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Politics & Government

How to Imagine Dallas Without I-345

Ahead of a City Council decision to study the elevated highway through downtown, planners talked about the future of Dallas' urban core.

Next week, the Dallas City Council will decide whether to commission a study of the economic potential of removing or burying I-345, the elevated highway that stitches together Central and I-45, choking off East Dallas from downtown. It’s an idea that first gained traction in the pages of D Magazine in 2013 and picked up steam last year with the release of CityMAP, a TxDOT study that, among other things, essentially confirmed what urban planner and DART board member Patrick Kennedy has been saying for years: if Dallas wants to rebuild a strong urban core, it will need to start with a wrecking ball.

Kennedy was among the panelists on hand Wednesday night at D Magazine headquarters for a conversation about the future of I-345 that also included Kourtny Garrett, the CEO of Downtown Dallas Inc., and Scott Polikov, an urban designer who worked on CityMAP. Matt Tranchin, the head of the Coalition for a New Dallas, a Super PAC launched by (full disclosure) D Magazine founder and publisher Wick Allison to push for the highway’s teardown, jumped in toward the end. D Magazine’s Peter Simek moderated.

Garrett managed to capture the evening’s optimistic mood, and the feeling of Dallas’ wide-open future, when she described CityMAP as a “menu” of options for the city to choose from. What’s important is that the city take control of planning for development and transportation, making decisions that have too often been left to regional and state authorities. “It’s time for Dallas to stand up for Dallas,” she said.

Kennedy said he was emboldened by a new city manager’s office under City Manager T.C. Broadnax, and a council whose makeup is becoming more and more sympathetic to ideas of dense urban development. The most significant political challenges to developing Dallas’ core may come out of Austin, from a state legislature that can be “actively hostile toward cities,” he said.

But emphasizing the money to be made and distributed by a transportation makeover should be able to sway even the most vociferous naysayers, Polikov said. A walkable, lively, diverse city is one worthwhile goal, but new development in the place of highways and barren right-of-ways could have enormous benefits for business owners and the city’s tax base, in the form of new property, residents, and jobs. It’s something developers and officials from any point on the political spectrum should be able to agree on. “This is not just about do-gooding, it’s about economic development,” Polikov said.

TxDOT renderings from the CityMap study show what a below grade and boulevard-ed replacement of I-345 could look like. The study found that both options for re-stitching the urban core would have minimal impact on traffic congestion. (Click to enlarge the images.)

The hour-plus discussion touched on many of the questions and concerns surrounding what to do with I-345. Will Dallas be embroiled in a “carmageddon” of rerouted traffic if the highway is removed or put below-grade? (No.) Will development in place of highways unleash a wildfire of gentrification that prices out residents? (Not if it’s done right.) Can officials and transportation planners be convinced to rethink a 20th century model of highway-first development that divided and devastated so many cities? (Looks like it.) Does there need to be serious discussions about what to do with other highways crossing through the city center that are examined in CityMAP, like I-30? (Most definitely.)

Each of the panelists stressed the collaborative nature of any projects of this magnitude, and the need to get private and public interests aligned. Tearing down a highway is just the start of a process that would also need to entail street redesign and the construction of mixed-use development and mixed-income housing.

Change is coming, and the city will need to shape what that change looks like. That could start at next Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

For answers to all your burning questions on the future of I-345, we’ll have the full audio from last night’s panel posted later. For now, here’s a link to a slideshow illustrating some of what came up.