The carving up of cities by expressways is still a civil rights problem, but it’s being solved as an economic one.
By Nate Berg
Since freeways began slicing through cities in the United States more than 75 years ago, they have carved deep and lasting lines of separation through countless communities. Many of these communities—located in so-called blighted areas—were made up of people of color who were simply pushed aside by the transportation officials building out the nation’s vast network of interstates and urban freeways. In a somewhat surprising speech in March 2016, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, the nation’s top transportation official, acknowledged this dark history and the mistakes of his predecessors.
“We now know—overwhelmingly—that our urban freeways were routed through low-income neighborhoods. Instead of connecting us to each other, highway decision makers separated us,” Foxx said. Reflecting on his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, he noted how the “connective tissue” of the African American neighborhood where he lived rrns destroyed by two highways—infrastructure that was planned and built before federal civil rights legislation could intervene. “Neighbors were separated from neighbors. The corner store was gone because the corner was gone,” he said. “A new more convenient, high-speed thoroughfare had been created. But the way of life of another community had been destroyed.”
The huge gashes that freeways cut through cities will live on for the foreseeable future, as will their divisive legacy. But Foxx has vowed to try to undo some of that long-lasting damage. Though they may seem intractable, these divisions aren’t absolute. Increasingly, cities are finding ways to restitch the urban fabric this massive infrastructure tore apart, building under, over, and sometimes directly on top of freeways.
Freeway cap or deck parks are one of the more popular approaches. By building lid-like structures over depressed urban expressways, the formerly empty airspace above the concrete and asphalt becomes a blank slate of open space. Some cities are taking this approach even further, bolstering the strength of the lid structure to accommodate developable urban land, often in the downtown core. Even without a lid, decommissioned freeway spurs can be filled in to turn former traffic lanes into new city blocks. And when the freeways run overhead on elevated paths, the formerly dark and dirty space underneath can be redesigned into usable public spaces. Projects like these have been built across the country and more are on the way.
The growing number of freeway-focused projects represent a new era of thinking about all the space we’ve ceded to high-speed transportation. These projects—both under construction and in the planning process—are showing how to reimagine parts of the urban environment that are too easily ignored. These largely infrastructural spaces can serve more than one purpose. With some creativity and a bit of risk taking, cities can recast their freeway landscapes to play a bigger role in meeting their needs. New city space can be harvested from or attached onto urban freeways, and there’s a wide range of new models for doing so. The cities leading the way are not only developing novel and needed urban spaces, but they’re helping to erase the sharp divisions that have separated neighborhoods for decades.
The idea was essentially born in Seattle. Though other expressway and freeway projects had been tunneled under pre-existing parks and cityscapes, Seattle was the first city to retroactively rebuild part of itself over the void created by a freeway. Throughout the 1960s, construction of Interstate 5 was cutting a line through downtown Seattle, and community members from the adjacent First Hill neighborhood began calling for a deck to be built to reconnect them to downtown. Though the city pushed back, the community eventually prevailed, and in 1976, less than 10 years after the freeway through downtown was completed, the first purpose-built freeway deck park opened. Designed by Lawrence Halprin & Associates and given the genre-defining name of Freeway Park, the roughly five-acre park set a precedent for after-the-fact freeway interventions.
A dozen or so cap park projects followed in the years since. In Phoenix, Arizona’s department of transportation built a line of 19 side-by-side bridges over Interstate 10 north of downtown to create a lid platform for what would become the 32-acre Margaret T. Hance Park, opened in 1992. The year before, Boston began construction on its so-called Big Dig project to replace its elevated Central Artery freeway with a tunnel. When officially completed in 2006, the newly buried Interstate 93 was covered with the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a 1.5-mile series of parks and public spaces that weaves through downtown. Most recently, Dallas has opened its own downtown freeway cap, Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre green space built over the recessed Woodall Rodgers Freeway that opened in 2012. Similar projects are now being planned or proposed across the country, from Los Angeles to Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Atlanta.
“People are realizing the tremendous damage that freeways have done to cities,” says Peter Harnik, a former director of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, who has studied freeway cap parks in the United States. “For the first time, we have a combination of the technology to cover them and the land value to make it worth doing.”
Building lids over freeways is a technical and logistical challenge, requiring the lowest number of support beams below to support the structure without impeding traffic and minimal weight above to prevent it all from crashing down. Inconvenient closures of major interstates are necessary for construction, and complex mechanics are needed to move and clean exhaust air from the cars below. In Dallas, Klyde Warren Park was a public–private partnership that cost roughly $110 million and was three years in construction. But it’s also become a wildly popular public space and led to an increase in downtown rents and real estate values. There are now plans to extend the park even further over the interstate, adding amenities such as a parking garage, a restaurant, and an ice skating rink.
Freeway caps, many places are realizing, can have a positive economic return. And they don’t just have to be parks. A growing number of developers are looking at the airspace over sunken urban freeways as wasted real estate, especially in resurgent downtown areas, and they’re beginning to build on it.
