate."

Portland's Harbor Drive freeway, rebuilt as Tom McCall Waterfront Park in 1984, helped spark a 10.4 percent annual increase in downtown property values. San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway, demolished after damage from a 1989 earthquake, has been replaced by a pedestrian boulevard and transit, pushing land values up as much as 300 percent in nearby neighborhoods. 

Downtown Seattle's waterfront future is now brighter as life without the hideous Alaskan Way Viaduct dawns. And Providence, R.I., moving since the 1980s to recover its almost totally buried and pipe-diverted rivers, has created one of America's delightful riverfront walkways, relocating a railroad right-of-way, local roadways and a section of I-95 to make it all happen.

Each recovery, though, requires ingenuity in unearthing needed funds. Federal gas tax-supported transportation funds may well stay stalled for years. Opposition may come from rural and some suburban camps committed to straight-line auto and truck dominance, no yielding or detours permitted.

And then there's the competition for funding within cities. Appearing at the Philadelphia forum on I-95, a city official asked if scarce city funds wouldn't be better used upgrading SEPTA, the regional transit system.

What's clear is that if citizens want less freeway-dominated cities, they'll have to wage multiyear campaigns, with constant organizing, pressure on city and state agencies, plus their own city halls, to think afresh. What may give them hope are the rich advantages - in livability, quality of life and fast-rising tax yields for hard-pressed city treasuries - that the forerunner freeway demolition sites have demonstrated.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.