Freeways to boulevards: CNU steers a new course in urban infrastructure
Back in the late 1980s, the idea of replacing elevated city freeways with at-grade boulevards was so unthinkable that it took an act of God — 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake — for San Franciscans to get serious about tearing down the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway and restoring the city’s view of the Bay. San Francisco went on to remove the Central Freeway and build beautiful Octavia Boulevard in its place. In the late 1990s, when I led a similar effort to replace the Park East freeway in Milwaukee with a boulevard, lift-bridge, and other street improvements, the idea still seemed exotic and led to plenty of stupefied reactions among DOT engineers. But now, with postfreeway neighborhoods in San Francisco, Milwaukee, New York, and Portland coming back to life and the street grid in these areas distributing traffic impressively, the idea of replacing grade-separated freeways with boulevards is gaining momentum in cities ranging from Seattle to Buffalo. The idea is catching fire internationally as well. After starting his engineering career 40 years ago digging up a riverbank in the heart of Seoul, Korea, to make way for an elevated freeway, Mayor Lee Myung-bak has made removing that freeway a centerpiece of his agenda. Benefits of freeway conversion With a grant from the SURDNA Foundation, CNU and the Center for Neighborhood Technology are supporting this budding movement with a research and promotion project that documents the positive effects of freeways-to-boulevards transitions and supports local campaigns to implement them. Our timing couldn’t be better. As the fiftieth anniversary of the Interstate Highway Act approaches, a highway system with an intended 40-year life span is worn out. And rebuilding elevated highways in cities is enormously costly, a looming expense that threatens to tap out already overcommitted state highway budgets. What’s more, the urban renaissance and building boom in downtowns and city neighborhoods across the United States is highlighting the stunting effect of elevated freeways on the development of adjacent urban real estate. As other parts of cities show vitality, elevated freeways act on their surroundings as Round-up acts on vegetation. They are neighborhood killers and their effect on traffic is little better, since the freeways concentrate traffic and create bottlenecks where they dump traffic onto city streets. Experience in San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee and New York shows that when these freeways are removed and boulevards are used to restore the street grid to its proper function, overall mobility improves. The results we’ve seen in city after city were actually predicted by none other than Norman Bel Geddes, the father of the interstate highway system. In his seminal 1940 book, Magic Motorways, he warned, “If the purpose of the motorway as now conceived is that of being a high-speed, nonstop thoroughfare, the motorway would only bungle the job if it got tangled up with the city. ... A great motorway has no business cutting a wide swath right through a town or city and destroying the values there; its place is in the country.” Our work with CNT builds on the positive experiences of three model cities that struggled to overcome the problem predicted by Bel Geddes. They are San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Portland (where the removal of a riverside highway spurred 500 residential units, 26,000 square feet of retail development, and 42,000 square feet of office space). Knowledge and data from these cities is being shared with candidate cities where proposals to rebuild freeways are being challenged by those who wish to remove them. Cities with burgeoning freeway-replacement movements include Seattle, Louisville, Buffalo and Grand Rapids, Michigan. And what’s been exciting has been the speed with which these campaigns have gained prominence. In Seattle, the double-decker Alaskan Way Viaduct has been a safety hazard since the Nisqually earthquake destabilized it five years ago. Mayor Greg Nickels had good intentions to bury the freeway in a tunnel in Seattle’s own version of the Big Dig, but that plan has looked progressively more expensive and less viable. I brought CNU’s message to Seattle in early March, meeting with Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis and speaking to a group in Seattle that included planning director John Rahaim and Downtown Seattle Association president Kate Joncas. Erica Barnett of the Stranger, Seattle’s top weekly, called the case for replacing elevated freeways with boulevards “brilliant and compelling,” agreeing that grade-separated freeways concentrate traffic rather than distributing it through the street grid. In Seattle, the tunnel project would “dump six lanes of traffic” into landmark locations, Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market. As the huge costs of the tunnel create both funding shortfalls and design changes there’s a drumbeat to consider the boulevard. “I don’t know — something is happening. We were ignored for two years. Now my phone is ringing off the hook,” engineer and activist Cary Moon told Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times, who reported, “You can feel momentum building for Moon’s plan — if for no other reason than the other plans are bombing.” I have a similar visit scheduled in May for Louisville, where the elevated I-65 cuts off downtown from its riverfront and severely curtails the city’s prospects for building a renaissance around that prime asset. As this issue of New Urban News reaches the printer, I’m also scheduled to meet with Buffalo’s new Mayor Byron Brown and New York Congressman Brian Higgins to tour the site. Congressman Higgins has also arranged a press conference announcing that Buffalo has been selected as one of CNU’s candidate cities. As optimism returns to parts of cities formerly left for dead, the prophecy of Norman Bel Geddes is coming true — only this time in reverse. Learning that great motorways have no business cutting wide swaths through a town or city, cities are replacing them and restoring the value and vitality of the surrounding neighborhoods. As more cities seek to build on this successful model, we may just be witnessing the beginnings of the next major public works project in this country: replacing freeways in cities with boulevards.