Monday, January 30, 2012

Lid or No Lid, Boulevard Plan Comes Full Circle

With the Arch connector plan finalized, proponents of highway removal are wondering what happens next with the boulevard plan? Is the idea of removal of the I-70 barrier between downtown and the riverfront dead? Not really. The truth is, it's in about the same place it was three years ago when the idea first started getting serious attention.

Linking highway removal with the changes to the Arch always had one major obstacle: timing. Proponents of the remake to the Arch grounds and the lid connector set an October 2015 deadline for completion. There's no way highway removal could be completed by then, so in the world of the Arch remix, highway removal was a non-starter. Highway removal, or the boulevard, however you want to think of it, needs to be its own effort.

Which gets us to where we are today. We know that highway removal will not be part of the Arch 2015 plan. What we don't know is who or how the idea of highway removal happens. Who leads the effort? One thing we do know about St. Louis is that this place is an organization town. Things happen through people collaborating together through organizations, networks, and coalitions. Neither outspoken individuals nor blog posts will ever result in something like highway removal becoming reality.

The only local organization really pushing highway removal is "City to River". City to River has done a lot to raise awareness of the idea and generate support, but on its own, City to River is not enough. The organization needs more partners. The movement has to grow.

And why is that? Because for one thing, there is built-in opposition to the idea of highway removal. Topping the list is the way St. Louisans are resistant to change. Taking out a highway is a big change, so anyone leery of change is going to have big raised eyebrows on something like this. Next is what I like to refer to as the "Community of Commuters". The Community of Commuters is a sort of silent majority.

The Community of Commuters is powerful and comes from all over the region. The community of interest they share is the unfettered use of the highway and road system. Every day they get on the highway to go to work or make their daily trips to school, the doctor, you name it. They battle traffic and long commutes. They don't like to be delayed. They will be a big part of the larger discussion of highway removal, and elected officials and MODOT answer to them.

So where to go from here? For starters, supporters of highway removal need to be better organized and strengthen their network. By strengthening their numbers, supporters of highway removal start to build the critical mass it will take to get the attention of elected officials and highway departments. Until that time, the boulevard or the idea of downtown highway removal will be just that, an idea.

If you want to get more actively involved in the ongoing, working effort to remove I-70 from the downtown landscape, replacing it with an at-grade boulevard, one place to start is by contacting City to River and offering to become part of the organization. Contact them via email at for more information.

Or contact the moderator of this blog and I will put you in touch with the organization.


Cartographic license said...

Replacing the "depressed lanes" with a boulevard is not good planning. Not that the original concept of building them was a good idea. But they are far too integrated into the local transportation network to be removed without considerable displacement of the traffic to other center city streets. Closing them would also move even more traffic onto the overcrowded I-270 corridor. I realize that those who hate the aesthetic of I-70 next to Downtown will not be happy. Since a solution like the Papago Freeway Park in Phoenix is unlikely (preferably with Memorial Drive also tunneled), a series of pedestrian overpasses may be the only realistic solution.

Not that the idea couldn’t be tried locally. I love what was done with the Park Freeway in Milwaukee and the Embarcadero extension in San Francisco. A good place to do this here would be to get rid of the remnants of the old downtown bypass west of Union Station. Filling in the wasteland between Union Station and Harry’s could be a pedestrian plaza from 64/40 to Schlafly’s consisting of a mixture of business (hopefully supporting the AG Edwards/ Wells Fargo and other financial companies), commercial, and high density residential. A better transit center could then be built at the south end of 21st St (which could possibly extend to Scott Av) incorporating part of Union Station as the new Amtrak. This would also give Wells Fargo employees a nearby MetroLink station if the current Union Station station was moved to the west side of Union Station. 40/64 could also be redesigned with a diverging diamond interchange at Jefferson (like that at Dorsett and 270) and possibly dedicated bus ramps to the transit center.

Just an idea. But it would help make the Central Corridor continuous. You don’t see gaps between BJC and SLU anymore, and the gaps between SLU, Harris-Stowe, and Wells-Fargo are filling in. This would fill in the biggest remaining gap, and an unforgettable eyesore along the 40/64 corridor.

Rick Bonasch said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

What is your take on the whole highway removal movement?

Cartographic license said...


I had not heard about the highway removal movement until recently. There are several legitimate places where stubs or mostly useless freeways can and should be removed as eyesores. But I’m not a big fan. A lot of the freeways I’ve seen people want to eliminate are very heavily used. They should never have been planned, or at least planned with the input of the local residents. Unfortunately, many of these freeways were planned back in the 50’s when minority interests and opinions were usually ignored.

Some people think neighborhoods with have dramatic comebacks simply by removing these freeways. This could happen, but several of these neighborhoods would probably have gone downhill regardless due to the white and upper-class black flight to the suburbs. Other freeways have probably altered the neighborhoods so negatively they would not likely come back. But removing heavily used freeways without an alternative that can handle the traffic is likely to cause even more problems.

