Friday, September 29, 2006

Demolition for another Houston treasure?

(Click picture to see the full size version)

I recently received this link to a ULI event on a "Houston Vision" for downtown. The proposal to sink I45 - and now I10 - has been noted before, including in the Chronicle. My first thought has always been, "that looks incredibly expensive - would it be worth it?" I have a lot of respect for what they're trying to do downtown, and I think they've had some remarkable success. But this seems like over-reaching to me. Maybe I'm just not seeing the value. And I know some of the neighborhoods that would be affected by the freeway shift to the west would go nuts protesting. The sketch seems misleading to me too. Click on it to see the full size - notice anything missing? Like, say, Buffalo Bayou? I see a continuous depressed I45 in a trench with no water crossing over it. How does that work?

Until last night, I was skeptical but moderately neutral on the proposal. What happened last night, you may ask? My wife and I went downtown to Artista at the Hobby Center for dinner for our 5th wedding anniversary. It was a wonderful dinner on the balcony with perfect weather and the best restaurant view in Houston over Tranquility Park and the downtown skyline - I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance. But what changed my mind was the drive in from 45N. That drive, especially at night, is one of the most spectacular drives in our city. The view of downtown is amazing. I just love the elevated wrap-around of the west side of downtown, with the skyline on one side and the Buffalo Bayou on the other. I've loved that drive as long as I've lived in Houston, and sometimes will go out of my way on trips just to see it. Friends, family, and visitors have voiced their admiration too. It really is one of our city's great treasures, even if it is "just a freeway." And it's a treasure shared by just about everyone that lives in Houston at one time or another as they drive around the city, vs. the very small portion that actually work, live, or play downtown. We want to give that up for another trench view of concrete walls?

Sinking an elevated freeway often makes a lot of sense, like what they did with 59 around Montrose. But in this case we'd be giving up a treasure we won't miss until it's gone. Downtown folks, it's time to modify your vision.
Save The Downtown Elevated!

Update: Christof weighs in.


At 1:11 PM, September 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Imagine beeing stuck in a bumper-to-bumper traffic in a tunnel! or imagine a hazmat truck spilling hazard cargo in the tunnel! that's a scary thought!

At 1:17 PM, September 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ozzy, all hazmat is supposed to travel around 610, not go through downtown.

At 3:03 PM, September 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elevated highways (well, highways in general) through the downtown areas of cities have been one of the biggest reasons for urban decay and flight to the burbs. They are a scourge on cities and lowering their profile is the next best thing to eliminating them altogether.

At 3:49 PM, September 29, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm gonna disagree with you on that one, Irwin. Freeways have only negatively impacted a relatively small percentage of land in cities. The biggest reasons for urban flight are bad schools, high taxes, poor services, mobility woes, and old, small and expensive houses. If those freeways didn't exist into downtown, it would be a complete ghost town today, because no employer in his right mind would locate there and expect his employees to commute in from the suburbs.

Another friend of mine pointed out this morning that, because these freeways are now old enough, the city has had enough time to adjust and locate appropriate land uses next to them (like parking lots or commercial/industrial space). Those land uses need to happen somewhere, so why not along freeways?

At 5:37 PM, September 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a first in human history. "Save the elevated Freeways!"

The artist's depiction of what could be looks like it would be pretty cool. Assuming that all design and feasability requirements are met for the new freeway, I say tee it up.

At 10:09 PM, September 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think this is a “chicken or the egg” question. Clearly cities had suburbs before the 1960’s and 70’s (which is about the time the inner cities began to lose population and decline). Yet, the highways started popping up in the late 1950’s. I would argue that because the highways made it easier for people to commute to downtown, this is what caused people to leave the cities. This migration of middle and upper class professionals then caused the problems you have listed. But in the end, it was the highways running through the city that first caused the phenomenon.

Look at cities that didn’t allow there cities to be crisscrossed with highways; Washington D.C. is the classic case. Now, Washington certainly has its problems, but unlike places like Detroit, Washington has kept a fairly significant urban middle/upper class population within the city limits. San Francisco and New York are other examples of cities that largely refused to go with the urban highways, with the obvious beneficial results

Philadelphia made the mistake of building urban highways and the city paid for it. Philadelphia was downtrodden and, suffered from urban flight, although clearly not to the extent of Cleveland or Detroit. Yet, Philadelphia eventually sank their inner city highways. This has improved the urban lifestyle a lot.

At 12:30 AM, September 30, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

It's funny, I had similar thoughts the first time I went back to Boston after the Central Artery was depressed. I really did miss the drive along 93 right next to the buildings of downtown, and the dramatic entrance to the city from the noth and south.

But I only had to go to the places where the elevated freeway used to be and see how much nicer and livelier they were to realize that it was worth it. Views are great, but they're just views.

