Beginning in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, a generously funded federal highway program carved large swaths through countless neighborhoods and cities across the country. In Rochester, N.Y., an extension of the national highway system known as the Inner Loop displaced hundreds of homes and businesses as it encircled the city’s downtown. In New Orleans, an oak-lined boulevard gave way to the Claiborne Expressway, an elevated freeway offshoot of I-10. In Seattle, one freeway cleaved the city in two as an elevated companion along Elliot Bay cut off the city’s downtown from its stunning waterfront.
Similar stories played out in Dallas, Atlanta, Baltimore and dozens of other American cities as states fulfilled the mandate of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. While the freeways connected core cities to emerging suburbs and to other cities, their urban manifestation split neighborhoods while displacing over a million residents and businesses—largely, but not always, in low-income areas—and left depressed property values and underproductive land in their wake.
In 2021—65 years after the Interstate act—the federal government created a program with the intention of helping cities, their residents, and business communities repair some of the damage from divisive infrastructure. Included in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Reconnecting Communities program provides $1 billion over five years for communities to explore whether and how to remove or restructure underused, outdated or decaying highway segments and thereby allow for surrounding neighborhoods to revive and redevelop. The U.S. Department of Transportation website calls it “the first-ever Federal program dedicated to reconnecting communities that were previously cut off from economic opportunities by transportation infrastructure.” Grants under the program can go to local governments and community- or business-led organizations for planning and design work, or to transportation agencies for capital improvements. Plans that become ripe for action down the road could be eligible for construction funding from several other pots of federal transportation dollars.
When USDOT began accepting applications in September 2021, “it was as though the flood gates opened,” says Ben Crowther, advocacy manager at America Walks, a national nonprofit that is tracking response to the program. “I attended one DOT informational webinar that had about 5,000 participants.”
Applying cities are as diverse as they are far-flung. A sampling: In Dallas, a business-led coalition is looking to replace a decaying 1.4-mile stretch of elevated freeway with boulevards, “transforming the surrounding 245 acres [of ] empty parking lots and undeveloped land into a mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhood that will generate jobs, create affordable housing, and improve the quality of life.” The city of Buffalo, N.Y., put in for a planning grant to fill the trench created by the Kensington Expressway and restore a historic parkway designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Baltimore is seeking to remove an uncompleted, 1.4-mile segment known as the “Highway to Nowhere” and redevelop areas of West Baltimore. Similar moves are afoot in Tulsa, Okla.; Minneapolis; Detroit; and Portland, Ore.
Precedents offer inspiration
While Reconnecting Communities is the first formal program to revitalize areas devalued by federal highway construction, several communities have made such moves on their own in recent years. Best-known, perhaps, is San Francisco’s removal of the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway after it was damaged in a 1989 earthquake. It was replaced by a boulevard and streetcar line, and the more than 100 acres of waterfront land gave way to a new public plaza and promenade, as well as dense commercial development and multifamily housing. In Milwaukee, the removal of the Park East Freeway—part of an uncompleted downtown loop—in the early 2000s opened 24 acres of intown property for redevelopment. Similarly, New York City replaced the West Side Highway with a waterfront boulevard.
More recently, Seattle in 2019 saw the demolition of the double-decker state Route 99 along the downtown waterfront. Since then, millions of private and public dollars have been pouring in to create new roadways, plazas and multifamily and commercial development. Mike McGinn was the mayor of Seattle when the state began work to replace a seismically vulnerable viaduct with a tunnel, the culmination of more than a decade of contentious debate over whether to replace or simply remove the waterfront scar.
“One of the reasons the debate went on as long as it did was because there were competing business interests,” says McGinn. “On one side you had port and related interests worried about highway capacity, and on the other side you had the downtown businesses and property owners, who recognized that the noise, pollution and visual blight of the highway were terrible for property values.”
Coming off that downtown success, Seattle is seeking a Reconnecting Communities grant to explore the conversion of another section of Highway 99, through the South Seattle neighborhood of South Park. Removing the highway segment “would free up 40 acres of much-needed land for affordable housing, grid reconnection, green space, and small businesses,” according to Seattle planning director Rico Quirindongo.
