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Freeway Lids Hold Hope Of Reconnecting Neighborhoods

Evening Edition

Freeways move traffic. They can also divide and devastate urban neighborhoods. But there is a way to tie those communities back together. KPBS reporter Tom Fudge tells us about freeway lids, and what they could mean for the future of San Diego’s divided communities.

Aired 4/26/12 on KPBS News.

Freeway lids can make freeways disappear in urban neighborhoods, but only if cities are willing to pay the price.

— Little Italy lies just north of downtown where its main street, India, is lined with cafes and new condo developments. Not many of the old Italian families remain. But Lou Palestini comes back a lot to visit.

“I grew up in that two-story house, the red-colored house over there,” he told me one weekday while standing on the corner of India and Fir streets. “My grandmother lived upstairs.”

Little Italy has changed a lot since Palestini was born in 1942, and the collapse of the tuna fishing industry wasn’t the only thing that caused its original residents to flee the neighborhood. About 40 years ago, the I-5 freeway tore though the area.

“What that freeway did to us… It cut us in half,” Palestini added.

Freeways move traffic. They can also divide and devastate urban neighborhoods. And Little Italy wasn’t the only near-downtown neighborhood that was devastated when Interstate 5 came to downtown San Diego.

“It killed Middletown. It killed, for a while, Little Italy. It killed Barrio Logan,” said Marco Li Mandri, president of New City America. “The S-curve basically goes around downtown, so it didn’t hurt commercial properties. It went through neighborhoods”

A lot of damage has been done. But there is something you can do about these deep gouges in the urban landscape. Vicki Estrada, president of Estrada Land Planning, spoke to me as she pointed to a stretch of I-5, between downtown and Balboa Park. She told me to imagine it covered by a freeway lid.

“Instead of seeing all this concrete and hearing all this noise, we could see a park, with trees and grounds and sports fields, perhaps,” she said. “Or even a series of shops and restaurants.”

A freeway lid is a concrete shelf that covers a sunken freeway, allowing development on top of it. San Diego’s Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) developed a downtown development plan that called for a freeway lid over Interstate 5, between 3rd and 8th avenues.

If you go to Interstate 15, in City Heights, you don’t need your imagination to see what they can do.

Here, a freeway lid, completed by CALTRANS a dozen years ago, is home to a park with open fields, picnic benches and playgrounds. You can stroll from east or west across City Heights and not realize car traffic is moving below you at a mile a minute.

One major freeway lid is in the planning stage in Los Angeles. “Park 101” is a proposal to cap several blocks of Highway 101, near Union Station downtown. Doug Failing, with LA Metro, says freeway lids are a way to turn noisy urban ruts into useful public space.

“(You’re) able to capture back the value of that airspace, above those freeways, and being able to put that back in the public hands,” he said.

So why not cap all our sunken freeways to create parks and reconnect neighborhoods? Well, putting a lid on just one block of I-15 in City Heights cost $70 million 15 years ago. The cost estimate, for capping the I-5 between downtown and Balboa Park, is just under $300 million.

Li Mandri was born in Little Italy and he’s spent years working on the neighborhood’s redevelopment. He argues the cost of capping a freeway is prohibitive, and money in City Heights would have been better spent buying land and creating linear parks alongside Interstate 15.

“If you’re looking to maximize green area and parks within the mid-city area, which is probably the most under-parked area in the city, I think this was not the way to do it,” he said.

Li Mandri gives the example of Ward Canyon Park, just north of the City Heights freeway lid at Adams Avenue and I-15, as a better investment, and a park that gets more public use. Developing this park cost only $1.5 million. Li Mandri says acquiring the land in the 1990s probably cost less than $5 million.

Estrada said, depending on circumstances, the high cost of a freeway lid may be worth it. She adds that her great-grandmother owned a home in Sherman Heights that was demolished to make room for I-5, and the plans for freeway lids downtown are visionary.

“I think it’s a great vision that would go a long way to reconnecting the neighborhoods that were severed many years ago by the freeway,” she said.

Seen in another way, urban freeways don’t really destroy neighborhoods. They redefine them. Little Italy, now bordered by Interstate 5 to the east, is smaller and less family-oriented than it used to be. But it’s also bustling and prosperous, thanks to years of redevelopment.

You couldn’t build a freeway lid here because, in Little Italy, the I-5 is elevated, not sunken. Lou Palestini also wonders – even if you could reconnect his old neighborhood – what would be the point.

