You could call John Norquist the Moses of freeway tear-downs, a prophet of doom for elevated urban highways shouting, “Set my city free!” The former mayor of Milwaukee not only took out a freeway stub in his home city, he has since gone on a national campaign to help other cities remove the aging hulks that blight their waterfronts or in-town neighborhoods. In so doing, he has become the antithesis of another Moses — Robert Moses, the mid-century public works czar of New York City, who was himself an evangelist for bringing freeways through cities in the first place.
Writer Peter Harnik in his 2010 book, “Urban Green,” recounts the result of urban freeway construction a halfcentury ago: “Waterfronts were blockaded in Portland, Ore.; 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).”
Today, a few of those cities — Portland, San Francisco and Boston — already have reversed some of that damage by replacing freeway structures with ground-level boulevards (and in Boston’s case, a massive tunnel network, as well). Increasingly, though, it looks like the 2010s may be the decade of the Great Urban Freeway Undoing. At least a dozen cities are in the process of replacing freeway structures with new boulevards and redeveloped neighborhoods or are seriously studying the prospect of doing so. And the trend appears to be picking up steam, Norquist says.
“Once more of these come down and people see that the world doesn’t come to an end, you will see more freeways removed from cities,” predicts Norquist, who after leaving office became head of the Congress for the New Urbanism, where he launched a freeway tear-down initiative.
Most of the urban freeways were built as an adjunct to the Interstate system, constructed with 90 percent federal money. More recently, the federal government has given grants to help remove those that have proved less than essential. Since the federal economic stimulus bill created the TIGER grant program in 2009 — aimed at spurring innovative approaches to transportation — three cities have received funds toward freeway removal. New York got a grant to study taking down the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx. New Haven, Conn., received a contribution toward “replacing the Route 34 highway connector, reclaim land and knit neighborhoods back together, reversing damage done a half-century ago,” as the New Haven Register put it. And New Orleans is actively studying the tear-down of the I-10 Claiborne Expressway as part of its post-Katrina recovery.
City advocates have protested the intrusion of massive freeway structures into the urban fabric from the beginning, arguing that they bring noise, smog and visual blight while bisecting neighborhoods and disrupting traffic flow. All true, urban observers say, but the winning argument for replacing them increasingly is an economic one. Many of the elevated structures are outliving their design life and are in need of major repair or replacement; some, as in Seattle and San Francisco, have proved to be seismically unsound. The sheer cost of a major overhaul has given many regions pause, especially given that many of these roads have been supplanted by bypasses and are essentially serving only local traffic. More compelling still: The freeways are occupying critical land in many cities that are seeing growth like they have not seen since the freeway construction era of the 1960s. They are finding that freeways are blocking economic resurgence, as city land is once again highly sought-after.
“Throughout the country, we have failing infrastructure and budget challenges to maintain what we have now,” says Peter Park, a Harvard Loeb fellow who has made a study of freeway tear-downs. His interest grew out of his own experience as the planning director under Norquist who managed the replacement of Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway. “We were sold these freeways in our cities as solutions to congestion and [motorist] safety — and they delivered neither. These days we have to get the most economic bang out of every buck. It seems odd we would use our taxpayer money in a way that devalues private property in cities, where we have our most valuable property.”
Providence, R.I., for example is contemplating the redevelopment of 40 acres of downtown land made available by freeway removal. New Haven, Conn., is making ready for a major downtown renaissance, and in New Orleans, 11 acres in a prime location would be available in a part of the city primed for renewal. In Seattle, the pending removal of the Highway 99 viaduct along Alaskan Way — after a protracted debate — has given rise to a sweeping vision for remaking the waterfront that is expected to be a boon for the tourism industry as well as area residents and businesses.
These and other cities hope to replicate something like the success of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Boulevard. That urban gem emerged after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 made it clear that the elevated Embarcadero and Central freeways were seismically unfit. Rather than hundreds of millions to rebuild a double-decked freeway, the region invested $50 million to take it down and convert the land into a 1.6-mile grand boulevard, complete with palm trees and a waterfront promenade. The portion south of Market Street boomed with housing, offices and retail, and property values rose an estimated 300 percent.
In Milwaukee, the Park East Freeway’s days began to be numbered when the business community came to see the .8-mile spur as an impediment rather than a boon, Norquist said. The replacement movement was given impetus when Harley Davidson began eyeing the land for a major development, lending credence to the city’s vision for a revived downtown that did not include the Park East.
