Thursday, May 16, 2013

Rethinking our Urban Freeways; Improving the urban cores of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh

Yesterday afternoon, I attended an online webinar courtesy of the American Planning Association, and the topic was freeways that cut right into or through our urban cores or central business districts.  The webinar covered some examples of how some cities have either removed or plan to remove and urban freeway and replace it with a surface boulevard or other public space.

After listening to the information, I began thinking of how each example could be applied to the problem highways in Pennsylvania's primary urban centers.  The Vine Street Expressway and Interstate 95 isolate Center City Philadelphia from other surrounding neighborhoods, with the latter cutting off access to the Delaware River.  In Pittsburgh, the Crosstown Boulevard isolates the Lower Hill neighborhood from the Central Business District.  Interstate 279, also in Pittsburgh, separates the Central North Shore neighborhood from the parcels of land adjacent to the Allegheny River.

The Vine Street Expressway and Interstate 95

Both highways are already located below grade.  Fixing both, therefore, would not require too much work.  Construction of a "green cap" over I-95 has already been heavily discussed, and there are some loose proposals for one in the vicinity of Penn's Landing.  In fact, I-95 does have a partial green cap in some areas,providing landscaped greenery for recreational use.  The city is also discussing the possibility of reworking Columbus Boulevard, which runs parallel to I-95.  A reconstructed Columbus Blvd. would incorporate the existing rail line into a light rail system as well as improved bike and pedestrian access.  Capping I-95 would only enhance this project even more.

The Vine Street Expressway is entirely below-grade with the surface street grid left in tact due to several overpasses.  A series of green caps here would create an immense mile-long green recreational space reconnecting the central business district with Lower North Philadelphia.

The Crosstown and Interstate 279

In Pittsburgh, one highway is below grade and the other is elevated.  The Crosstown, which is below grade and separates the Lower Hill neighborhood from Downtown, would need a cap only in one or two locations.  There is a conceptual design for the former Mellon Arena site that already calls for such a cap.  Representatives of the Lower Hill neighborhood favor a cap because it would provide a sense of connectivity between the Lower Hill and the central business district, which was lost during the 1950s when the boulevard was built to improve through-traffic flow.  The highway was later modified with the completion of the Veterans Bridge which spans the Allegheny River.  With this bridge, motorists can essentially bypass Downtown entirely and travel between the North Hills and South Hills neighborhoods and suburbs.

Interstate 279, or the Parkway North as it is sometimes referred to, was completed around the same time as the aforementioned Veterans Bridge.  While the Crosstown provides a bypass to the east, I-279 provides a loop around the north of Downtown and is an elevated structure.  A complete overhaul of this road would require demolition work and a series of detours as well as excavation to rebuild the highway below-grade.  Regardless, the end result would be a drastically improved urban landscape for the Central Northside neighborhood.

What rethinking each road would mean for the overall livability of their respective urban cores

Whether we're discussing improving connectivity between Philadelphia and the Delaware River or Downtown Pittsburgh with its Lower Hill neighborhood, reworking the highways that divide both will go a long way in improving the overall livability of each city.  Philadelphia is attempting to improve its bike and walk-ability by establishing bike lanes and improving its sidewalks.  Pittsburgh is trying to reconnect with its rivers.  Aside from improved bike and pedestrian access, rethinking the highways in these cities will:

  • Improve and enhance recreational space and encourage recreational activities such as sightseeing and people-watching, as well as walking, jogging, and biking.
  • Link once isolated sections of the urban core with each other, improving the chances of reinvestment and redevelopment, providing a sense of identity and purpose for the once isolated neighborhoods (i.e. the Delaware Waterfront, Lower Hill).
  • Boost property values of the pieces of land that were once cut off from the urban core, which also will likely increase demand for development or redevelopment.
Open-ended question: What if these urban freeways were to be removed entirely and replaced with surface boulevards?

The above information I posted is based on my opinion and vision for rethinking the highways in/near central Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.  In the online seminar, the examples discussed a complete removal of a highway with a surface boulevard serving as the replacement.  Here is where I would like some feedback.  What would be the benefits or consequences of, say, completely removing the Vine Street Expressway or I-95 in favor of a vastly improved surface Vine Street or Columbus Boulevard respectively?  I-95 would likely have to be realigned.  I'm thinking renumbering the Blue Route and I-276 as I-95 as one suggestion for such.  Still, any feedback is welcome.