The poor condition of highway infrastructure in the United States has reached a crisis point: evolve or cumble. The most expensive structures to replace are the viaducts and depressed roads running through urban areas. Some have exceeded, or are near, the end of their design lives, or have been superseded by other roads. The decrepit state of our infrastructure can incite anxiety, but it also presents tremendous opportunities that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

Many of these structures were built when the unstoppable twin juggernauts of urban renewal and interstate highway construction were barreling through cities, starting in the mid-1900s. Today, demolition of select portions of these structures would permit the repair of damage that was done to communities and neighborhoods then. Still, the difficulties in removing any structure that carries tens of thousands of cars per day are not simple ones.

Road Tests
Discussions about the removal of the Claiborne Expressway (I-10), a six-lane elevated freeway in New Orleans, have been going on for years. When built in the early 1970s over Claiborne Avenue, it destroyed a pair of broad one-way streets separated by a parklike common ground. Running through the Tremé-Lafitte neighborhood, it was arguably the African American community’s most important commercial street. Residents trace the decline of the once-vibrant neighborhood to the construction of the expressway.

The recently adopted New Orleans Master Plan, authored by the Boston-based architecture and planning firm Goody Clancy, recommends the removal of the highway. But the New Orleans–based Waggonner & Ball Architects’ “Restoring Claiborne Avenue” report, coauthored with traffic consultant Smart Mobility, offers alternatives to removal. It inspired the city to seek a grant to fund its own study.

“The planning effort is motivated by a real problem that’s been created in the city; it is an urban disaster to run that freeway through there,” says David Waggonner, FAIA. “It’s done all this damage; it’s cut off one part of the city from the rest, and wrecked that community and its real estate base. How do we—if we are going to be constructive—resolve the issues that are raised in a holistic way?”

While removing two miles of the Claiborne might seem like the obvious way of righting a terrible wrong, the issues are very complex. “What this really does is throw into question the entire transportation system of the New Orleans region,” Waggonner says. The official process for examining the removal of the expressway has just begun. Earlier this year, New Orleans received a U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER II Grant, which will allow it to hire consultants to formulate proposals, for demolition as well as alternatives. That study is expected to take at least two years.

Another study under way is for the removal of elevated sections of the Viaduct (I-81), which cuts across Syracuse, N.Y. Dean Biancavilla, AIA, and Robert Haley, AIA, are co-directors of the Urban Design Center of Syracuse, and members of the community-advisory committee of the I-81 Challenge, a group formed by the New York State DOT and Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council that seeks public participation in the planning process.

“So far, the I-81 Challenge has not given us much information, so it is difficult to see what their proposal might look like,” Biancavilla says. But he points out that if the road were rebuilt to meet modern highway design standards, it would consume much more land than it does now.

One local group, the Onondaga Citizens Group, created a proposal that would replace some of the highway with an urban boulevard. Biancavilla is cautious. “I’m not 100 percent that this is the best and only solution. I am open to the process of investigation,” he says. According to the I-81 Challenge website, alternatives will be presented sometime in 2012 and design could begin sometime in 2015.

The McGrath Highway (Route 28) and train tracks carved up Somerville, Mass., some years ago, effectively isolating the Inner Belt and Brickbottom districts. Cleared years ago for urban renewal, much of the vast tract of land is today occupied by light industrial buildings, artists’ lofts, and some housing. Considering its proximity to Cambridge, the area is underutilized and development potential is severely curtailed by the highway.

Goody Clancy is working on developing a strategy guide and infrastructure plan for the city of Somerville. David Dixon, FAIA, principal for planning and urban design at Goody Clancy, says, “Relocating the McGrath, rail, and other infrastructure to grade would make the area a transit-oriented district and set up the development of 8 to 12 million square feet of lively mixed-use development. It is a very important place to accommodate research growth for Kendall Square, where they are running out of room.”

Dixon says that this would bring businesses and new residents to the town. “Somerville needs new jobs, and Boston is running out of urban sites like this. So removing the highway unlocks all kinds of opportunities.” Goody Clancy will complete the strategy guide about a year from now.

For some years, Goody Clancy has also been leading the development of a proposal that has now been accepted by the Connecticut Department of Transportation regarding Hartford’s heavily trafficked Interstate 84. Here, a viaduct has for many years separated the downtown from historic neighborhoods and the employment centers of Asylum Hill.

“In this case, the solution is not to remove a section of I-84, but to deck over a section of it that will be depressed below grade. We would relocate a train track, and create a connection from one side to another,” Dixon says. “It is fully doable and actually costs a fraction of replacing the highway. The project will open up 15 to 20 acres of choice real estate that could accommodate up to 1 million square feet of urban development.” According to Dixon, the city of Hartford and Connecticut DOT will soon announce that they have accepted the preferred alternative that came out of this lengthy planning process.

Even gateway cities sometimes suffer from fractured urban planning, leaving us to wonder if they’re really gateways. St. Louis’s all-volunteer citizen’s brigade City to River seems to: Its members advocate replacing a 1.3-mile section of I-70 known as Memorial Drive with an urban boulevard, says Dustin Bopp, AIA, of Bopp Architecture in St. Louis and secretary of AIA St. Louis.

Memorial Highway’s below- and above-grade segments separate downtown from the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Gateway Arch, completed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA) in 1965, four years after the untimely death of its designer, Eero Saarinen, FAIA. Advocates for removal say that rerouting I-70 over a new Mississippi River bridge now under construction north of downtown will significantly reduce traffic within two years of the reconstruction of the Gateway Arch grounds. The design, by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, calls for a deck over little more than a block of the depressed highway. City to River says that if its alternative boulevard proposal were adopted, about a half million square feet of real estate would be recovered from the Memorial Highway right-of-way.

“The opportunity has arisen to make something extraordinary. There are those that contend it will destroy the traffic flow,” Bopp says. “I just can’t imagine it would be that much of an inconvenience to travel on a boulevard for five minutes.”

Moving right along
American infrastructure’s advanced state of deterioration also converges with issues such as the high cost of driving, trends toward the resettling of urban areas, and economic development. “People have choices,” says Philip Enquist, FAIA, partner in charge of urban design and planning for SOM’s Chicago office. “Some [people] want to live in great urban environments. Highways are just one part of it. The bigger idea is making cities healthy, vibrant, walkable places. We basically sold our soul and great cities lost their quality to accommodate fast-moving cars.”

For San Francisco architect and 2011 AIA President Clark Manus, FAIA, who has spent nearly two decades advocating for intelligent land-use policies in the wake of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway removal, successful cities change over time, and solutions have to be about the long view. “Cities evolve over long periods,” Manus says, “and change gives architects the opportunity, as citizens, to step into the community dialogue and articulate what makes cities unique.”