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Downtown need a makeover? More cities are razing urban highways

Removal of aging highways is a strategy some cities are using to try to boost their downtown districts.

By Jeremy KutnerCorrespondent / March 2, 2011

Construction equipment lines the old Interstate 195 in Providence, R.I. The city has closed this highway, which once ran through the downtown core.

Chuck Aube/RIDOT

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New Haven, Conn.

In New Haven, Conn., a mistake of the past – one that displaced hundreds, razed a neighborhood, and physically divided a city – is finally set to be rectified: A highway is going to be demolished.

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Some people in New Haven have been waiting to see this for 40 years, ever since it became clear that a modern roadway slicing through the heart of downtown would not bring the hoped-for suburban shoppers and revitalization. That waiting list is long, it turns out, as cities across the United States look to erase some of the damage from urban highway construction of the 1950s and '60s – tearing up or replacing the roadways and attempting to restitch bulldozed neighborhoods.

"For people who live and work around [urban highways], they always had huge negative side effects: They broke up the urban fabric, were noisy, and divided cities," says Ted Shelton, a professor of architecture at the University of Tennessee who has studied urban highway removal. Removing roadways presents an opportunity for wiser, gentler redevelopment that can – if all goes well – add vibrancy and livability to areas around city centers.

That possibility has planners from Providence, R.I., and Baltimore to New Orleans and Seattle rethinking decisions to run highways through the hearts of cities. To that end, they are hoping to get some help from federal transportation programs (though budget-cutters in the US House have this program in their sights), as well as from local and state sources. New Haven's $16 million from Uncle Sam, for instance, will help demolish a short stub of highway – called the Oak Street Connector – that delivers visitors to a Walgreens and a parking garage.

Two things are driving these extreme make-overs. One is the simple fact that many highways built in the postwar years are nearing the end of their useful lives, says Joseph DiMento, a professor of planning and law at the University of California, Irvine, who is at work on a book about urban highways. The other, he says, is a growing faith that urban centers, including some that have been long neglected, have development potential.

Still, he cautions, not every city can reclaim its downtown by ripping up highway, because the highway may not be the biggest problem.

"You can't isolate freeway intervention as the only factor in the depopulation of many Rust Belt and Snow Belt cities. It was a factor but not the only factor. People were moving out independently," Mr. DiMento says.

Why It Matters: Cities historically are engines of growth – in the US and abroad. Some, though, have stagnated or fallen on hard times. Many urban planners see highway demolition as a vital step in the extreme make-over such cities need to restore livability and vibrancy to their urban centers.

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