Why Replacing Elevated Highways with Boulevards May Be Good for Cities

3.8.12 | How’s this for placemaking and economic rebounding: Tearing down an elevated highway that destroyed a thriving neighborhood when it was built, and replacing it with a boulevard that reconnects what the highway sundered and opens the way for local economic revival that boosts property values and tax revenue?

That’s the debate in New Orleans, where an effort to tear down the elevated Claiborne Expressway (I-10) and restore the oak tree lined boulevard and African American neighborhood it destroyed moves toward a decision on whether to rebuild or replace the edifice.

Similar efforts are underway across the country. In addition to the New Orleans effort, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU)’s Highways to Boulevards Initiative aims to help activists in Buffalo, Louisville, St. Louis, and Seattle tear down elevated highways and replace them with street-level boulevards. As has been done in Chattanooga, Milwaukee, Portland, and San Francisco, and perhaps most internationally famously, Seoul, South Korea.

CNU notes that in each instance where a highway was torn down, surrounding property values skyrocketed as economic space was reclaimed, the land either redeveloped or turned into waterfront parks, reconnecting neighborhoods and restoring human-scaled links to waterfronts. That’s also why Boston’s “Big Dig” included demolition of elevated portions of I-93 and their replacement with the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

And traffic? In each case, the surrounding, existing street grid simply absorbed it.

(In a personal observation, New Brunswick, NJ, blew it by allowing Memorial Parkway [Route 18] to sever its downtown from the Raritan River. The only way to access Elmer B. Boyd Park is by somehow crossing the highway. Compare that to Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which replaced the Harbor Drive highway along the Willamette River back in the 1970s—you simply cross SW Naito Parkway, which is just another street in the downtown grid. Take a look at the two via Google Map satellite views; the juxtaposition is as startling as it is illustrative.)

Speaking of placemaking, Crain’s Chicago Business reports that the Chicago’s “mega-loop”—the classic “L”-girded Loop, along with the area between Lake Michigan and Ashland Avenue, Cermak Road, and North Avenue—has reached the tipping point of commercial, retail, and residential growth to become “the new economic engine of the metropolitan area and, increasingly, the rest of Illinois.” That’s not without hazards, however:

Unless the region’s overall growth picks up, though, northeastern Illinois risks becoming a land of a prosperous center, growing exurbs (where land is cheap) and a troubled inner ring, says Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. It could turn into a sort of Paris on the prairie.

One more note on housing, and one that’s directly related to what the Crain’s story describes: Hours after I filed the previous post at this blog, Placemakers posted (natch) this piece by Ben Brown, noting another element of the coming national housing renovation. Here he takes note of a new book by Arthur C. Nelson, director of the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center, “Reshaping Metropolitan America: Development Trends and Opportunities to 2030,” and the Bipartisan Policy Center report that was the subject of my previous post. Brown’s conclusion:

Given the Washington gridlock, however, the prospect of sweeping change by the feds is not a good one. And state legislatures are going to have so much on their plates that meaningful help for prospective home buyers, renters and developers is unlikely. Fortunately, regional and local governments have many of the tools they need to help themselves and citizens: More enlightened infrastructure planning, innovative approaches to affordable housing policies, choice-broadening zoning reform.

Smart Growthers and New Urbanists have been evolving best practices for leveraging those approaches for the last couple decades. I think it’s safe to predict they’ll be among the go-to resources for coping with the changes. But even if the impacts of the economic and demographic shifts prove to be wildly exaggerated, the effort to anticipate and respond to the changes will produce more livable places for more people.

I agree. The regions that take advantage of this opportunity will prove their resilience. Woe to those that don’t.

Photo: Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway/ Hellogreenway.

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