Thursday, May 30, 2024 May 30, 2024
68° F Dallas, TX

Why We Should Bury Interstate 30

Fifty years ago, we stabbed one of Dallas’ best neighborhoods in the heart with a highway. Now we can stitch it back together.

“A dead place is not a historic inevitability, it is someone’s failure. A living place is someone’s success. These are matters of choice and skill, not laws of physics.” That’s from 2000’s Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival, written by Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio. They weren’t talking about Dallas, but they could have been. The area surrounding Interstate 30—at least the elevated section that extends from Central Expressway to Samuell Boulevard, most of it on a gigantic berm—is someone’s failure. 

The story goes that when J. Erik Jonsson was elected mayor of Dallas in 1964, one of the first things he tried to do was halt construction of that section of I-30. But the project was too far along to stop, and so a barrier cutting through one of Dallas’ most historic neighborhoods was created, devastating both sides of the divide. Mansions were turned into apartments and flophouses. Poverty took root. The property on either side of I-30 was reduced to a ramshackle collection of vacant lots, liquor stores, and shabby apartments. 

This was someone’s failure.

Now, a great way to correct this mistake would be to re-route I-30 around South Dallas, hewing close to the natural pathway of the Trinity River floodplain. But the cost would be so prohibitive, it’s hard to imagine the idea of re-routing the highway getting any traction. So, I-30 is probably staying where it is.

We might not be able to change the route, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something with this 3-mile stretch of highway. We can bury it.

This was how we fixed Central Expressway in 1999. This is why we have Klyde Warren Park above Woodall Rodgers Freeway. I-30 would incorporate both models, bringing the highway below grade with deck parks at Haskell Avenue/Peak Street and Exposition Boulevard/Commerce Street. The latter, with unique design elements, would create a grand entrance to the Fair Park area. 

All of this has been studied and discussed. The construction firm HNTB held a design charrette in 2009 that looked into taking the highway down, and the resulting plan has come up a few times since. The Friends of Fair Park’s I-30 committee recently brought it to Mayor Mike Rawlings’ nine-member Fair Park task force. “We were impressed by the plan to put I-30 below grade and create a deck park at Exposition,” says Mary Suhm, former city manager and task force member. “This plan would create a badly needed front door to the park.”

It would also return Fair Park and the surrounding area to its rightful place in East Dallas. Look at a map. Fair Park is almost due east of downtown. But the city has let this man-made noose choke off what was once an integral part of the city, segregating white from black and cutting off the flow of money. We’ve trapped one of the jewels of the city—Fair Park and its 277 acres, rescued from development in the late 1800s by civic leaders—behind a wall. 

The neighborhoods around Fair Park used to be home to the city’s rich Jewish community. When they relocated to newer neighborhoods in North Dallas and were replaced by black families, we allowed I-30 to stab the neighborhood in the heart. This was a mistake born of poor city planning and probably more than a little (at least unconscious) racism. The wound has festered, but it can still be healed. 

Burying I-30 would help restitch the city grid and, just as important, remove the visual impediment, the door we slammed shut on this area in the 1960s. It would pave the way for a return of the black and white middle class. People want to move back to the city. The development that has been moving down Henderson Avenue wants to keep going. Billions of investment dollars and millions in uncollected property tax revenue are waiting.

Like removing I-345, it wouldn’t be cheap—which hardly matters right now, since the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) doesn’t have the money to undertake a project of this magnitude anyway. The agency has discussed the design the HNTB charrette came up with, but acting on it is not in its immediate plans. Even strong supporters of lowering I-30 believe it might not happen for decades. 

But even though half of TxDOT’s budget goes to debt service and most of the rest to maintenance, the agency won’t be out of money forever, and we can’t keep waiting. It’s time to employ matters of choice and skill and make a living place. It’s time for a success.