At 8:14 AM, September 30, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think that's a slight misreading of history. Many cities saw the flight to the suburbs, and the downtown interests pushed for the creation of freeways to maintain their vitality. That's exactly the story I recently read about LA, and I think it applies to a lot of cities. Most early interstate highway plans completely bypassed city cores, but the cities and their downtowns fought to get to them into the center. What would have happened if the highways hadn't gone through the city centers? I think a clue can be found in a lot of midsize cities I've driven through in Texas. The highways were built to skirt their edges, and over time, most of the commercial vitality has moved out along the freeway and left anemic downtowns.

The cases you mention are all special in one way or another. NYC had extensive transit and a huge critical mass of Manhattan jobs before the car came along - yet still went through a huge exodus in the 1970s before bouncing back with the new rise of Wall Street in the 1980s. DC has a gigantic employer that dictates hundreds of thousands of downtown jobs, and uses tax money from the entire country to pay for an astronomically expensive transit system to support that concentration. SF actually had most of it's commercial vitality move to Silicon Valley long ago, but still has enough incredible beauty to hold onto the wealthy, as waterfront property does in all cities.

At 8:37 AM, September 30, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

I'd be wary of anything as simplistic as "freeways saved the cities" or "freeways killed the cities."

(In SF, by the way, I think it's arguable that vitality didn't move, but that SF was surpassed by the growth of a new industry in the city down the road, San Jose.)

Consider all the things you had happening at once: underinvestment in existing transit (and active attempts to kill it); housing lending policies that discouraged investment in existing properties and neighborhoods; white flight (or, in DC, black flight); an aggressive freeway-building lobby; and so on, and so on.

All that's interesting but only helpful as examples which may be instructive, but which don't map directly to Houston (or any other city) in 2006. We've got what we've got & need to figure out how to use it best.

At 8:39 AM, September 30, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

I will say, however, that examples of alternate approaches do exist outside the US - such as the many depressed roadways you find in places like Paris, that left neighborhoods undisturbed. I'm not suggesting that copying that approach would work (especially at this point) but they are additional examples to think about.

At 8:54 AM, September 30, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know how many of you are aware of the idea of replacing I-45 with a tunnel. This idea gives us a lot of green space, a parkway drive much like the Memorial/Allen Parkway drive so we see the downtown in all it's glory. The tunnel concept would also eliminate noise and pollution. It is a total win win situation for everyone.

Tunnels are used world wide and that does include the United States. We have the Washburn tunnel here, which I have heard does not flood. So you can have all the freeway space you want, and the surface drive is park and a parkway adding to the downtown visuals.

At 9:33 AM, September 30, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have posted the url for the visuals on the parkway and tunnel concept. The first picture on this websight is a small verison of what people currently see when they are driving into downtown on I-45.

At 10:12 AM, September 30, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesn't seem that anyone has mentioned the most obvious problem with a sunken freeway: Houston is very prone to flooding. Somewhere I have pics of nearly submeged tratctor-trailer rigs in a 'sunken' part of the 610 Loop.

Who's going to pull the plug on this crazy idea?

At 1:00 PM, September 30, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very odd illustration, indeed. I studied it for a few minutes and noted the following: Minute Maid Park in the wrong location, Wortham and Hobby performing arts center not there, City Hall not there (or, shape-shifted), U of H downtown not there, City Municipal Courts not there, Harris County courts complex not visible. Anyone else see other missing items? And those sad, flat bridges over the depressed roadways. No Calatravi-designed masterpieces for us? The proponents of this vision don't care much for the poor old First Ward, either.

At 2:42 PM, September 30, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

correction: Calatrava

At 3:05 PM, September 30, 2006, Blogger Max Concrete said...

I agree with Tory: the view provided by the I-45 downtown elevated structures is an asset that is not widely recognized, but has significant value. Any kind of tunnel/trench scheme would result in the loss of this asset, an immediate negative for such a project.

Another immediate negative would be a tremendous financial cost. I'm thinking at least $2 billion in current dollars, possibly much more. Dallas has a plan to upgrade half its downtown freeways without tunnels, and I remember a cost estimate of $1 billion a couple years ago before the recent construction cost inflationary sprial (probably at least $1.3 billion now). That price does not include Calatrava bridges, which also have cost issues. Also, the planned $1.4 billion LBJ tunnels in Dallas, which seemed like a sure thing, are now being reconsidered due to high cost.

So what would you gain by a tunnel/trench scheme? Well, downtown is already revitalizing with elevated freeways in place, so we know we don't need to eliminate freeways to gain revitalization. It looks like more parks would result, but there are already parks in this corridor (Sam Houston, Buffalo bayou) and new parks on the way elsewhere in downtown (convention center park).

Would it benefit traffic and eliminate the downtown bottleneck? Well, that depends on whether or not enough new lanes are added, but my expectation would be that cost pressures would probably result in a less-than optimal size, maybe only one new lane in each direction.

