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Nun Time for Stalling

New Orleans convent to be transformed into 25-acre wetland
Hurricane Katrina lasted only eight days and ended nearly 15 years ago, yet the residents of New Orleans are given daily reminders of the presence it wrought in their city after levees constructed by the Federal government failed to redirect excess stormwater. With 80% of the city destroyed, reflecting a citywide property damage price tag of over $125 billion, the broken levees came to signify the largest engineering failure in modern history that left many residents to decide between building off of what had been affected or starting anew. The city's local nuns have been shepherding a former Catholic convent weakened by the man-made disaster and are working with the city of New Orleans to transform the site into Mirabeau Water Garden, a 25-acre wetland that will one of the largest in the United States when complete. Led by Mary Kincaid, sustainable infrastructure program manager at the City of New Orleans project delivery unit, and designed by local firm Waggonner & Ball Architects, the project was originally conceived of by the Sisters of St. Joseph, a group of nuns that once occupied the convent before the building damage became too great to ignore. Their choices, as they have debated them since 2005, were to rebuild the convent or work with the city towards determining a better function for the site. The wetlands will have the capacity to absorb roughly 10 million gallons of stormwater runoff to combat the flash floods that have become common in the city within the last 20 years. Though that water will eventually reach the city's outdated drainage system, the wetland will act as a much-needed filter and partial barrier to prevent sewage overflows. As the most substantial wetland effort taken on by New Orleans in its centuries-long history, the Mirabeau Water Garden will be a signature element of Resilient New Orleans, a city-wide initiative to enact solutions to climate change and other issues facing future generations, and is being developed in accordance with the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, a set of guidelines developed by the State of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development - Disaster Recovery Unit in 2010. The project is estimated to cost $30 million and city officials have already begun soliciting construction bids. The city is hoping to have construction begin in the spring of this year, though no completion date has been set.
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Crescent Coasts