In Washington, D.C., developers are building Capitol Crossing, an urban redevelopment project built on a steel-and-concrete deck over Interstate 395, just north of the National Mall. Spread over what will be three city blocks, the project will add 2.2 million square feet of commercial and residential real estate across five buildings. The project’s renderings show sleek glass box architecture and a retail-lined pedestrian promenade. The new buildings look just like any other city block, with little to indicate the area was once open air over a four-lane freeway. And that’s precisely the point.
Less-dense cities are also seeing urban development opportunities floating above their freeway lanes. In Columbus, Ohio, a developer called Continental Real Estate Companies partnered with the city and the state in the late 1990s to create new commercial space over a recessed inner-belt highway near downtown. On either side of the bridge that stretched over this portion of Interstate 670, new bridge-like platforms were tacked on. About 25,000 square feet of commercial space was developed on both sides, creating a new block of restaurants and shops that opened in 2004, a lively urban space that connects downtown and the convention center area with the newly resurgent Short North neighborhood. It’s touted by its developers as “one of the first speculative retail projects built over a highway in the United States,” and is now a successful restaurant district. Being the first of a new kind of project presented challenges, including in obtaining permits from the Federal Highway Administration and in establishing a somewhat complicated set of agreements around funding the construction and leasing the property. And because the state only acquired ground rights for the path of the interstate during construction back in the 1950s, it had to go back and acquire air rights for the space being developed above. That process alone took two years. But despite the challenges on such an unconventional project, Continental Real Estate Companies argues that other cities can apply the same model successfully.
As the freeway-related project typology grows and expands, most aim to work symbiotically with the freeways over which they’re built, enabling something new while maintaining the ability of the freeway to be a freeway. But sometimes the freeway in question is no longer needed or wanted. This opens up many potential forms of redevelopment.
One example is in Rochester, New York, where officials are filling in the void of a recessed portion of the Inner Loop expressway that rings the city’s core. In an effort to better connect its neighborhoods to downtown, the city is burying a section of the expressway two-thirds of a mile long. Photos of construction show the sunken section of freeway going under a surface street overpass, a green highway exit sign mounted from the railing, while the lanes below are completely obscured by huge mounds of dirt. The former expressway is being converted into a surface level “complete street,” with bicycle lanes, walking paths, and green space that will make the connection to downtown more fluid and friendly to those not necessarily in cars. It will also open roughly six acres of land for what the city hopes will be mixed-use development when the project is completed at the end of 2017.
A similar project is under way in New Haven, Connecticut, where the stub of a never-completed connector between two freeways is being decommissioned and its footprint is being used to build new city blocks. One is already complete, and is now home to the 500,000-square-foot headquarters of a pharmaceutical company. The city was recently awarded a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant of $20 million to build out the next phase of the project, which will create another city block of developable land and better connections between downtown, the local train station, the medical district, and heavily populated neighborhoods nearby.
Even if most cities now recognize the divisive effects of freeways, most aren’t quite ready to start tearing them down just yet. The freeway interventions being pursued in various U.S. cities are better thought of as augmentations, typically in the form of caps. They’re focused on erasing some of the divisions freeways have made, selectively and strategically, while still recognizing the necessary role freeways play.
In Los Angeles, for instance, there are currently five separate freeway cap proposals in various stages of development—including one near downtown, two in coastal Santa Monica, one to the north in Glendale, and one in Hollywood. Hollywood Central Park, as it’s been dubbed, is the closest to being realized. The nonprofit that’s pushing the proposal, Friends of the Hollywood Central Park, is finishing up the project’s draft environmental impact report in early 2017, and hopes to secure Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s approval by the end of the year. With a planned size of 38 acres covering a one-mile stretch of the 101 freeway, it’s one of the most ambitious freeway cap parks in the country. With an estimated cost of $1 billion, it’s also one of the most expensive.
The scope of the project is enormous, but its supporters are confident they’ll get the political and monetary support they need to pull it off. For one, the project kicked off in 2006 with the support of Garcetti, then a city council member representing the area. Every year thereafter, the Friends of the Hollywood Central Park have traveled to Washington, D.C., to make their case to officials in the Department of Transportation and the White House. It also helps that this part of Hollywood has been named a Promise Zone as part of an Obama administration antipoverty initiative, making the project much more likely to qualify for and receive federal grants. “In Hollywood, we have the lowest ratio of open space to residents in the city and the second lowest in the state,” says Laurie Goldman, president of Friends of the Hollywood Central Park, who notes that the average income of a family of four in the area is just $24,000. Building over the freeway is an expensive but logical choice, but also an issue of social justice. “There was no way in an urbanized area we could come up with 38 acres for a park,” she says.
In that sense, the project falls exactly in line with the agenda of infrastructural reconciliation that Secretary Foxx has launched. These kinds of freeway projects can address urban inequalities and inefficiencies, whether they’re issues of division, social justice, or the suboptimal use of valuable urban space. Not every freeway-related project can or will be righteous, but there are many opportunities to use these spaces for the betterment of cities and communities.
“We can’t change everything about the past,” Foxx said, “but we can certainly work as hard as we can today to repair our infrastructure to make it the connective tissue it ought to be.”
Nate Berg is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.