An example where they have thought this out and it should work is the rethinking I-64 from through Louisville to the I-265 bypass around New Albany. Most locals would have an alternative, though I’ve heard I-264 is over-capacity already. I have my doubts though with rerouting I-10 in New Orleans and the Gardiner in Toronto. In New Orleans, much of the traffic would be redirected through the very neighborhoods on they are trying to improve. Claiborne Avenue and nearby Rampart and Galvez Streets would become automobile-choked nightmares. In Toronto, it would redirect traffic through several neighborhoods north and west of downtown resulting in the expansion of major streets through those neighborhoods and do more harm in the long run than good. I do think they made the right decision though when they removed the expressway east of the Don Valley.

My reasoning for the depressed lanes parallels some of what would likely happen in Toronto. Traffic going between the North and South Sides would be more likely to use Grand and Jefferson (and Kingshighway to a lesser degree). Grand through SLU and the Theater District would make the area even less pedestrian friendly than today. More troubling are the racial implications. In a city which is already heavily segregated, removing the one freeway link connecting the almost entirely African-American North Side from the once mostly white (and still mostly white the further west from Grand one travels) is bound to be viewed by many the same way people viewed the racially-charged (and completely idiotic) decision by St Charles County to not allow MetroLink to be built across the Missouri River.

So I agree there are places where removing highways can be a win-win. But I also think they can turn out badly regardless of good intentions. Each case needs to be looked at individually. It’s a cost/ benefit analysis. The analysis needs to go beyond just the immediate area of the freeway to make sure there are not unexpected consequences elsewhere. What I’ve read so far shows me it is not always being done. Sorry for the lengthy reply, but I was originally a regional planning major in college and my mind still thinks a lot along those lines.

Scott Pluff said...

I'm confused by the idea of removing that section of 70. Without it, how would one get from 55-northbound to 70-westbound? You can't get there from here? Or would they cross the poplar street bridge, go north, and then cross the new I-70 bridge back across the river?

Would a compromise be to leave the depressed lanes as-is, then when it emerges from the tunnel become an at-grade boulevard until it connects with 70 further north? It wouldn't be an interstate, but at least you could get directly from 55 to 70.

Rick Bonasch said...

Scott -

Yes, it would be exactly as you say: The boulevard would follow the same alignment as the elevated lanes, and connect from the depressed lanes to I-70 at the New Mississippi River Bridge.

Happy Birthday by the way!


Rick Bonasch said...

Cartographic licensee -

Your thoughtful comments are welcomed and much appreciated.

Have you looked at the City to River website? It addresses a lot of the concerns you mention.

The new bridge will already be distributing traffic onto the city street grid in north city.

A lot of people are hoping that increased traffic will support the ongoing revitalization of the near north side.

Similar thinking accompanies the notion of replacing the elevated lanes of I-70 next to the Bottle District with a boulevard.

More surface traffic in the area is better for the local economy than cars flying by at 60+ miles per hour, 40 to 60 feet above the ground!

The other thing to consider is that most highway traffic is during the rather minimal (by national standards) peak rush commute times.

For the rest of the day/week, highway traffic volume through this section is light, and will be even lighter once the new bridge opens.

At mid-day, observed from the top floor dining room at Met Square, it is evident that traffic volume on Memorial Drive in front of the Arch carries about the same volume of traffic as do the I-70 depressed lanes, easily manageable by an at-grade boulevard.

And again, that volume goes down when the new bridge opens.

Mike said...

New reader here.

Thanks for posting your thoughtful articles and comments. I'm a St. Louis transplant, from Milwaukee, and am just digging in to all the initiatives to revitalize the city. After watching how Milwaukee succeeded in its own efforts, I'm thrilled to see that people like you are helping drive this type of discussion.

One thing I learned in Milwaukee is that people don't care about removing highways. They care about exciting new neighborhoods, restaurants, and safe places to enjoy the city on the weekend. If you can sell them on that, then the means are irrelevant to them. Milwaukee gained public momentum because they shifted the conversation from "highway removal" to "exciting developments."

Anonymous said...

Everyone here is missing the point. The removal of the stretch of I-70 at the depressed lanes would have a profound impact on the traffic. I use it daily and have for years. The new I-70 bridge doesn't solve anything. Most of the traffic using that corridor is going north-south or vice versa not continuing across the PSB over to Illinois. If you really think that the new I-70 bridge solves those problems you are kidding yourself. Under this logic if you need to go from north to south, you would have to travel over to Illinois using the new bridge, then return back over the PSB crossing the river twice. Does this make any sense? Alternately, if you want to go south to north, you would be forced to use the PSB which I never, ever do because of its congestion. If you remove that stretch you force even more traffic over the Poplar Street Bridge which is already overcrowded. This region has an appalling lack of useful north-south corridors. The only two we have are I-270 way to the west and the current depressed section area downtown. The short-sighted residents saw to it long ago that I-170 would be stopped in its tracks at Highway 40. If you take away the depressed section, it would get even worse. There is simply no good way to get frrom south to north in this city. And all for the sake of the dream of a "boulevard"? Putting a lid on it is fine, but please leave it alone!

Anonymous said...

Defeat the 3/16-cent sales tax, and maybe the Arch-to-River folks will finally be asking themselves why they didn't partner with City-to-River.