As one of the largest property owners in the commercial core of Deep Ellum, Scott Rohrman is listening to the buzz. It’s not the sound of 200,000 cars that each day travel the old elevated highway that separates downtown Dallas from Rohrman’s properties in Deep Ellum. Rather, this buzz comes from business interests and community activists discussing whether the hulking expanse of concrete, formally known as Interstate 345, should be razed and replaced with street-level boulevards, parks, trolleys, and new business development.
By sheer acreage alone, the potential for new commercial and residential development along the eastern edge of downtown Dallas would be massive—were the freeway to be permanently removed. The elevated road traps an estimated 64 acres of right of way underneath its girth. But there are also about 120 underutilized acres nearby—old buildings, vacant lots, and surface parking—that could be revitalized.
“I have not gone to anyone with an agenda of, ‘Hi I’m Scott Rohrman and I want you to tear this down,’ ” Rohrman says. “I have said, ‘Hey, what do you think about it?’ ”
As a major property owner in the area, Rohrman stresses that he wants a thorough vetting of the idea to see if it makes sense. Rohrman’s 42 Real Estate LLC, after all, owns 27 buildings and 10 parking lots in Deep Ellum.
“My gut tells me that it’s a logical project to tear down, because it drives a wedge between two major parts of the city,” he says. “I think that 80 percent of the traffic would find other routes, because I think most of the traffic is going from Oklahoma to Houston and from Houston to Oklahoma. They can figure out a way to get around Dallas other than going right through the middle.”
Kennedy admits tearing down a freeway isn’t necessarily an easy sell, especially for rush-hour weary Dallasites who are notoriously dependent on their cars.
Rohrman’s business interests make him a natural to gravitate toward freeway removal. For him and many others, it was Patrick Kennedy who put the idea into their heads. Kennedy is a partner and co-founder of urban planning firm Space Between Design Studio and founder of the nonprofit A New Dallas, which pursues economic development and transportation equity in and around downtown neighborhoods.
Kennedy and Dallas real estate developer Brandon Hancock began sowing the seeds four years ago for removing the freeway, which connects Interstate 45 with U.S. Highway 75. The idea arose as the two discussed a downtown development plan and the need for more land to jump-start the real estate market. They funded an initial study on the issue and then launched a website, anewdallas.com.
“The highway is in disrepair, and about 40 years old, and highways last about 40 years,” Kennedy says. “We wanted to get ahead of it, get some work done, and do our due diligence to have data to suggest something like a highway tear-out.”
If the land were developed and achieved a density and land value similar to Dallas’ Cityplace—the Oak Lawn-area neighborhood east of North Central Expressway that includes the new urbanist West Village—the city would reap $4.1 billion in investment over 15 years, assuming 95 percent absorption at year 15, according to the New Dallas study. Dallas also would realize $110 million in new annual property tax revenue. In contrast, less than $20 million in improvements have been made to property in the immediate vicinity of the freeway, and the city currently generates only $3.5 million in annual property tax revenue from the 245-acre study area.
While A New Dallas would like to see open spaces as centerpieces of any redeveloped land, it believes market forces should determine the exact mix. Its preliminary estimates have residential space accounting for as much as 55 percent, with the remainder in office, retail, and hotel properties. Besides Deep Ellum, Fair Park and South Dallas will benefit as well, Kennedy believes.
“Eventually, the success will allow investment, which oozes rather than jumps, to cross Interstate 30 much the way it eventually crossed 75 to the Fair Park and South Dallas area,” he says. “We believe this is a necessary step towards re-orienting downtown as the center of real estate gravity, bringing jobs and investment closer to South Dallas, and ultimately repositioning South Dallas for more investment and opportunity there as well.”
Rohrman, for his part, foresees an “Esplanade” in the I-345 redevelopment mix, with traffic lanes reflecting local needs rather than the needs of “out of towners.” There would be green space along the Esplanade, as well as a mixture of multifamily, retail, and office properties, plus arts facilities and outdoor art. “It’s unlimited,” Rohrman says.
Kennedy has made the rounds promoting removal of the highway, talking with anyone who will listen: community groups, city officials, business leaders. The idea gained traction following a Texas Department of Transportation feasibility workshop in December 2012. There, TxDOT presented nine options to improve the structural condition of the freeway, with an estimated price tag of $100 million. A permanent teardown was not among the options.
“That served to ignite the fire under various leaders around the city to say, ‘We want to at least figure out what is best for us.’ That was our original intention with this whole thing,” Kennedy says. “This should be out in the public discourse with an open and honest debate about the best future for Dallas. Dallas should have a say in that.”
Kennedy estimates the cost of tearing down the 2-mile freeway at $100 million, plus $20 million to add parks and rebuild a grid of city streets that would disperse traffic onto multiple routes. (Other traffic, he argues, would simply disappear from downtown since it’s only “cutting through” via the freeway now because it’s convenient.) The cost estimate is based on what it cost recently to tear down an inner city highway in Rochester, N.Y., Kennedy says. That project received $18 million in federal grant money to help pay the cost of the teardown.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings hadn’t taken a stance on removing the freeway by press time, although he had met with both supporters and opponents. The Dallas Planning Council, which advocates for a sustainable future for the city, began looking into the issue about six months ago but also has no formal position yet.
Kennedy admits tearing down a freeway isn’t necessarily an easy sell, especially for rush-hour weary Dallasites who are notoriously dependent on their cars. Some people are initially incredulous about the prospect, but often soften to the idea later after they’ve had some time to think about it, he says.
“I try to talk to people one-on-one about it,” Kennedy says. “After they’ve had time to think about it, they’re like, ‘You know, that kind of makes sense.’ It grows on people like any good idea does.”
It certainly helps Kennedy’s cause to offer proof that highway tear-outs can mean an economic boon to cities. New Haven, Conn., is only in the first phase of its highway removal, but already the economic benefit is remarkable, says Michael Piscitelli, deputy economic development administrator for the city of New Haven.
New Haven is removing a state highway “stub,” Route 34, which carries about 75,000 vehicles a day. The highway, built in a depression below grade level, separates the Yale School of Medicine from downtown New Haven. The one-mile stretch of urban highway was built in the 1950s with the original intent to extend it to other cities, but that never happened.