New Orleans property swap may yield largest public riverfront in the U.S.
On October 26, a historic deal was implemented in New Orleans: the Port of New Orleans (PNO) and the Public Belt Railroad (PBR) swapped riverfront properties, unlocking a key stretch of land to what may soon be the largest uninterrupted public riverfront in the U.S. In the swap, PNO took ownership of a stretch of railroad along the Mississippi River and PBR took ownership of two large wharves–Esplanade Avenue and Governor Nicholls Street Wharves. PBR is owned by the City of New Orleans, which now plans to redevelop both wharves as public space (à la Mandeville Wharf). This redevelopment will connect two existing riverfront parks, Bywater's Crescent Park and the French Quarter's Woldenburg Park. This linkage is key in the long-term vision to develop the entire New Orleans riverfront as one contiguous public parkway, as detailed by Eskew Dumez + Ripple's 2008 Reinventing the Crescent plan. In a press conference on October 27, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced several major riverfront redevelopments, including the keystone wharf redevelopments. The wharves themselves have been allocated $15 million. The other developments announced are generally focused on improving existing public amenities along the Mississippi riverfront from the French Quarter to Bywater neighborhoods. They include a $7.5 million renovation of Spanish Plaza, a $400 million renovation of the World Trade Center at the Four Seasons hotel, a new $37 million terminal for the Canal Street Ferry, a new $7.3 million pedestrian bridge over the railway to the ferry terminal, $6 million in park improvements for Woldenberg Park in the French Quarter, $3 million in green space improvements for part of the Riverwalk, and $31.2 million for expansions to Crescent Park. Many of these projects are ongoing. After a series of major floods this summer, water experts in New Orleans are paying close attention to how the city is spending on water management. "The challenge in New Orleans is that we can't rub two nickels together to wrap up our water infrastructure and drainage problems," said Ramiro Diaz, a designer at architecture firm Waggonner and Ball, in a call with The Architect's Newspaper (AN). "Overall, I think it's a positive development, though. People have been waiting for these riverfront projects for years." Waggonner and Ball were the lead designers behind the Greater New Orleans Water Plan. According to Eskew Dumez + Ripple principal Steve Dumez, his firm is now looking into implementing the western end of the Reinventing the Crescent plan. This would open up riverfront property around the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, extending the parkway even further.
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The New & Old in New Orleans: Ten years after Katrina, architects still figuring out how to rebuild housing in the city
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast region, inundating New Orleans with contaminated floodwaters, the city is in some ways still getting back on its feet. After much dispute on how to recover the city, architects and developers are looking to new construction and existing building stock for solutions. Many homes in the Crescent City were washed away or irreparably damaged. One of the most predominant home styles damaged in the storm was the so-called shotgun house, named as such due to its elongated style organized around a long corridor stretching the length of the house. That typology is has been deployed by numerous groups in the past decade to rebuild New Orleans. Developers and architects have been snagging headlines rebuilding what was lost. Most notably, Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation, has built over 100 homes in the city, many by top name architects and more still with modern designs that reinterpret the city's historic shotgun house. Make It Right has lately been building "tiny houses," a style of housing meant for people on a small budget subscribing to a fast-paced, out-of-home lifestyle that's fitting for the urban environment. This fast growing contemporary style has its benefits:
  • Storage space is limited, so there is a lower propensity to over consume and due to the size of the plot.
  • The building is relatively simple and easy to maintain (a chore no city dweller wants to labor over).
The tiny house style is very much a result of the financial crisis from which cheap housing was in demand. The above tiny house, conceived by Jordan Pollard, Make It Right’s research, design, and development manager, will sell for under $100,000. Make It Right's shift from full-scale houses to these small-scale counterparts could be a response to tighter funding streams and budget constraints, The New Republic claims. According to New Republic, in 2013 the foundation also opened up its homes to buyers who didn't previously live in the neighborhood before Katrina, indicating troubles under the surface. As Make It Right's houses struggled to attract buyers, the under-populated area also failed to attract businesses, stores, and services. That meant the predominantly elderly population living in the ultra-modern houses designed by architects such as Shigeru Ban and David Adjaye were miles away from supermarkets and other necessities. Some locals have also protested the structures' contrasting designs. When speaking to Wired, New Orleans architect Mac Ball of Waggonner & Ball said: “all these new buildings don’t look like they fit New Orleans very well.” New Republic went further, describing the new builds as a "a field of pastel-colored UFOs." Affordable housing developer Brandon Dughman is taking a different approach from building new, instead targeting existing building stock. Recently Curbed covered how Dughman renovated an old shotgun house to tactfully create a new interior. Despite the old structure's failures, Dughman celebrated quirks such as the slanted floor and visibly old doorways. Here, he has shown how the structures of New Orleans' past can still be a versatile, viable and attractive place to live.
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Rebuild By Design> Waggonner and Ball, unabridged Architecture's Plan For Bridgeport, CT
