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There’s growing interest and new federal money for removing highways running through city neighborhoods. But when it comes to reviving communities, what replaces the roads may matter just as much as demolishing them.
When Ben Crowther sees plans to tear down an interstate highway in downtown Detroit, he has both great hopes for the project and some serious reservations.
Crowther, who leads highway removal advocacy efforts for the Congress for the New Urbanism, is one of the country’s leading advocates for removing interstate highways from urban areas. It’s an idea that is getting more attention these days, following the success of more than a dozen U.S. cities and encouragement from the White House.
Detroit is one of those cities hoping to be in the next wave of highway teardowns. The federal government gave its long-sought OK last month to Michigan’s plan to replace the mile-long I-375 with a smaller boulevard. Taking out the sunken highway would make it easier for people in the area to get to the Detroit waterfront and other local attractions.
But the ability of Detroit, or any other city, to achieve their goals depends greatly on what they decide to replace the highway with. When highways come down, they can often be replaced by busy roads, or streets that lack pedestrian friendly features, or that fall short supporting new economic development. And that’s what worries Crowther.
With the Detroit project, for instance, initial plans show a six-lane street, with as many as three turn lanes, for the new boulevard, for a total of nine wide lanes of traffic in the old highway footprint. The new road could be almost as big a barrier as the old one.
“The road that’s been designed to replace I-375 is essentially a highway in design,” Crowther said, “and that’s a missed opportunity.”
In cities, highways can be massive barriers. Advocates like Crowther say getting rid of them restores the fabric of urban areas. That can boost local economies and improve safety. It can also start to heal the wounds that opened when white government officials devastated Black neighborhoods by running highways through them.
These kinds of dynamics are in play with the Detroit project.
“Removing the freeway ditch and replacing it with a street-level boulevard will unlock enormous development opportunities,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said last month.
It would also mark a chance to repair some of the damage that occurred when Michigan displaced 130,000 people in two prosperous Black neighborhoods to build the highway in the 1960s. “Black businesses today should benefit from the enormous development opportunities this project will create,” the mayor said.
A New Look at Urban Highways
Highways in cities have always been controversial. President Dwight Eisenhower, who pushed for the creation of the interstate system, said he never intended the new roads to go through congested parts of cities. Construction of the highways led to “freeway revolts” in at least 50 cities, many of which successfully blocked further expansions.
But decades beyond the heyday of interstate building, and well after the downsides of carving highways through city neighborhoods have become clear, tearing down sections of the roads is still relatively rare.
San Francisco demolished the Embarcadero Freeway that ran along its waterfront after the elevated structure was damaged in the 1989 earthquake. Milwaukee inspired other cities when it removed a highway spur in the early 2000s. Anthony Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor who served as transportation secretary in the Obama administration, also called on cities to consider plans to reconnect areas divided by highways.
But the Biden administration has pushed more cities to consider tearing out their aging highways. The president secured $1 billion to do so in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, although that was well short of his initial proposal.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, at a White House briefing last year, suggested there are a variety of ways that problems caused by urban freeways can be remediated.
“Sometimes it really is the case that an overpass went in a certain way that is so harmful that it’s got to come down or maybe be put underground. Other times maybe it’s not that way. Maybe the really important thing is to connect across, to add rather than subtract,” he said.
But Crowther, with the Congress for the New Urbanism, is skeptical of what he describes as “half measures” with the projects, which can result in “building a surface street that is essentially a highway.”
“Go all in. Build an actual urban street that can support a vibrant place around it,” he said.
For example, he suggests:
- Using narrower lanes that are 11 feet wide or less, rather than the 12-foot-wide lanes found on highways
- Eliminating one-way streets or two-way streets with large medians, in favor of traditional two-way streets
- Adding street trees, traffic-calming measures and frequent crossings for cyclists and pedestrians
- Encouraging mixed-use development along the new corridor, with buildings that come up to the sidewalk instead of being set back
In Seattle, the state of Washington in recent years tore down the Alaskan Way Viaduct along the city’s waterfront and replaced it with a tunnel. The 1950s-era elevated roadway was considered vulnerable to failure in an earthquake. But champions of the Seattle project, which all together totalled upwards of $3 billion, also said it would make it easier for people to get to the city’s waterfront.
