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Are We There Yet? Freeway Teardowns

Editor's Note: This week's Are We There Yet? excerpt discusses the success of urban freeway teardowns, something unthinkable not long ago, and the need for today's transportation investments to be made in the context of multiple considerations that were previously thought to be unrelated, ranging from the impact on public health to the impact on real estate development and investment to the impact on the prosperity of all people.

[C]hanges in the value of walkable real estate have prompted many cities to consider something that they never would have considered a decade ago — tearing down their innercity freeways. Developers and investors are keenly interested in building in downtowns, but there’s typically very little land that hasn’t already been developed. Freeway teardowns, however, can open up vast swaths of prime downtown real estate for development.

To date, four cities have torn down freeways: Portland, OR, San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Providence, Rhode Island. Syndicated columnist Neal Peirce wrote in 2012 that Portland’s Harbor Drive freeway, rebuilt as Tom McCall Waterfront Park in 1984, helped spark a 10.4 percent annual increase in downtown property values, and that San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, demolished after damage from a 1989 earthquake and replaced by a pedestrian boulevard and transit, increased land values as much as 300 percent in nearby neighborhoods.

When Providence, Rhode Island, took down its inner-city freeway in 2012 to free up 40 acres of land for development, the Urban Land Institute, a national nonprofit representing the interests of developers, called it “the best economic development opportunity in the state.”

“Highways don’t pay taxes,” noted Diana Lind, the founder-leader of the Next American City organization, at a 2012 Philadelphia forum on freeway teardowns. At that forum Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek pointed out that the collapse of a chunk of New York City’s elevated West Side Highway in 1973 didn’t cause the traffic Armageddon that was anticipated, and the construction of an urban boulevard in its place “made some of Lower Manhattan into some of the world’s most valuable real estate.”

Trip shares

While less than a third (19 percent) of trips are to work, the commute trip is usually the longest regular car trip. Because most people commute in the morning and late afternoon, the road network is designed for maximum auto capacity, even though there may be few cars traveling on it the rest of the day.

While teardowns have gained popularity and momentum as urban renewal projects, they also gained credibility when the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded grants to study three teardown projects in New York City, New Haven, Connecticut, and in the New Orleans neighborhood of Treme — the historic and very low-income neighborhood that was hit hard by Katrina and has since been popularized in the new HBO series by the same name. A dozen other cities are also considering demolitions.

Peirce writes in his column that it’s easy to forget how the construction of freeways in the 1950s and 1960s created “deep gashes in America’s city fabric. The highway planners of the 1950s and 1960s seemed unfazed by pushing massive highways straight through cities, devastating minority neighborhoods as well as cutting off waterfronts. It’s a dark chapter in our history.”

Peirce cites author Peter Harnik’s 2010 book Urban Green, in which Harnik writes: “Waterfronts were blockaded in Portland, Oregon; Cincinnati; Hartford; Cleveland; Philadelphia; and San Francisco. Nooses of concrete were wound tightly around the downtowns of Dallas and Charlotte. Trenches of noise and smog cut through Boston, Detroit, Seattle and Atlanta. Stupendous elevated structures threw shadows over Miami and New Orleans. And wide strips of land were taken from large, iconic parks in Los Angeles (Griffith Park), St. Louis (Forest Park), Baltimore (Druid Hill Park), and San Diego (Balboa Park).”

It’s important that we learn from these misguided transportation investments, which were made in order to achieve one objective — mobility. The lesson is that transportation investments today must be made in the context of multiple considerations that were previously thought to be unrelated, ranging from the impact on public health to the impact on real estate development and investment to the impact on the prosperity of all people.

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