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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.

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Those who hope the post-highway landscape will right wrongs and make things the way they used to be will probably be disappointed. New Haven's removal project, set to evolve in phases, will try to reconnect city streets long separated by the highway. But where lower-end housing and a predominantly African-American neighborhood once stood, city officials now pin their economic hopes on a 10-story medical lab and office building.

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"It's pretty audacious to take out a highway," says Kelly Murphy, city economic development administrator. But "we're not going to build four-story walk-ups anymore." Restitching a city must accommodate the modern role of cities, not just nostalgic visions of the past, she notes.

In Baltimore, demolition is under way on the "highway to nowhere," which displaced almost 3,000 residents on the city's west side when it was constructed more than four decades ago.

"It tore apart the social fabric of the community, and it created division. For those communities, it was the last nail in the coffin," says Jamie Kendrick of the Baltimore City Department of Transportation. The highway's removal was motivated in part, he says, by the "idea that these communities that suffered injustice 40 years ago are finally able to correct some of that injustice."

The highway is slated to be replaced by a light-rail public transit station and parking lots, a temporary measure, Mr. Kendrick says, until the troubled area becomes attractive to burgeoning biomedical industries downtown.

Muriel Praileau, a West Baltimore resident and retired social worker, remembers when her old neighborhood was torn down. "I hope that the [highway removal] will reconnect the community and make for a more harmonious relationship with the area," she says. But given the area's "deterioration, heaven knows what may happen at this stage," she adds.

In Providence, Rhode Island transportation officials opted to reroute a dilapidated section of highway, moving the road outside the downtown core at no small expense. Demolition began late last year.

Now, "there's an opportunity not only to create a new neighborhood but to sort of reinvent our downtown," says Robert Azar, a planner with the Providence Department of Planning and Development.

Boosters of urban highway removal acknowledge the difficulties of repairing city fabrics after roadways are scaled down. Tearing them down "is not like it's a magic thing that suddenly everything's fine," says John Norquist, president of the Congress of New Urbanism.

But Mr. Norquist's own experience while mayor of Milwaukee proved to him that losing a highway can be a blessing. Milwaukee's massive highway removal project is generally hailed as a success, opening up the city's downtown. Sections of the former freeway space, though, remain undeveloped, the victims of fluctuating developer interest, ownership divisions, and the recent recession.

Norquist sees the rising desire of cities to rid themselves of highways as a hopeful sign that past mistakes will not be repeated. "If Paul had been facing a grade-separated highway on the road to Damascus," quips Norquist, "maybe he wouldn't have seen the light."

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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