In Rochester, a second wave
Completed in 1965, Rochester’s Inner Loop was built to encircle downtown Rochester in a bid to reduce the traffic concerns of the time, says Erik Frisch, the city’s deputy commissioner of neighborhood and business development. “By the late 1980s, only a couple decades later, people started asking questions about whether it was needed and raising concerns about the impact it was having on surrounding neighborhoods.” It took till the early 2010s, though, for the political and funding stars to align so that the first two-thirds of a mile of the freeway trench, known as Inner Loop East, could be filled and converted to a boulevard, and formerly bisected side streets could be reconnected. That project restored six acres of land to tax rolls and allowed the city to solicit proposals for what became seven block-size parcels for redevelopment.
“We were looking for income diversity,” says Anne Dasilva Tella, Rochester’s director of development. “Our goal was to reintegrate the divided neighborhood, increase residents, and activate the ground floor with uses that serve the residents,” such as a laundry and daycare. Several multifamily projects have delivered more than 250 affordable apartments and a similar number of market-rate units. The adjoining Strong Museum of Play, a regional and national attraction, led a project to create a hotel, green space and playground as well as a parking garage. The redevelopment “is a big win for this city,” says Frisch. “From a transportation standpoint, traffic is smooth, and we’ve seen more people walking and biking, which indicates a healthy neighborhood.”
Inspired by the success of the East loop, Rochester has secured state funding to remove another 1.5 miles, freeing up 24 acres for redevelopment. “The success of the east side made it inevitable that the north would come out, too,” says Suzanne Mayer, co-leader of Hinge Neighbors, a community-based organization that applied for a planning grant from Reconnecting Communities, with the city’s blessing. While the East loop results are impressive, the north section has a larger transformation potential, uniting affluent and low-income sides of the freeway in a much more populated area. “One of the major concerns when we started meeting with neighbors about the north Loop was gentrification and displacement,” says Shawn Dunwoody, the other leader of Hinge and a noted local artist. “They were afraid they would get a yoga studio and a high-end coffee shop and that would be it.”
Neighbors also wanted to make sure there were opportunities for homeownership and for smaller developers to participate, as well as spaces for small, locally owned businesses, Dunwoody adds. The planning grant would allow Hinge to coordinate an effort to develop recommendations for how to achieve those goals.
In New Orleans, dueling proposals
Claiborne Avenue was the oak-lined Main Street of the largely Black Treme neighborhood when, in the 1960s, much of it was replaced by the elevated Claiborne Expressway. Today, the decaying edifice is crying out to be replaced or removed. Those options are the subject of competing applications to Reconnecting Communities. Louisiana’s transportation department, which owns the highway, put in for half of a $95 million proposal to remove two to four ramps while shoring up the structure, fixing drainage issues and making aesthetic improvements.
To activist and urban designer Amy Stelly, “The elevated highway needs to come out.
“Either way, the state doesn’t need Reconnecting money to do it. They can use existing transportation sources,” says Stelly, executive director of the Claiborne Ave Alliance design studio. Stelly’s group submitted for its own planning grant. “Our proposal is to test all the ideas, from complete removal to ramp removal, and model the traffic,” she says.
“Some want to leave a section as a memorial or convert the viaduct to a park. We say, subject all [ideas] to quantifiable performance standards and see what gives us the best bang for the buck. We want a complete plan to rehabilitate the corridor.
“Our vision is that Claiborne could be restored as a boulevard, as part of our robust network of boulevards,” Stelly says. “I’d love to see some infill development that is affordable, smaller footprints for small businesses, spaces that allow entrepreneurship to take hold. We have to make the place for people who want to come work in the neighborhood, and there are many.”
To former Seattle Mayor McGinn, who these days leads America Walks, it makes sense that today’s efforts to reclaim city neighborhoods are gaining steam. Older facilities are reaching the end of their design life, and many have become obsolete or never lived up to their intended purpose. “At the end of the useful life of a piece of infrastructure, when you do the math, it usually comes out in favor of removal over replacement.” Removing highways is good for cities, not only for quality of life for nearby homes and businesses, McGinn says. It also restores land to the tax rolls and allows improvements that bring still more revenue. “Go to any city and what’s right next to the freeway? Usually parking lots, or other low-value land uses,” he says. “As soon as people can open the windows and walk on the sidewalk, the property values go way up.”
Source: “Forging New Paths“