This morning the city’s Economic Development and Housing Committee voted to study the economic impact of removing the elevated IH-345 highway that separates downtown from Deep Ellum. The go-ahead to study its feasibility marks the first time the city of Dallas has entered a record vote on exploring the highway’s removal—the two options on the table are an outright removal and a below-grade burial. It comes more than a year after the Texas Department of Transportation signaled its willingness to tear down the concrete barrier that connects Central Expressway with interstates 30, 45, and Woodall Rodgers.
The vote aligns the city with TxDOT, which will launch a study in November that explores housing possibilities and opportunities for business and economic development once the highway is either killed or buried. Monday’s vote was a decision to join that study. TxDOT will take the lead on researching the utility of removing the highway—what infrastructure changes would be necessary to accomplish both options and how much it will likely cost. The city’s role will be to look at what comes later: how to rezone the land, how to bring private development to land that is currently public, what housing could look like.
In a memo to the committee, Assistant City Manager Raquel Favela wrote that “if the city does not assume a leadership role in this process, then the city risks not being able to influence the design in a manner consistent with the community input and the city’s policy goals.”
The idea began in the pages of D Magazine in 2013, with the urbanist and now-DART board member Patrick Kennedy proposing that we remove the 1.4-mile highway to free up 245 acres of development in the city’s core. He argued that a re-stitched street grid and new, developable city blocks would bring in billions of dollars in new investments and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual property tax revenue. Traffic would route to other nearby freeways and onto at-grade boulevards as well as the existing street grid.
He cited San Francisco’s decision to bring down an elevated freeway near the Embarcadero and transform it into a boulevard, spurring a 300 percent spike in property values. He cited the $700 million in investments in Milwaukee after the city got rid of the Park East Freeway. Kennedy believed that the street grid surrounding the freeway had the capacity to hold more cars, and highlighted the potential for an increase in DART ridership, carpooling, and bicycling. “Cities adapt,” he wrote.
“It’s important that the city takes a leadership role in determining the future of the city and longterm health of the city, but is doing so in a way so we can help determine the right amount of economic development and the right amount of housing and then determine how that then informs TxDOT’s design and the decision ultimately of what winds up happening to 345 and the corridor through there,” Kennedy said in an interview Monday afternoon. “The economic development is a critical component and a critical outcome to whatever is invested there from a public sector side. We need to be thinking holistically about these things ahead of time.”
TxDOT included the matter of removal in its CityMAP study last year, a comprehensive analysis of the future of Dallas’ aging transportation system. It found removal would generate $2.5 billion in new property value, while the below-grade scenario would generate $1.5 billion. The city would get $80 million each year in tax revenue with removal and $50 million with the below-grade modification. The important thing here: both of these options call for removal of IH-345 as it exists today. It is what the urbanist Jane Jacobs called a “border vacuum,” an imposing object that seals off one neighborhood from another, destroying the connectivity that is imperative for its success.
“The I-345 corridor presents the city with an extraordinary opportunity to reduce congestion, add workforce housing, and improve the mobility, economic development, and quality of life for residents of Dallas,” Favela’s memo reads. “In order to maximize these outcomes, the city must do its own workforce housing analysis and plan for the 240 acres affected by the I-345 project in collaboration and in coordination with TxDOT.”
Kourtny Garrett, president of Downtown Dallas Inc., said the city’s vote signaled a cultural shift to focus on the needs of Dallas instead of the region’s. DDI, which advocates on behalf of 15 neighborhoods in the urban core, spent the year researching the findings of CityMAP and came away believing in the potential for economic growth that comes with vanishing the elevated highway. She said, should the city find the below-grade route the way to go, that the organization would advocate for development or a park to be placed on top “so we’re not creating another bifurcation of our neighborhoods.”
“When you think about freeways and the way freeways interact with neighborhoods, we’re looking into how we can better plan neighborhood interaction and integration with a focus on quality-of-life and multi-modal transportation,” she said. This is “versus what we’ve done in the past, which is moving people as quickly as we can in and out of downtown.”
The last two City Council elections freed the way for progressive transportation decisions like this one, creating a powerful voting bloc around the horseshoe that was open to rethinking the development calls of our past. Earlier this year, the Council killed the Trinity Toll Road project once and for all, and now it’s exploring what tearing out a freeway could mean for housing, jobs, and development opportunities.
And, full disclosure, Wick Allison, the founder and publisher of D Magazine, launched a Super PAC in 2014 called the Coalition for a New Dallas that advocated for the freeway’s removal.
The vote goes to the full council for approval on Nov. 8. Kennedy, meanwhile, reiterated that he’s all-in on the full removal and replacement with boulevards.
“The subterranean option is a compromise with the past,” he said. “We need to be thinking more about how to leverage our infrastructure investments to essentially help the market rearrange itself in a more efficient and sustainable pattern.”