Tuesday, April 23, 2024 Apr 23, 2024
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How Dallas is Throwing Away $4 Billion

How can downtown attract new investment? Swing a wrecking ball.
photography by Scott Womack

As you undoubtedly know, the city of Dallas celebrated the opening of Klyde Warren Park in October. The green expanse stretching over Woodall Rodgers Freeway brought 44,000 visitors on opening weekend to the nexus of Uptown and downtown. A wonderful achievement, indeed. But what if I told you that for the same cost Dallas could have three or four more new urban parks plus generate $4 billion in private investment? All we have to do is get creative with a short stretch of highway.

IH-345 is the obscure official name for the sinuous, 1.4-mile elevated freeway that runs between downtown and Deep Ellum. It connects 75 to I-30 and I-45. It’s on year 39 of a 40-year lifespan and has already been repaired three times in the past 12 years. It has 487 fatigue cracks and spot welds. The Texas Department of Transportation has offered two recommendations: either keep repairing the old road or rebuild it entirely, at a price likely in the hundreds of millions. There is a third option, though, and it’s not getting the consideration it deserves.

As an urban designer, I’ve been thinking about this highway for quite a while. Two years ago, a friend in real estate development and I were critiquing the various plans for downtown. No proposal to date effectively flipped what we saw as an upside-down real estate market. Land costs are too high, and demand is too low. The costs are driven up by owners holding underdeveloped land as they wait for a windfall when the next high-rise condominium tower lands on their parking lot. And demand is low because freeways have funneled it away from the city, out to the suburbs. So my friend and I began a two-year study of the IH-345 area, its traffic patterns, and the potential for redevelopment. Our conclusion: the highway should be torn down.

I know what you’re thinking: “Where would all the traffic go?” IH-345 moves 160,000 cars per day. (Champs-Élysées moves three times that in pedestrians. Take a guess which has higher real estate value.) First, it is important to know that the 160,000 cars are there only because the highway is there. Cities adapt to infrastructure. There are four ways to look at the traffic: regionally, locally, short term, and long term.

Regional traffic not destined for downtown shouldn’t be routed there in the first place, if the goal is a more livable area. Those cars don’t bring development. They bring congestion and pollution. When the West Side Highway in New York collapsed in 1973 and was never replaced, 53 percent of vehicular traffic vanished from the area. Most of those cars were traveling from New Jersey to New Jersey, from Hoboken to Hackensack, using Manhattan as a scenic, high-speed bypass. We have Loop 12, the 635 beltway, and 190 for these purposes.

Milwaukee has seen $700 million in investment on city-owned land since it got rid of the Park East Freeway.

Locally, we’ll never miss IH-345. The mother of modern urbanism, Jane Jacobs, advocated for the use of large infrastructure (highways) to travel to large places (metro areas) and small infrastructure for small destinations, daily trips to the store, home, or office. Otherwise, large infrastructure disrupts local networks. The grid of surface streets that runs from downtown through East Dallas has the capacity to handle more cars. Examining traffic counts of the primary arterials in near East Dallas, I found that they can accommodate an additional 252,000 cars per day, well above what IH-345 moves. The only thing worse for cities than congested roads is empty ones. The result is disinvestment and decay. The grid provides the flexibility highway networks lack.

In the short term, we would see immediate drops in overall vehicular traffic. People will ride DART (we do want increased ridership, right?), telecommute, or carpool. In Los Angeles, each time the 405 has been closed for reconstruction, traffic in the days following the reopening of the highway dropped 25 percent. It’s not just that people take different routes; they get where they’re going without cars. Cities adapt.

The last consideration is the long-term impact that would result from tearing down IH-345. Here’s where the move would really pay off. Just as the system of freeways has shifted population outward, removing IH-345 from downtown would draw people into the city. It would reposition 245 acres so that it could be developed into walkable neighborhoods that could be home to 20,000 new downtown residents. Right now there is only $19 million in improvements on those 245 acres, and the city collects a mere $3 million per year in property tax revenue. By removing the highway, restitching the grid, and creating developable blocks, the city would see $4 billion in new investment within 15 years and generate $100 million a year in property tax revenue, based on our economic impact analysis. That’s enough in one year to implement the entire bike plan and build a new modern streetcar line from West End to Lower Greenville. Through land sales, TxDOT can generate some revenue to begin paying down its debt rather than adding to it.

You’re probably wondering how much this would cost. Using other highway tear-downs as a guide, we estimate it would cost $60 million to $65 million.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. San Francisco increased property values 300 percent around the Embarcadero after replacing an elevated freeway with a boulevard. Property values have also tripled along the former Harbor Drive in Portland, Oregon, which is now a riverfront park. Milwaukee has seen $700 million in investment on city-owned land since it got rid of the Park East Freeway. Lee Myung-bak, the former CEO of Hyundai, ran for mayor of Seoul on the platform of tearing out the Cheonggye. He has since been elected president of South Korea after improving air quality, adding 113,000 jobs in the corridor, and bringing in 250,000 visitors each weekend to the new public space. And the number of vehicles entering the area dropped 43 percent. They don’t miss them. And Vancouver? They’ve never allowed freeways into their city, a big reason they make the top five in every livable city ranking.

TxDOT’s approach is fundamentally flawed. Its goal is to cure congestion, which is impossible. Here’s a dirty little secret: you cannot cure congestion without killing a city, and no one congests places not worth visiting. (Detroit’s streets move just fine, thank you.) The question is, what kind of congestion do you want? Would you rather see freeways full of cars and coerced automobile dependency, or do you want diversified transportation that empowers citizens and enables real choice? The entire point of a city is to bring people together, facilitating social and economic exchange, improving quality of life and availability of opportunity. If half of Dallas County households could give up one car each, that’s more than $3 billion that would stay in the local economy each year.

Anything new in downtown at the moment requires charity or subsidy. That’s great for erecting edifices but not for leasing them. For downtown to take off, we have to light a fire, not fill a bucket. Cities wouldn’t exist if they weren’t profit oriented. When done right, they are machines of value creation. In order to set off the kind of building boom required to meet the massive pent-up demand for walkable urban housing, we must flip the downtown real estate equation so land costs are lowered and demand is increased. To do that, we must leverage the commonwealth’s best asset: land. Forget the traffic.

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