All things considered, a tunnel/trench/realignment scheme is a very wasteful use of scarce transportation dollars and would provide minimal benefit while imparting a definite loss of a great view. Realistically this scheme will never happen due to its cost. However, talk of such a scheme could lead to paralysis in terms of ever doing anything to relieve the downtown bottleneck. I think the most economically viable alternative is to leave I-45 basically as-is and squeeze in one new lane in each direction, which can be done with minimal disruption and cost.

At 5:04 PM, September 30, 2006, Blogger matr_add said...

where might I find more about how development of US59 and I-10 in Houston's Fifth Ward came about, and the effects of that neighborhood being drawn and quartered by those freeways? any advice, opinions, or information you might offer is appreciated and extremely valuable to me- thanks and nice site_

At 6:18 PM, September 30, 2006, Blogger Max Concrete said...

"where might I find more about how development of US59 and I-10 in Houston's Fifth Ward came about"

The alignments for those freeways were decided just after World War 2.

At 12:33 PM, October 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The alignments for those freeways were decided just after World War 2."

Looking at old Exxon road maps, it looks like highway 50 north through Humble was once known as I-35. Anybody know about that?

At 1:20 PM, October 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bury I-45 north of downtown? What about the scenic billboards, neon blazing strip clubs, and the "Furniture District". How would we know "Where the bean bags are!" What about the inflatable gorilla manufacturers? Where else can we get good jobs for those displaced workers? What would Jordy Tollett have to say if he didn't have to explain away the hideous drive from the airport to the GRB? This will destory our heritage people! This injustice can not stand!

At 7:22 PM, October 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marci, the tunnel does NOT eliminate pollution.

At 10:14 PM, October 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please stop using flooding as a reason to avoid good ideas such as freeways below grade. How often might they flood? Not very many hours in their life. What is the cost of having them closed these hours? Not much. Think of the gain in "view value" of not having els scarring the city. Think of the use of the surface as in Paris or Boston. By the way they have torrential rains in Boston also.

At 5:30 PM, October 02, 2006, Blogger kjb434 said...

Why is it always the answer that an elevated freeway is a bad thing?

I'm not against tunneling or depressing the freeways, but if I lived in Dallas, Fort Worth, or San Antonio, I might be quite upset at the amount of transportation dollars being wasted for purely aesthetic reasons.

P.S. The Katy Freeway can't be used as an example of an extreme waste of tax payer dollars. It also went through the phase of a many groups wanting to depress much of it in the manner of the Central Freeway in Dallas. The big difference is the central freeway in Dallas was already depressed when the reconstruction occured.

I'm also on the side of the elevation portion of I-45 is one of the more scenic drives in the city. I've had several out of town friends comment on how impressive the city feels from that vantage point. This also makes me remember the drive into downtown New Orleans from the Westbank Expressway. For a good 2-3 miles you are on an elevated freeway with an awesome of downtown and good feel for how large the Superdome is, then it is culminated by driving over the Greater New Orlean Bridge (Crescent City Connection). This drive is mostly seen by locals since out of town traffic uses I-10

I also like the view from the US-59 heading south of I-10 seeing downtown along with Minute Maid, Toyota Center, and the Convention Center.

At 10:42 PM, October 03, 2006, Blogger lockmat said...

Flooding is not a problem with tunnels. Just read up on it, it's not.

And what exactly is that pictures purpose anyway? Is it for a tunnel freeway or better use of land for parks etc?

At 9:30 AM, October 04, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Kuff and Anne have chimed in, and I wanted to capture the links for future reference.

At 8:54 AM, August 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, my englidh is not perfect.

The most important reason to visit Houton (August 2007) was not the Museums , Nasa locations or sportive/shopping events;
it was yhe incredible Houton downtown/freeway vieuw.
Without this elevated freeways, sorry to say it, Houston is a simply partly ugly industral town.
and nothing other.

Its a crucial question for this town to not only
"save the elevated I-45 freeway" , but also upgrade it with 2/3 addtional lanes on each side (HOV, managed or tolled) and more important a complete reconstuction from the ugly and old I-45/IS-59 interchange, so as the awesome
i-635/US-75 "High Five" intersection in Dallas. This all icluded in a around green belt.

Congratulations for the new I-10/US-59 interchange, unfortunatly the around greening is strongly missed.

The proposed ridiculous I-45 Tunnel projects will certainly destruct the spirit of Houston and are too expensive.

We was also disappointed about the Galleria shopping center. there are better in Europe now.

We can't understand why nowhere (the oil companies are full of money on this times with high prices) in Houton will build a supertall as the magnificent Caltrava "Chicago Spire" in Houton. This building at the edgde by the all new 5/6 level I45/US59 stack... woh

Do it and Houton will become the town with the best skyline in the world followed by a dramaticaly incrase of enthusiast visitors.

Ludwig a indepenant visitor from Belgium


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