IH-345, the stretch of highway dividing Deep Ellum from downtown and connecting interstates 45 and 75, is at the center of debate on how to develop the city's urban core. Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

Urbanism

I-345 Might Come Down Sooner Than Expected

A report in the New York Times shows how urban highway removal has gone mainstream, and it may get a boost from the Biden Administration.

Dallas gets only a passing mention in this extensive New York Times dive into the cities around the country that are trying to remove urban highways. If you’ve been following this debate over the years — and you should have been — you’ll know much of the top-line info in the piece.

  • Cities “basically destroyed themselves,” says UCONN professor Norman Garric, by smashing neighborhoods to build roads.
  • The building of the federal interstate highway system often targeted Black neighborhoods. “There is racism physically built into some of our highways,” says DOT chief Pete Buttigieg, slightly understating the point. (If you want to know where Dallas’ freedmen’s towns were, run your finger along a map of the city’s highway network.)
  • Regarding Dallas’ effort to remove I-345, which runs between downtown and Deep Ellum, the Times reports that this city is “facing pressure from local residents and activists to address the pollution, noise, and safety hazards brought by the mega-roads.” That’s fair statement, but I would add to the motivations the desire to create a new, equitably minded downtown neighborhood while re-stitching the urban street grid; generate a once-in-a-lifetime economic boost to the inner city; and reverse the outward spread of economic growth by bringing jobs back to the urban core.

The news hook for Times interest in highway teardowns is the Biden Administration’s infrastructure plan. The version of the plan released in March proposed $20 billion for highway removal. The bill that is being hashed-out by Democrats in Congress translates that proposal into new federal funding for highway teardowns over five years. The Department of Transportation has also created grants for cities to kick-start the process. In other words, new federal policy may create an accelerant that could make longterm highway removal plans more imminent.

That’s huge shift in the mindset around how to fund transportation infrastructure. As the Times points out, a decade ago the DOT was only cautiously dipping its big toe into the highway removal arena. One of the projects that received funding from the Obama Administration was the removal of a sunken Inner Loop freeway in Rochester. The article presents a slideshow of images that capture the stages of transition, from a freeway moat to a brand-new urban neighborhood:

People have already moved into townhouse-style apartments where the highway once stood. Scooters and bicycles share space with cars along the new Union Street corridor, a once unlikely sight. Several cross-streets cut off by the highway have been reconnected, encouraging more walking in the area.

And the big fear of removing a highway — terrible traffic — hasn’t materialized.

But Rochester’s example also offers a warning to highway removal advocates. Skeptics and opponents of a I-345 teardown are right about one thing: just because a highway removal spurs new development, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the right development. In fact, the Times reports on some buyers’ remorse among Rochester residents who were excited about the promise of a new neighborhood springing up from the rubble of a reviled highway, but the development that replaced the road is not what they had hoped for.

“We don’t have the moat that was there,” [Shawn Dunwoody, an artist and community organizer] said, walking along the new corridor. “But now, when you look down, there’s just a whole series of walls,” he added, pointing to the large, new apartment buildings that repeat down Union Street.

Others echoed the concern that the redevelopment project brought in too many higher-end apartments (though a portion are reserved for lower-income tenants and other vulnerable groups) without opening up any space for the public: No parks, no plazas.

As one might have guessed, building a new neighborhood from scratch is difficult. Neighborhoods are not simply products of real estate development or infrastructure construction. The physical urban forms that constitute a neighborhood are incidental, or at least secondary, to the people, networks, and social connections that lend life and character to a city neighborhood. Those connections often require a delicate mix of time and economic access to establish. New pop-up neighborhoods tend to be stale, movie set-like districts filled with retail, commercial, and housing that can generate rent at price points that create returns for initial investors.

Advocates of removing I-345 know this, of course, and the talking points around the removal of the road have long included calls for establishing a mixing-income community with equitable housing options, plans for services that cater to the needs of a neighborhood, and public parks and open space. But stating these goals and achieving them are two different things. Looking back at Dallas’ development track record, there are few examples to prove the concept. As the Times story points out, while there is an increasingly long list of cities that have removed urban highways, there is no real template. Each removal project has taken place within a specific urban context with unique community and mobility needs.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done well in Dallas, and if the Biden Administration creates new funding for highway removal, it could happen sooner than later. That creates an imperative to put a plan in place before funding comes through that maps out land use guidelines and other policy tools that will ensure that the development that follows I-345’s removal will meet the aspirations of teardown supporters. This is a goal of the latest I-345 plan — the Toole Design Group’s Framework Plan that was produced in partnership with the Coalition for a New Dallas (co-founded by late D Magazine founder Wick Allison). That plan says all the right things. It makes a point to advocate for a mix of uses and incomes, expanded social equity, and environmental remediation. But there is new urgency to translate that conceptual framework into policies the Dallas City Council can adopt.

Which is all to say: this new report on highway removals offers both hope and caution. A once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform downtown Dallas may be looming on the horizon. But that only amplifies the need to get the nuts and bolts of the project right. Because tearing things down — whether it is a neighborhood for a highway, or a highway for a neighborhood — is the easy part. Building a city we can be proud of will prove more difficult.

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