Mike McGinn, who was Seattle’s mayor starting in 2009, while the highway was being replaced, said multiple factors made it hard to build a smaller surface street.
The tunnel, for example, has fewer exits near downtown than the viaduct did, which means that many businesses that relied on the highway wanted a larger road in between. Manufacturers north of downtown, he said, wanted a way to get trucks to the industrial area south of the city center, where shipping port facilities are also located, without having to drive downtown. The ferry system wanted more lanes for its passengers. County-run buses also had to find a new way downtown, but advocates for Pioneer Square, the city’s oldest neighborhood, didn’t want them coming through, McGinn said.
“By the time you’re done taking care of the ferry, the buses and the industrial interests,” McGinn said, “we ended up with a hell of a lot of lanes.”
In Rochester, New York, on the other hand, city officials were able to reclaim land from filling in the Inner Loop East, with more than 500 units of housing – much of it affordable – as well as new retail outlets and street amenities like bike lanes.
Anne DaSilva Tella, Rochester’s assistant commissioner of neighborhood and business development, oversaw much of the development on the site once the sunken highway was filled in. She emphasized that streets that allow for safe walking and cycling are key factors in the area’s makeover.
“Creating developable land is really a side effect of really reintegrating the neighborhood by removing a monstrous highway that tore apart neighborhoods,” she said.
To help revitalize the neighborhood, DaSilva Tella said community leaders and land use experts promoted the need for mixed use development. Retail at the ground level would reactivate the street, while the residential units above brought people back and offered affordable housing near downtown.
City Considers a Second Tear-Down
The Rochester project is widely considered a success, so much so that the city is looking to do the same thing again with a second portion of the inner loop highway that runs around downtown, farther to the north.
The northern section, though, could prove trickier, with a greater variety of land uses nearby and more people living in the neighborhood. That segment also divides the predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood of South Marketview Heights with the predominantly white neighborhood of Grove Place.
A group called Hinge Neighbors is actively trying to get community input at every step of the project. Its leaders, Shawn Dunwoody and Suzanne Mayer, come from opposite sides of the highway and hope that the transformation can meet the needs of residents from both neighborhoods.
“This whole process has been to make people understand that this neighborhood [in Grove Place] could not dictate what should happen and they needed to understand the needs and wants of the other side,” Mayer said. “Then that would lead to a much better solution.”
The organizers hope the city will take a different approach with the new project than it did on the eastern stretch of the highway. With the apartment buildings in the first project, Dunwoody laments, “they built a wall where there used to be a moat.”
The activists would prefer to see more varied terrain with the next removal, with green space and alleys to break up the blocks. They want some of the reclaimed land to include space for single family homes, which could help Black and Hispanic residents buy houses and build wealth. They also want parts of the land set aside for smaller developers. They have asked for space that a school could use for playgrounds and sports fields but that would still be available to the community when the school isn’t open. And they want a street that is even easier to cross – particularly in winter months – than the boulevard that was rebuilt in the first segment.
Dunwoody stressed that highway teardowns will only work to restore parts of cities if they involve members of those communities in the planning process.
DaSilva Tella, the city development specialist, said there are still many decisions that need to be made about the land that would be regained with the second segment of roadway removed. But she said Rochester has plenty of leverage to achieve its goals through the requests for proposals it publishes for developers and by just having more land to work with.
“This is the beauty of ‘creating land,’ as it were: You can go back and make good on things that are missing in the community,” she said.
Just like the highways of the 1950s and 1960s, projects built today could be standing for a half century or more—something important for officials to remember.
When planners designed the highways, they said everyone would benefit from the new roads, but that wasn’t the case, Dunwoody noted. “It’s not as simple as taking down a highway or filling in a ditch,” he said. “There are feelings attached to that. There are people attached to that. There are lives attached to that.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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