In the end, Milwaukee ended up using $25 million of the state’s federal allocation to remove the spur, reconnect city streets and build a boulevard. “It was a little weird to use federal money to take a freeway out,” said Park. “That wasn’t what they were used to doing.”
“It was cheaper to tear down the freeway than to keep it up,” said Norquist. “Often the argument you hear is that, well, there’s no money to tear it down. But that assumes that repairing the elevated structure is free. Once the repair cost is considered, the potential economic payoff in redevelopment and improved tax base should tip the scale.”
Making these arguments against freeways in the city “is why I got into politics in the first place,” said Norquist, who was mayor from 1988 to 2004. “You can find a freeway tear-down project almost anywhere in America if you look hard enough.”
At least one skeptic thinks there are fewer opportunities for urban freeway removal than Norquist contends. In an op-ed for Bloomberg news, architecture historian and author Robert Bruegmann wrote, “Although conspicuous, the pieces of freeway that are now being replaced or removed are quite small. The vast majority of the urban freeway network still stands because these roads have done what they were supposed to do, carrying heavy traffic that otherwise would need to thread its way through city streets.”
Indeed, the question of where the existing traffic — however heavy or light — will go is often the major stumbling block. The spurs and offshoots that are prime candidates often carry relatively low volumes of traffic, as freeways go. Advocates for removal note that most cities have street grids with more capacity than people appreciate. A multilane boulevard often can carry a substantial share of any through traffic, albeit at slower speeds, contends Lucinda Gibson, a principal at Smart Mobility, a transportation planning firm that has analyzed several proposed freeway replacements. “Speed does not equal capacity,” she told a “webinar” audience earlier this year. In fact, she said, 30 mph can provide the maximum capacity because it allows cars to be spaced closer together and move continuously.
In New Orleans, Gibson’s firm found that most traffic moving through the region uses I-610, which runs on the fringe of the central area, rather than I-10/Claiborne Expressway, which runs through downtown. Most I-10 travelers are commuting downtown, and they would see their trips grow by four to six minutes, on average. At the same time, other city trips that today are blocked by the freeway could be shortened, yielding a time and energy savings for other residents, the analysis found.
More importantly, transforming the Claiborne Expressway into a re-born Claiborne Avenue would repair damage done to the historic Treme neighborhood when the overpass was built in the 1960s, said Lolis Elie, a Treme resident and writer on HBO’s series based on the neighborhood, also called “Treme.”
“Removing this overpass will be a major step toward healing this wound,” he added. I-10 was routed over Claiborne Avenue after preservationists rebuffed highway forces — including Robert Moses himself — who had pushed for the Interstate to follow the Mississippi River through the French Quarter. At the time, Treme was mostly African- American but not uniformly poor. In fact, thanks to the businesses along Claiborne Avenue, there was a substantial middle class presence.
“It wasn’t that the highway came through here because it was poor,” said Vaughn Fauria, a resident and co-chair of the Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition. “The highway chased the black middle class to New Orleans East,” and disinvestment was left behind. Fauria is a member of the advisory group overseeing the study of the revival of Claiborne Avenue under a $2-million federal grant.
The bridge is likely to need a $50-million overhaul before the end of its original design life in 2016, Fauria said. The question to her is whether that money could be better used to make a transformation that would restore value, and end the noise and pollution associated with the overpass.
“Ironically, much of the opposition is from people commuting from eastern New Orleans to downtown, who will lose the convenience of getting on the overpass and staying there until they reach their destination,” Elie said. “Many of them are in eastern New Orleans because their families moved when the freeway came, but now they use it to commute, and in that way made their peace with the overpass.”
“There are so few people now that experienced the oppression that created that bridge they don’t realize what was lost,” Fauria said. Some in the neighborhood are so accustomed to its presence that they can’t imagine life without it, she said. Some have suggested removing the traffic but keeping the overpass as a multi-use promenade. “It has been there so long it has become entrenched to some. The Mardi Gras Indians didn’t like it when they put it up, but now they use it if it’s raining during a celebration. You can hear (musician) Kermit Ruffins under the bridge almost any time. It’s what we do, we acclimate.”
But before the overpass, “It was a thriving — thriving — cosmopolitan commercial area,” she added. “I think we can get some of that back, and if we’re careful we can do it without displacing the people there now. I’m old enough to remember Claiborne Avenue, and so I’d like to blow that bridge up tomorrow.”