You couldn’t script a more ironic kick-start to the urban highway teardown movement. On December 15, 1973, a dump truck carrying 60,000 pounds of asphalt, which was needed to repair New York City’s West Side Highway, crashed right through the road. A portion of the West Side Highway collapsed, and New York was forced to shut down a road that carried 140,000 vehicles per day through the heart of the city.
Sam Schwartz was a young traffic engineer at the time, and he was sent to the scene to survey the damage. What Schwartz and his colleagues expected was a traffic nightmare, and at first, there was gridlock. Over time, however, something else happened. The traffic went away. It didn’t back up side streets or clog other highways. Rather, Schwartz, who became New York City’s traffic commissioner in 1982, discovered that the city’s street grid was far more effective at moving traffic through the urban environment than an elevated highway. After decades of political wrangling, in the 1990s, New York decided to tear down the West Side Highway and replace it with a boulevard. The neighborhoods formerly divided by the road boomed and blossomed.
The collapse of the West Side Highway helped birth a new era in transportation. In the 1950s and 1960s, cities pushed for highway expansion into their urban cores only to watch those roads facilitate the rapid disintegration of the social and economic value of the inner city. Now, many cities are fighting to remove those same roads. Dozens of cities around the world have torn out or are actively working to remove their urban highways, and in nearly every case, the results are the same: rising property value, increased investment, greater walkability, a decrease in environmental pollution, and a greater desirability in the neighborhoods adjacent to the former road.
We looked at five examples of major world cities that have removed highways that function similarly to Dallas’ I-345 to gauge what impact such a removal could have on our city.
Road: West Side Highway, a 4.7-mile elevated highway running through an urban core
Demolition Timeline: Collapsed 1973; planning and design 1985-1993; construction of new boulevard 1996-2001
Cost: $380 million
Traffic count before demolition: 140,000 cars per day
The West Side Highway was the first elevated highway ever built in the United States. Commuters and traffic engineers alike believed it served an important role in New York’s transportation system, cutting down the west side of Manhattan and connecting major traffic arteries in and out of the city. But after it collapsed and was closed, 53 percent of the traffic that had been using the highway simply disappeared.
“A year or two later, we found that over time people made other choices,” Schwartz says. “Some took another route, some traveled at other times, and some took public transportation.”
That didn’t stop local, state, and federal agencies from pursuing plans to repair or replace the road. For decades, politicians lined up behind a plan to replace the highway with a buried freeway located in a landfill in the Hudson River. But the longer the political process stalled, the more local residents realized there wasn’t any real need for the road. Grassroots community groups began to advocate for the highway’s complete removal, and after nearly 20 years without a functioning West Side Highway, they were able to convince politicians to block the unnecessary replacement. Instead of building the road, New York took the $1.7 billion in state and federal funds that had been allocated toward the highway and used it for public transportation improvements and the development of the West Side Highway Replacement Project. The road was removed and replaced with
a boulevard featuring increased pedestrian and bike amenities.
The impact on the surrounding neighborhoods was almost instantaneous. “It became a gold coast, so to speak,” Schwartz says. “Just removing [the highway] alone added air and light and made it easier to get across the street and developed a sense of connection.”
A new park was added along the river, and the removal of the road helped kick-start the rebirth of neighborhoods such as Chelsea, Tribeca, and the Meatpacking District, which are now among New York’s most beloved and expensive.
Road: Park East Freeway, a 0.8-mile highway spur that was part of a highway loop that separated downtown Milwaukee from north-side neighborhoods
Demolition Timeline: Planning 1996-2002; removed 2002-2003
Cost: $25 million
Traffic count before demolition: 54,000 cars per day
Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist admits he didn’t understand the concept of highway removal at first. “I was against freeways,” Norquist says. “But when the prospect came up about tearing one down, I had my own doubts. It’s counterintuitive.” Nonetheless, Norquist trusted his traffic engineer, Peter Park, who saw what removals in Portland, New York, and San Francisco had done for those cities. Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway was a stretch of highway that formed part of a loop around the city’s downtown, cutting it off from neighborhoods directly north of the city center. The road was out of date, needed repairs, and those repairs would have been costly. Rather than spend the money to fix the road, Norquist got on the side of those who wanted to see it come down.
The city succeeded, and in 2003, the road was replaced with a boulevard that handles 15,800 cars per day. There have been no traffic problems associated with the teardown, and Milwaukee got a new public park and plaza as well as expanded access to the riverfront. Between 2001 and 2006, average land values in the area of the teardown increased by 180 percent. Three new neighborhoods were created, and numerous developments—including the relocation of the corporate headquarters of ManpowerGroup, a multinational HR consulting firm—moved in. In Milwaukee, though, growth was not instantaneous. Norquist says deed restrictions placed on some of the land owned by the county slowed investment. But a decade later, development has caught up. In 2013, a $54 million tower opened with condos, apartments, and first-floor retail, and in late 2013, ground broke on a $21 million mixed-use development.
