Beginning in the 1950s, the Interstate Highway System began to span the continent, connecting cities across the United States and driving suburban development. But in many cities, these highway projects also physically divided communities and paved over neighborhoods.
New infrastructure projects are trying to bridge that divide. Cities across the country are working on “caps” and “stitches,” turning the airspace above the highway into green space or other badly needed downtown parcels in order to reconnect disadvantaged communities. A ULI webinar hosted by the Curtis Infrastructure Initiative in September gave an update on the status of such projects in three cities—Atlanta, Austin, and St. Paul. All three projects have been the subject of ULI Advisory Services panels in the past five years.
COVID-19 and recent police violence have renewed concerns about the legacy of land use and development, said panel moderator Michael Banner, president and chief executive officer of Los Angeles LDC. His nonprofit firm provides capital and advisory services to foster community development in underserved neighborhoods.
“It has highlighted, in terms of the economic issues that we’re facing today, that there’s a lot of discussion about infrastructure and how that might be a solution to the kind of economic malaise that is impacting the nation,” said Banner.
In St. Paul, a land bridge over Interstate 94 strives to bring equity to the Rondo neighborhood, where 85 percent of the city’s Black population lived in the 1950s and 1960s. The interstate changed that, destroying much of the neighborhood, including many homes and businesses. According to the Urban Institute, the homeownership gap between Black and white families in Minneapolis/St. Paul is 51 percentage points, despite the region being relatively affordable by U.S. standards.
The nonprofit group ReConnect Rondo wants to create a land bridge over I-94 to connect the bisected neighborhood and address housing affordability.
“While this is being driven by African Americans as part of restorative framework, this is going to really benefit the city of St. Paul. It’s ultimately going to benefit the region,” said panelist Keith Baker, managing director of ReConnect Rondo. “[When] we think about the wide range of disparities that exist right in the hub of where Rondo exists, it presents an opportunity to counter and to bring up those that are within the footprint of Rondo who currently are challenged by the lack of employment opportunities, or the lack of affordable housing just in general, the lack of variety of jobs.”
The Rondo Community Land Bridge would create about 500 new housing units, Baker said. More than 700 Black-owned homes were destroyed to make way for I-94.
“We also have to look at the potential of utilizing this asset, if you will, or this opportunity to really address some of the inequities and to bring investment in individuals up to the degree where it’s not having to be paid for on the other end,” he said. “Either way, we’re paying for.”
In Atlanta, the construction of Interstate 75/85 cut up downtown and eliminated a grid of mostly Black neighborhoods, along with what was once the largest Jewish community in the city. Today called the Downtown Connector, the highway has affected the experience of living nearby and lowered property values, said panelist Jennifer Ball, vice president of planning and economic development for nonprofit Central Atlanta Progress (CAP).
CAP is now working to create “the Stitch,” creating a use for space above I-75/85 beyond vehicular traffic. This area of Atlanta’s downtown needs parks, a gap that the 14-acre (5.7 ha) Stitch could help fill, Ball said.
A platform structure located on the Stitch would also be above one of the most underused rail stations in the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) system.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to orient this new investment around transit, enhancing ridership and really embracing a station that is not living up to the investment that was made in it years ago,” Ball said.
As CAP develops the vision for the project, it is making sure to incorporate community feedback.
“We’ve done a lot of homework and background to make sure that frankly, as we move the project forward, that we build shared goals,” she said. “We don’t have those direct descendants who are still active in the neighborhood. But how do we rebuild those stories so that it is the kind of neighborhood where people want to live, can afford to live, and it has a quality of life that attracts people to it?”
In Austin, the city must contend with a history of segregation as it works on its highway caps. The 1928 master plan split the city by moving community services for residents of color to East Austin. Those who tried to live elsewhere were often denied access.
“All of our policies that followed really just continued to reinforce that segregation and remove the opportunities for upward mobility for Austin’s people of color,” said panelist Melissa Barry, vice president of planning for the nonprofit Downtown Austin Alliance. “This is the legacy that we live with.”
The construction of Interstate 35 fit into this policy. It destroyed a tree-lined street and separated East Austin’s neighborhoods from the downtown business district. The plan now is to create 11 acres (4.5 ha) of surface area out of proposed I-35 caps in three locations, in addition to creating a boulevard along the entire length of the 2.5-mile (4 km) corridor.
The Downtown Austin Alliance wants to develop a vision of the highway caps along with the community, especially representative of those who were displaced by I-35. COVID-19 has delayed in-person discussions, so the organization partnered with a local community radio station and a group of community mentors to develop a series of radio episodes. The series, which features conversations with community members, is continuing this fall.
The community has expressed a need to heal from a legacy of racial segregation and to explore health and safety. Community members have also asked who will own the highway caps and land—something the Downtown Austin Alliance is still figuring out.
“That is a challenge when you’re having a conversation like this with the community, especially around ownership, because of how significant ownership is to wealth creation and equity goals in the community,” Barry said.
Over the decades, Austin has not done a good job of engaging in active preservation amid the pressures of development and growth, she said. It is a problem familiar in many cities, but Austin’s highway project could be a way to focus on preservation going forward.
“The way we’re thinking about the caps is it’s not just about a park or a piece of land,” Barry said. “It’s about how do you take the things that we really want to preserve about this area and make sure to grow them and connect to them and really put the resources that are needed into them to make them thrive. I think that’s maybe just a little different approach rather than just, ‘We have a piece of land. Let’s build on it.’”