“After so many years, being divided, what are you going to bring back?” he asked. “Everybody’s made their own ways again. You know what I’m saying?”

Like it or not, progress and the I-5 have changed the face of this old Italian community.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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Avatar for user 'Eddieboy'

Eddieboy | April 26, 2012 at 6:04 p.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago


A pleasant euphemism. What if we substituted some things:

"A gunshot to the head does not actually destroy the head. It just redefines its shape and capabilities."

I'm sure those at the losing end of the deal feel quite differently. I'm way too young to have ever known Little Italy in its heyday. I highly doubt all the slick restaurants there now (ones I used to deliver food to) are an adequate substitute for the networks of organic relationships that were disrupted. People are more than economic widgets or Lego blocks to be shuffled around at the will of people with suits and big dreams.

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Avatar for user 'Abe A'

Abe A | April 27, 2012 at 8:43 a.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago

I love this idea, but like it or not, we (city, county, or state governments) do not have the resources to invest in these types of projects at this time. I hope we will at some point, but until that future time, this will be another sounds nice but not practical type of idea.

$300 million? I'm sorry but that just sounds rediculous.

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Avatar for user 'radiofree'

radiofree | April 27, 2012 at 11:22 a.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago

To extend the logic of the U.S. Supreme Court: Freeways are people too. The needs of the freeways far out-weigh the needs of pedestrians. Or at least that seems to be the inescapable conclusion of America's car culture. However, sometimes threats to our love affair with auto traffic can make people question the costs and benefits of hugh developments.

The One Paseo development project in Carmel Valley needs San Diego City Council approval to move forward. The current Carmel Valley Community Plan allows 500,000 square feet but the developer is asking to build over 3,650,000 square feet. The long-delayed traffic study estimates an additional 29,000 cars will be brought to Carmel Valley streets by this enormous development. All those cars would jam up local traffic and many residents are waking up to this fact. One Paseo is being promoted as "Main Street for Carmel Valley" because the much more honest "Traffic Jams for Carmel Valley" would not have the same marketing appeal.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | April 27, 2012 at 4:01 p.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago

It damaged the barrio logan neighborhood? Do they mean it disrupted the gang violence? Oh wait, that's right, barrio-logan and chicano park and the surrounding area is a safe, family friendly environment with very nice paintings on the walls.

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Avatar for user 'Studying_Nomad'

Studying_Nomad | April 27, 2012 at 5:43 p.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago


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Avatar for user 'sollinger'

sollinger | April 28, 2012 at 10:01 p.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago

I would love to see a total cost breakdown of the freeways that have been built, say for example - the I-5. When the project was proposed, the planners estimated certain expenses and benefits. Mitigation efforts probably included sound barriers and the like. The benefits included items such as transporting goods and labor. I wonder what the equation looks like when all the expenses are added up and put alongside the costs: the cost of lives lost, collisions that occurred and subsequent efforts to clear it up, the air pollution increase and subsequent health defects on nearby communities (has asthma rates gone up in Little Italy, for example?), the time wasted in traffic that was supposed to have evaporated with the building of the I-5. And I'd love to see this in conjunction with an alternative...say a subway line that had been built where the I-5 currently runs. How much would that have cost, how many families would have been displaced? What would the groundwater contamination look like in comparison with the existing I-5? What if a few dedicated bike paths had been built running atop the subway lines? What if instead of the I-5, only a dedicated truck-only type highway had been built where the trucking industry paid to maintain it and only the trucking and other industrial companies have access to it.

Seems like a complete fantasy, but I think this would have made for a much nicer San Diego and a city that was more beautiful to look at and less scarred by freeways ripping its landscape to shreds.

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Avatar for user 'sollinger'

sollinger | April 28, 2012 at 10:05 p.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago

Regarding freeway caps: I don't know if people opposed to it are aware of this but...freeways are really noisy. Teralta Park is such a sanctuary providing respite in a community that could use more greenspaces and public spaces in general. Capping it limits the noise to where they belong. Surely, in a nation that doesn't blink at the prospect of spending billions to maintain a freeway infrastructure...a little bit of respite from the noise isn't too much to ask.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | April 30, 2012 at 8:14 a.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago

Sollinger, except people don't like riding the subway. If I want to go up to Los Angeles for a day trip, I don't want to sit on the subway to get there. I want to use my car.

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