“I don’t think anyone would want [the highway] put back,” Norquist says.
Road: Cheonggyecheon, a 3.6-mile elevated freeway through the heart of the city center
Demolition Timeline: Proposed 2003, removed 2004
Cost: $313 million
Traffic count before demolition: 170,000 cars per day
Everyone thought Lee Myung-bak was committing political suicide when he decided to stake his run for mayor of Seoul, South Korea, on one issue: the teardown of Cheonggyecheon freeway. The road was completed in 1976, running straight through the heart of downtown Seoul. To build it, a river was buried. But the road didn’t spur economic development. Instead, studies showed that the road was accountable for the loss of 40,000 residents and 80,000 jobs in the city’s central business district. Lee won the election in 2002 and initiated the fastest highway demolition in history. By 2004, the road was gone and the river unearthed.
The teardown of Cheonggyecheon transformed Seoul. The price of land for properties within 160 feet of the restoration project increased by 30 to 50 percent, double the rate of other areas of Seoul. The rate of new business growth in the area also doubled, while the economic impact of visitors drawn to the revitalized waterfront has been
valued at $1.9 billion. The highway removal has also been credited with the city’s overall reduction in the urban heat island effect, and small-particle air pollution has been reduced by 35 percent. And even though the highway carried as many as 170,000 vehicles per day, just like with other highway teardowns, the removal didn’t create a traffic problem. Rather, the city saw a decrease of about 45 percent in the number of vehicles in the Cheonggyecheon area after the road was removed.
Road: Harbor Drive, a 3-mile, at-grade highway located on Portland’s riverfront
Demolition Timeline: Planning 1968-70; removed 1974
Traffic count before demolition: 25,000 cars per day
Portland wasn’t always a model of urban living and walkability. In the 1960s, the city’s air pollution was so bad the EPA levied fines that threatened to bankrupt the city. A tangle of highways cutting through Portland’s downtown turned it into a mostly vacant, crime-ridden warehouse district. As grassroots anti-highway groups began sprouting up in New York’s Greenwich Village, San Francisco, and elsewhere, an organization called Riverfront for People set its sights on removing Harbor Drive, a downtown highway that ran along Portland’s waterfront. Five years later, the state closed Harbor Drive, turning the highway into a boulevard and making way for a 37-acre riverfront park.
That teardown is now cited as one of the reasons for Portland’s emergence as a model of a walkable city. By 2002, property values in the area around the former highway had tripled, growing 7 percent faster than the rest of the city. During the 1980s, 298 housing units, an 84-room hotel, two restaurants, and a marina were added. Subsequent development in the 1990s added 182 townhomes, an athletic club, and 2,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. Crime rates in the area have decreased 65 percent since 1990, versus 16 percent in the city as a whole. And the waterfront is now home to numerous annual festivals. Riverfront for People is still active, and they now have their sights on removing another highway, Interstate 5, which runs through a portion of downtown Portland.
Road: Central Freeway, a 0.6-mile, inner-city highwayr
Demolition Timeline:Earthquake damaged in 1989; closed permanently 1992; planning 1989-2001; rebuilt as a multi-use boulevard 2002r
Cost: $50 millionr
Traffic count before demolition: 93,000 cars per day
The morning after San Francisco decided to permanently close Central Freeway, the inner-city highway that was badly damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, residents woke up to this headline in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Traffic Planners Baffled by Success: No Central Freeway, no gridlock—and no explanation.” The road had been the subject of much political contention. Residents who lived in the city’s affluent and less-dense western neighborhoods fought to keep the road, while those who lived next to the highway wanted it torn down.
“Models had predicted that traffic would back up to Sacramento,” says Jeffrey Tumlin, a neighborhood activist and urban planner who would later work on the design of Octavia Boulevard, which replaced the freeway. “But that did not happen.”
What did happen was Hayes Valley, one of San Francisco’s most depressed neighborhoods, turned into its most successful. When Central Freeway ran through the Hayes Valley neighborhood, condo prices were 66 percent of city average. After the demolition, that number grew to 91 percent. Liquor stores and auto shops were replaced with trendy restaurants and high-end boutiques. Average sales prices of residential real estate increased by $116,000 the year the new boulevard opened, and approximately 1,000 new housing units have been developed in the area. A 16,500-square-foot park was also part of the Octavia plan, and the new boulevard carries about 45,500 vehicles per day. There have been some hiccups. Tumlin says the boulevard’s off-ramp design causes safety problems and backups, while rapid economic growth threatens to push out longtime residents. But the impact of the highway removal is clear.
“Hayes Valley has become what some would call the hottest neighborhood on the West Coast,” Tumlin says.