A deck park proposal for the city of Peoria picks up speed.

By Jennifer Reut

A concept for InterPlay Park called “The Window” would allow visitors to observe the highway traffic below. Image by Terrain Work.

Seattle’s Freeway Park, Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway, and Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park. Although all three highway deck parks are known outside their home cities for their audacious design and engineering, it’s the third, by OJB, that arguably has set off a wave of similar projects in the past several years. Cities and developers have begun to eye deck parks as a way to jump-start ghostly downtowns and to knit communities back together after interstates sliced through them in the 1960s and 1970s. An increased focus on reconnecting neighborhoods in debates around the infrastructure bill brought highway deck parks onto the national stage.

When I-74 came through Peoria, Illinois, in 1958, it divided the city’s downtown from the adjacent neighborhoods, including several historic and cultural attractions. Stores left, people who were able migrated to the suburbs, while others remained stuck in neighborhoods declining due to redlining. At 113,000 people, Peoria is a midsized city, not a large urban center like Seattle, Boston, or Dallas, and it doesn’t have a big city’s political or philanthropic base. But hometown boosters including Theodore Hoerr, ASLA, of the New York-based landscape architecture and urban design firm Terrain Work, believe a highway deck park could do more than knit the city’s scars. “I would argue it could transform the trajectory of downtown Peoria and the city itself,” Hoerr says.

Hoerr grew up on a family nursery with a design/build business not far outside Peoria and maintains close ties to the place, including some projects. He had been working on a master plan for the Peoria Riverfront Museum and had moved home for the summer during the pandemic when he linked up with Kim Blickenstaff of KDB Group. Blickenstaff knew of Klyde Warren Park and had been looking at sites around I-74. Concepts for the deck park came together quickly, followed by a community engagement campaign that began to develop the park’s programming and purpose.

The proposal, called InterPlay Park, emphasizes cross-generational play. Multiple program areas, called Molecules, thread the needle of being just designed enough to spark interest while remaining open and flexible to allow local nonprofit groups to adapt them. Hoerr says the park also has in mind the needs of the growing demographic of older adults and sees opportunities to blend activities for both elders and youth. The proposal has picked up political goodwill quickly, including interest from the former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who has committed to throwing his political capital behind the project. The challenges of getting liftoff for an ambitious deck park in a struggling midsized city will require state and regional buy-in, but Hoerr says he believes the project should be seen as more than a local amenity. “It’s actually a park that helps shape the identity of the region—attract families, attract businesses, and help prop up all Peorians.”

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