The Tricky Second Wave of Urban Highway Removals

Dismantling urban freeways—replacing elevated viaducts of steel and concrete with parks and boulevards—is happening in so many places, it’s like an unspoken national urban policy. We’ve reached a unique point in city-building when the destruction of a public works project has all the glamour and buzz of breaking ground on a new one.

The “death row” of roadways, marvelously packaged by Eric Jaffe in this slideshow and noted in Michael Kimmelman’s dispatch from highway-erasing Madrid, has become a familiar, almost comforting narrative.
Portland, Ore., led the way, turning the multi-lane Harbor Drive into the Tom McCall Waterfront Park at a time when other cities were still blasting roadways through the urban fabric. San Francisco was prompted by the earthquake of 1989 to re-create the Embarcadero; Seattle anticipated a similar fate for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In Milwaukee, an ambitious mayor, John Norquist, championed the demolition of the Park East Expressway. He later became president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and encouraged others to do the same. In New Orleans, fascination with the Treme neighborhood post-Katrina drew attention to the hulking Claiborne Expressway burdening its core.
And then there’s New York, where Robert Moses famously built hundreds of miles of roads throughout the metropolitan area, including the Sheridan Expressway, now set to come down. Moses suggested or designed or laid the foundation for many more urban freeways, from Portland to New Orleans and beyond. In a fitting coup de grace, New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D) backed the replacement of the Robert Moses Parkway outside Buffalo, the urban highway named for the great master builder himself.
But if all those projects are blockbuster movies, some cities are now moving on to the sequels. It’s time for the Son of the Sheridan, and Alaskan Way II.
Whether this stage of urban design interventions can be pulled off in quite the same slam-dunk fashion as the Embarcadero is very much in question. The infrastructure being re-engineered is similarly from a half-century ago, and exclusively built with the car as priority. But the scale is a bit smaller. Rather than big elevated interstates through downtowns, these are connectors and overpasses, sometimes a long way from the center of town, where the neighborhoods are defined on different terms.
The perfect example of this trickle-down dismantling can be found in, where else, Boston, home of the $15.6 billion Big Dig, arguably the biggest, best-known, and most expensive act of removing an elevated highway.
The three post-Big Dig interventions are surely less well-known around the country, but passions about them are running just as high: the McGrath/O’Brien Highway in Somerville and the Rutherford Avenue connector through Charlestown, both north of the city, and the Casey Overpass in Jamaica Plain, well south of downtown.
First, a little context. Boston’s freeway revolt started after 1968, when Jane Jacobs fought the Lower Manhattan Expressway in SoHo. The city put a park and a transit line in the planned corridor of the Southwest Expressway, which would have extended Interstate 95 from Rhode Island all the way into Back Bay. A Republican governor, Frank Sargent, put an end to the Inner Belt, envisioned as a mini-circumferential highway whisking motorists through Roxbury and other Boston neighborhoods, Cambridge, and a piece of Somerville, rejoining Interstate 93 there. The turnoff ramp remains, a stub ending abruptly at the sky.
The Big Dig took things to the next level, not just stopping new highways but dismantling one that had become an eyesore. The suppression of Interstate 93 gave Boston the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Younger folks can’t remember the Central Artery ever being there.
McGrath, Rutherford, and Casey are all similarly unsightly, and like the Central Artery or Alaskan Way Viaduct, falling apart; a trip over the crumbling and pothole-ridden Casey Overpass conjures a trek in the Third World. Like the failing Longfellow Bridge and Storrow Drive, they either need to be rebuilt as is, or retooled. The sustainability and Complete Streets crowd has lobbied hard for the latter, arguing for multi-modal surface boulevards.
Not so fast. Nearby residents, who conceivably might be thrilled to see this kind of transformation, want to keep the roadway like it was in 1962, not 2012. They worry about commuters getting frustrated by surface rejiggering and attempting shortcuts through residential streets.
The hearings and the public process on these three interventions have revealed a cultural clash: old vs. young, bicyclists vs. solo drivers, yuppies vs. townies, and so on. The fight is in the trenches, in long discussions and blog posts on traffic counts, state modeling and projections, and the methodology of license plate surveys. Everyone’s voice must be heard, a legacy of the exclusion of citizens in the original construction of the roadways, but seemingly a guarantee of paralysis when it comes to repairing the damage they have caused.
Tim Love, associate professor at Northeastern University, principal at Utile, and an urban designer on the multi-disciplinary team studying alternative futures for McGrath, thinks that more sophisticated data available to project teams will help better frame the transportation and quality of life issues, demystifying claims made by various sides.
“There’s an evolution in these kinds of second-generation de-elevation projects,” Love says, that promotes a more sophisticated public discourse. “Some early testing of the physical implications of transportation alternatives is already uniting the stakeholders around smart alternatives.” He says he is confident that “the outcome will be a fully-integrated enhancement to the urban realm.”
An optimistic view, to be sure. I’m a bit more reminded of my top-floor bathroom and its 1970s ski-lodge decor and giant pale blue whirlpool that hasn’t worked for years. The full-scale renovation that other parts of the house enjoyed is so daunting in there, we just keep it as is, hoping it doesn’t fall apart completely anytime soon.
Photo credit: David McNew/Reuters

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City and This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America.

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