Thursday, July 19, 2012

No Space for a New Park? Cap a Freeway!

By Alex Pearlstein, Director of Projects.

More and more cities are taking the “two birds with one stone” approach to stitch together neighborhoods and districts divided by freeway construction in the urban renewal era. This is being done by putting caps (or “lids”) on stretches of highway and using the newly created space for public benefit. The first bird to fall is the ability to reconnect communities broken apart by a gulf of interstate lanes splitting them down the middle. The second bird is more surprising: the development of parkspace on the freeway lids.

Cities with a dearth of developable downtown land – or privately-held property that is waiting for a highest-and-best-use that would certainly not include a park – are leveraging public airspace above sunken freeways as an opportunity to construct dramatic urban amenities that draw both visitors and residents to the central core. In this age of “creative class” obsession, providing dynamic parkspace in the middle of a district experiencing residential revitalization is a way to add fuel to the fire of an intown renaissance.

Advances in engineering technology are making the process more viable, though still not cheap by any means. However, cities are being creative in bundling state, federal, local, private, and philanthropic funds to realize their ambitions of building compelling new public amenities in the most unlikely places.

Here are some examples of this trend:

One of the first parks constructed above a freeway is Margaret T. Hance Park in Phoenix. It’s sometimes referred to as Margaret T. Hance Deck Park. The park is home to the Japanese Tea House and Friendship Garden, the Irish Cultural Center, and the annual St. Patrick's Day Irish Family Faire. Hance Park celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2010.

The most recent cap project is the soon-to-open Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. Five acres of greenspace will deck the Woodall Rodgers Freeway and bind together one of America’s most freeway-divided central cores. When completed, the $110-million Warren Park will include a performance pavilion, restaurant, walking trails, a dog park, a children’s discovery garden and playground, water features, an area for games. The Park also leverages the recent development of billions in cultural amenities. The Park will be owned by the City of Dallas and managed by the private Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation.

An equally ambitious and transformative freeway-capping project is the St. Louis Arch Grounds Connector. An international design competition resulted in a winning bid to connect the Gateway Arch grounds to the rest of downtown St. Louis by constructing a lid on a half-mile stretch Interstate-70 and developing greenspace, paths, and other amenities. When completed, the $578-million project will connect to St. Louis’ popular new art park, City Garden x, and further accelerate downtown revitalization.

In California, three projects to cap freeways for park development are currently moving forward, including one in Hollywood, one in Downtown LA, and one in the smaller coastal city of Ventura.

Just as billion-dollar light rail projects are being constructed over the ghosts of former trolley lines, the new generation of “lid parks” are reclaiming valuable urban spaces for a new generation of city dwellers. While building consensus for spending these kinds of dollars on public amenities will be challenging when governments are fiscally constrained and dealing with costly infrastructure-renewal needs, the cities that are successful will have another feather in their caps in the battle to attract the best and brightest companies and talent in this age of unlimited economic mobility.