If you’re driving from Omaha to Sioux City a high speed multi-lane highway through the countryside makes all the sense in the world. It’s the right kind of infrastructure for that particular task and location. However, decades of highway construction, obsessive road widening, and the addition of surface and structured parking has occurred in the heart of cities all across the country. This process has left many previously vibrant walkable city neighborhoods burdened with the ills of car culture without the promised economic benefits. It’s the wrong type of infrastructure in the wrong location.
Above, courtesy of Google Earth, you can see an urban freeway where the majority of the cars come from outside the neighborhood. In fact most are coming from outside the city entirely. A long swath of the urban fabric was sacrificed for sixty years in order to ease the commute of suburbanites as they drove in and out of the city. It seemed like a good idea in 1959.
This is the Omaha-to-Sioux-City model imposed on an existing neighborhood. This was done at great expense in the name of development and progress. “If we don’t accommodate the cars the city won’t be competitive.” Ironically, no one from the leafy bedroom communities, office parks, and shopping malls on the outer edge of the metro area experiences any of these roads and says, “Wow. I love how easy it is to drive and park in the city.”
This is what San Francisco’s traditional urban fabric is like: narrow streets, pedestrian oriented public spaces, small scale retail, modest mixed use buildings… and lots and lots of people. There are plenty of good paying jobs, unusually high property values, and loads of tourists. Eight lane roads and ample free parking? Not so much. Then again, in this kind of environment no one really needs a car. The folks who hate crowds and can’t imagine life without a car have already self-selected out of the city. Apples and oranges.
Here’s the underbelly of the Central Freeway as it appears from the ground. Remember, this part of the city used to follow the traditional urban form but was bulldozed to make way for the freeway in 1959. The whole point of building this elevated highway was to bring auto-oriented mobility and prosperity to the city. So what exactly do you think this freeway did to the value of nearby property? What became the “highest and best use” of the land under and around it? Keep in mind, this freeway and others like it go on for miles. It’s incredibly loud and the constant stream of cars and trucks belch exhaust fumes 24/7.
Who precisely do you imagine lingers in the area, particularly at night? How many people are employed here? How much tax revenue is generated for the city to use to fund schools, parks, libraries, police and fire protection, and pensions? Which businesses are eager to locate in the shadow of this structure? How many tourists come to this spot to take photos?
The sensible economic development move here would be to pull down the aging freeway and liberate all this real estate for desperately needed new housing and small scale retail and office space. Knitting the urban fabric back together with productive buildings and high quality parks would cost less than maintaining the existing freeway over the long haul. In business terms it’s the difference between a cost center and a profit center. Maybe with some of the money generated by the newly revived neighborhood economy the city could fund homeless services for the benefit of the city and homeless alike.
It takes years and a great deal of political will to arm wrestle dozens of bureaucracies into pulling down a freeway. In the meantime the city has begun to create intermediate uses that add to the public realm while the freeway still stands. In this case, a well loved dog park.
Under a freeway may just be the perfect place for a skateboard park. The neighbors are hardly going to complain about the noise. The fact that it’s flood lit and full of people at night keeps “eyes on the street” which promotes public safety. These kids need someplace to skate (rather than in front of your home or business) and someone has to sell and repair all those skateboards. There’s no downside.
This is the intersection of Valencia Street and McCoppin Street as it looked a few years ago. It was a typical high speed auto dominated environment right next to the freeway that lowered property values and degraded the quality of life for everyone who wasn’t inside a car.
Here’s what the same intersection looks like today. A few years ago the city took a different approach to street design. The center lane was replaced with an island of trees and drought tolerant vegetation. A bicycle lane was added. And the pedestrian cross walk was greatly enhanced. Most of this work involved… paint. The pedestrians and cyclists were always there, but they played Frogger with the traffic. Now there’s more of an equal footing for everyone. The cars still have the same amount of space, but psychologically the presence of the island slows down motorists and makes them more alert to their surroundings. Residents of nearby buildings now look out at a bit of greenery instead of unrelenting asphalt. Low cost. High return.
Directly across the street is the new McCoppin Hub. McCoppin was clipped by the construction of the freeway and became a cul-de-sac/parking lot for decades. Many years ago I lived two blocks away and I can tell you McCoppin was a preffered venue for unsavory activity. If you were looking for heroin or a budget prostitute this was your spot. One stop shopping!
There were a series of pop up experiments where food trucks and other activities were organized to reactivate and reinvent the space into a public plaza. It was wildly successful. There was huge pent-up demand for this sort of thing in the neighborhood. At lunch and dinner locals lined up for affordable high quality cuisine and conviviality. It was a great place to schmooze. McCopppin also became a considerably less conducive place to deal drugs or turn tricks. The clients didn’t like an audience any more than the purveyors of such products and services.
But here’s where things get tricky. The city transformed the old cul-de-sac on McCoppin into a high quality park with palm trees, stylish benches, and all manner of bells and whistles. But it failed immediately.
The thing that made the old food truck plaza work was the activity and crowds. There are enough bars and dance halls in the area that people would gather at all hours looking for food between other activities. It was the mobile food vendors and their customers that cleaned up McCoppin. I believe the intention of the original design was to allow the trucks to return and park on the ramps on either side of the terraced steps. But somewhere along the line what the experts anticipated and what actually works in real life were radically different. The trucks didn’t return. Neither did the people.
The fancy new landscape architecture was functionally no different from the old asphalt cul-de-sac as far as the junkies and prostitutes were concerned. In fact, it was actually better since there were more little nooks and crannies to occupy and hide in. The city had to fence off the park, rework some of the structural elements, and crank up the lighting to stadium levels. It helped slightly. But the park is still dead in the daytime and no better than before at night. This isn’t exactly what I would call a good return on investment.
A few nights ago I went and took photos of McCoppin to demonstrate what the place is like now that the city removed the chain link fencing and reopened the park. I kept my distance and used a zoom lens from across the street. There were people in the park who were keenly aware of my presence and didn’t appreciate me or my camera one bit. They are not included in these photos.
It didn’t take me long to find the new location of the food trucks and crowds. Again, this is a dead-end street pressed up against the same freeway just like McCoppin. I have no doubt there were controlled substances on offer here too, but the particulars and demographics were preferable as far as I was concerned. Like the skateboard park every town needs a little bit of this sort of thing, but you don’t want it on your doorstep. Why not accommodate it in an otherwise miserable location and use it to reactivate the city and its local economy – at least until the freeway comes down?