America Begins Capping Freeway Scars of the Past

America Begins Capping Freeway Scars of the Past

Interstate 90 dips beneath Mercer Island in Lake Washington, just east of Seattle.

SourceLaurent GRANDGUILLOT/REA/Redux

Why you should care

Communities divided by 20th century freeways may be reunited by a 21st century vision. 

Interstate 5, the West Coast’s main north-south artery, cuts an angry, 12-lane slash through Seattle, severing upscale residential neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and First Hill from the central business district.

For now. Citizens are lobbying their elected representatives to take up a plan for a 45-acre ribbon of public space running atop I-5 for 2 miles. The Seattle C.A.P.itol Hill Park, envisioned by local architects Patano Studio, would include as its centerpiece a multiuse arena, part of an existing plan to expand the Washington State Convention Center and a more aspirational effort to attract NBA and NHL teams to the state.

The Seattle project would re-establish pedestrian connections and create badly needed parkland in the densest part of town. For the first time in 50 years, locals could walk or bike downtown without taking their lives into their hands or taking torturous routes.

The opportunity to create more space in a dense urban environment has a very broad constituency.

Alex Ko, Sound Transit

But the proposed project for what would be America’s most extensive highway lid project since Boston’s Big Dig, which created 1.5 miles of linear park atop Interstate 93 in downtown Boston a decade back, is far from alone. Increasingly, American cities saddled with aging urban highways are eyeing freeway caps – also known as highway lids and land bridges, depending on geography and design – as essential tools in their urban renewal toolkits. Most lid projects aim to re-stitch an urban fabric frayed by questionable road planning decisions while increasing available public space in densely populated neighborhoods.

The benefits of completed lids are visible across the nation. In Dallas, the 5-block Klyde Warren Park has revived a once-faded corner of downtown and forged connections with up-and-coming uptown. In St. Louis, a block-long lid connects Gateway Arch National Park with Luther Ely Smith Square, while in Duluth, Minnesota, a series of caps create grassy pedestrian connections between downtown and the serene Lake Superior waterfront. Proposed and under-construction projects are even more ambitious, spanning big cities like Los Angeles, Denver, Washington, D.C., New York, San Diego and San Francisco, apart from Seattle.

“Transportation planners once saw lids as a last resort,” says Scott Bonjukian, co-chair of Lid I-5, a citizen group working to realize the Seattle project. “We’re now at the point where they’re incorporated into [highway rebuilds] from the get-go.”

Since 2016, the group has engaged with residents and stakeholders on both sides of the highway, as well as a supportive city council and planning office. In April, Seattle’s city council will vote on a $1.5 million citywide feasibility study, which Washington State Convention Center is expected to fund out of its expansion budget. To start with, Lid I-5 wants the construction of a 14,000-square-foot lid park at the corner of Pine and Boren streets. Eventually, Bonjukian hopes, the project will extend north to Denny Way, and south to Madison Street or even Yesler Terrace, a major public housing community. For residents around the freeway, health has long been a major concern – with studies showcasing a significant adverse impact. Now, economics may work for the project too. Because land prices are rising in downtown Seattle, a lid park is much cheaper per square foot than providing green spaces down below.

Gettyimages 71420931

Traffic exits from a section of the highway known as the Big Dig in Boston.

Source Darren McCollester/Getty Images

“The I-5 lid project is being pitched as a solution to challenges stemming from a lack of available land,” says Alex Ko, Capitol Hill resident and customer outreach specialist for Sound Transit, the regional public transit authority. “The opportunity to create more space in a dense urban environment has a very broad constituency.” Investors are beginning to show interest. Two contributed $10,000 each last year to Lid I-5, the citizens’ group, and Bonjukian is working contacts at Amazon, which employs thousands at its nearby headquarters — including many who walk and bike to work across I-5.

Halfway across the country, an entirely different highway lid experiment is unfolding.

Set to cap up to five blocks of Interstate 94 in St. Paul’s working-class Rondo neighborhood, ReConnect Rondo’s (RCR) land bridge proposal takes direct aim at what many regard as the Interstate Highway System’s original sin: the evisceration of once-thriving Black and Latino neighborhoods, through which the U.S. Department of Transportation routed many urban highways. That makes the project radical, because lid projects disproportionately favor upscale or densely populated areas with already-elevated land values — including downtown Seattle.

“Communities of means, with high land values, can more easily justify lid-building expenses,” says Tom Fisher, director of Minnesota Design Center and Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design at the University of Minnesota.

We want a seat at the table where transportation decisions are made.

Marvin Anderson, ReConnect Rondo

Rondo doesn’t fit that bill. In the early 20th century, St. Paul’s African-American community clustered here, building businesses on old Rondo Avenue and keeping tidy homes on leafy side streets. Widespread housing discrimination kept Rondo residents from buying or even renting elsewhere. Then, in the 1960s, state and federal authorities routed I-94 through Rondo, erasing Rondo Avenue and severing the community. Locals had no voice in the decision.

“Transportation decisions affect communities,” says Marvin Anderson, RCR board chair and a leading advocate for the neighborhood. “One of the communities most affected by adverse transportation decisions was Rondo.” RCR has several designs in the works, but its goal is a half-mile swath that quite literally reconnects Rondo’s severed halves with a new beating heart.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has thrown its support behind RCR — but the partnership took time, and criticism of the government agency at a 2015 community meeting. “Our goal is not just to build a land bridge; we want a seat at the table where transportation decisions are made,” says Anderson.

The motivations vary for proposed lid projects. Los Angeles’ Hollywood Central Park would be a 1-mile, 38-acre park atop U.S. 101 in a diverse, park-deprived slice of Tinseltown. Denver’s Central 70 reconstruction project will include a 4-acre land bridge topped with trees, grassy lawns and playing fields. Capitol Crossing in Washington, D.C., is an entirely new mini-neighborhood: a landscaped, five-structure commercial development on reclaimed land atop Interstate 395, blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

And while finding funding is a common challenge, it’s a bigger problem for poorer, minority neighborhoods. Even with significant government support, RCR’s representatives recognize they will also need substantial private investment from those who see the project as socially important.

If that happens, it’s about time for the residents of Rondo. “It’s helpful,” says Fisher of the University of Minnesota, “to view this project essentially as reparations for something that should never have happened in the first place.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Marvin Anderson as executive director of RCR, a position he held earlier.

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