HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: Long Beach, Part 1

This post is a part of CNU’s Highways to Boulevards Blog series, which features interview summaries and insights from some of the best minds at the frontline of our Highways to Boulevards Initiative.

The following post is Part 1 (original post: To Remove a Freeway on cityfabrick.org) of a 2 part series on the Terminal Island Freeway in Long Beach, CA. Read our previous Highways to Boulevards post with Scott Ogilvie on 1-70 in Saint Louis.

Many communities nationwide are now debating removing or reconfiguring their regional infrastructure to better serve local needs. From Portland, Oregon, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, we find examples of communities removing concrete culverts or steel viaducts to replace them with beautiful tree-lined boulevards. In some cases there is a qualitative motivation to improve a community’s surroundings; in other cases what predominates is a quantitative analysis regarding the costs of maintaining, removing or replacing aging infrastructure.

For instance, the Park East Freeway was a mile-long spur of Interstate 794 running through the city of Milwaukee. The original plan called for this freeway to reach the downtown waterfront, but community backlash against the destruction of neighborhoods prevented the plan from being completely realized. In 2003, city officials eventually decided to remove the mile of the freeway that had been built (and was carrying 54,000 vehicles daily). What motivated this decision was the realization that demolishing the aging freeway would cost $25 million, but rebuilding it would have cost four times as much. Concerns over congestion were misplaced: the reestablished street grid largely absorbed the traffic, while additionally creating nearly 40 acres of land for private development.


The sales office for an upcoming mixed-use high rise being built on the former Park East Freeway.
Flickr/ richmanwisco

While the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco is one of the more familiar examples of freeway removal, the parallel demise of that city’s Central Freeway is less widely known. Both freeways were products of the national mid-20th-century urban renewal trend, and both were abruptly halted as the negative impact on the city fabric became apparent. The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake had caused heavy damage to the Central and Embarcadero freeways, necessitating their closures. Instead of rebuilding the elevated freeways, city officials decided to replace them with multimodal boulevards integrated into the surrounding street network. The 150,000 vehicles that travelled on those freeways daily have since found alternative routes, while the communities formerly in their shadows have enjoyed new investment, not to mention public amenities on the land formerly occupied by the freeways.


Patricia’s Green is a park that was created on the former land of the Central Freeway in San Francisco. Flickr/Edwardhblake

These examples from Milwaukee to San Francisco and beyond hold lessons for Long Beach. According to the most recent traffic flow data (from 2001), the Terminal Island Freeway carries a daily average of about 14,000 vehicles. In comparison, Fourth Street in the Retro Row area (between Cherry and Junipero Avenue) carries approximately 16,000 vehicles a day. Fourth Street does so with one lane in either direction, parallel parking, bike sharrows, sidewalks and street trees, hardly necessary of a Freeway with grade separations, on and off ramps.

The traffic flow for this city-owned right-of-way is projected to further decrease, given the Union Pacific Railroad’s proposal to expand the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility, a rail yard at the north end of the truck corridor. They are slated to shift all trucks serving the ICTF to the Alameda Corridor less than a mile to the west. Based on this projected reduction, traffic on the last mile of the Terminal Island Freeway would dip significantly below 10,000 vehicles a day.

In comparison, Third Street in Alamitos Beach, which carries a similar amount of traffic, recently had its third travel lane removed by city planners in order to add bike lanes. Such a low volume of traffic north of Pacific Coast Highway could readily be accommodated by a neighborhood-type street. The remaining 30 acres of public property could then be transformed into badly-needed open space on the Westside, buffering residents and schools from port infrastructure to the West.

There are a burgeoning number of successful examples demonstrating the economic, social and environmental benefit from removing unneeded elements of a regional freeway network. At first glance removing parts of a freeway might seem drastic, especially in Southern California, but in comparison to the successful interventions described above in Milwaukee and San Francisco among many others, the Terminal Island Freeway is relatively mundane. With careful investigation and thoughtful discussion, we could discover magnificent opportunities for the denizens of Long Beach to benefit from our reimagining the city’s over-built public rights-of-way.

The Long Beach City Council voted this past week to apply for funding, appropriately through the Environmental Justice planning program of the California Department of Transportation. Though the unanimous decision- with no public speakers, council comment or staff report was anticlimactic- a broad coalition of institutions, community groups, environmental advocates and major stakeholders are signing onto this initiative. As just one component of the Yards, removing the Terminal Island Freeway in Long Beach will be a bold step for a brighter future in West Long Beach.

Check back next week for Part 2 of our series on Long Beach, CA in which we talk with Brian Ulaszewski (City Fabrick), lead organizer of the Terminal Island Freeway removal initiative.

The Terminal Island Freeway made it on CNU's list of Future Freeway Removals in 2012. Read the full list here.

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