In early April, the ten finalists in the Rebuild By Design competition unveiled their proposals to protect the Tri-state region from the next Sandy. And in the near future, a jury will select a winner—or winners—to receive federal funding to pursue their plans. But before that final announcement is made, AN is taking a closer look at each of the final ten proposals. Here's how Waggonner and Ball, unabridged and Yale ARCADIS' team plans to create a more resilient Bridgeport, Connecticut. Waggoner and Ball, unabridged Architecture, and the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio propose "Resilient Bridgeport"—a framework of design and planning principles to protect the Connecticut region. "The design proposals are place-specific design solutions ranging from green streets in upland areas to wetland park buffers in coastal areas," explained the team in a statement. "Included, too, are places throughout the city that provide safety and services in times of storm and instruct people on how to transition to a way of living and thriving with water." Specifically, the team protects Bridgeport's South End with a new waterfront berm and offshore breakwaters. At this site, they also create the South End Resilience Education and Community Center—a hub, which includes a co-op, job training programs, a healthcare clinic, and childcare services. During sever weather, the Center transforms into a shelter. The full team includes Waggonner and Ball, unabridged Architecture, the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, Yale's Urban Ecology and Design Laboratory, and ARCADIS. 03-wb-yale-rebuildbydesign-nyc-archpaper
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New Orleans Unveils Urban Water Plan That Embraces Flooding
[beforeafter]nola-urban-water-plan-07anola-urban-water-plan-07b[/beforeafter]   On September 9th, New Orleans unveiled an innovative proposal for flood management: the New Orleans Greater Water Plan. Designed by Dutch engineers and led by chief architect and planner David Waggonner of locally-based firm Waggonner & Ball Architects, the plan seeks to mitigate the damages caused during heavy rainfalls. The concept is simple: keeping water in pumps and canals instead of draining and pumping it out. The idea is to retain the water in order to increase the city’s groundwater, thereby slowing down the subsidence of soft land as it dries and shrinks. [beforeafter] nola-urban-water-plan-05b nola-urban-water-plan-05a[/beforeafter]   New Orleans is built on swampland and suffers ravaging damages when floods occur, as sea levels rise quickly and the community becomes quickly submerged. The current floodwater management system uses a forced drainage mechanism that dries lands quickly. This heavy reliance on drainage practices leads to damaged lands, severe soil imbalances, and subsidence. As the ground sinks, the city’s infrastructure weakens. Not only does this increase residents' exposure to risk when faced by a natural disaster, but it also diminishes the value of the area’s waterways as public assets. Under the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, floodwaters are retained rather than drained. During rainfall, water is slowed down through water retention and corralled into areas used as parks during dry seasons. The retained water is then channeled into canals and ponds that will help sustain wildlife, improve soil quality, and increase safety levels in case of flooding. Water will flow year round, ultimately maintaining the stability of soils and the general health of the city’s eco-system. [beforeafter]nola-urban-water-plan-08anola-urban-water-plan-08b[/beforeafter]   Nowadays, water-management is a particularly important issue as the world is looking for ways to appease and manage the impacts of climate change and increased human activity. Louisiana is currently experiencing the highest rates of sea-level rise, making the ‘Big Easy’ highly vulnerable to damages caused by intense downpours. The $6.2 billion plan would help mitigate flooding during heavy rainfalls, and repair soils that have been dried up by the previous flood management system, hence preventing further sinking of the ground under sea level. Refurbishing centuries’ old infrastructures will be challenging and it still remains unclear how the plan will be funded. The project’s estimated competition date is 2050. City officials believe that it would be effective in mitigating the risks induced by floods and will bolster the appeal of acquiring local real estate.The Urban Water Plan re-envisions New Orleans as a vibrant metropolis of ponds and canals. The core idea is to efficiently manage water, instead of trying to get rid of it. If successful, the plan will transform the city into an urban landscape filled with rain gardens and bioswales, create appealing waterfront properties, and promote home values. New Orleans is on the right track to becoming a potential leader in water management and a potential model for other cities around the world. [beforeafter] nola-urban-water-plan-06bnola-urban-water-plan-06a[/beforeafter] [beforeafter] nola-urban-water-plan-04bnola-urban-water-plan-04a[/beforeafter] [beforeafter]nola-urban-water-plan-09anola-urban-water-plan-09b[/beforeafter] [beforeafter]nola-urban-water-plan-03anola-urban-water-plan-03b[/beforeafter]
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East Coast Editors' Picks
Thomas Leeser's addition to the Museum of the Moving Image.
Peter Aaron / Esto

This year we welcomed foreign firms to US shores, marked memorial milestones, tracked the reinvention of abandoned infrastructure, and reported on universities as key players in urban development. Here are a few of our favorite articles from AN's East Coast edition that offer a snapshot of the issues and voices that made news in 2011.

Courtesy Foster + Partners


Crit> Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Foster + Partners brings neo-modern seriousness to museum addition, but is it enough? Fame isn’t always glory. That’s one lesson of the career of I.M. Pei, that most underrated of overexposed architects. Though best known for later baubles like the Louvre’s glass entrance pyramid, in the ‘70s and ‘80s he produced buildings of remarkable (yet all-too-often unremarked) competence and diligence. Many of these are to be found in Boston, a city whose small size, long history, and hub-of-the-universe aspirations complemented Pei’s sense of scale and proportion, his balance of deference and showbiz, and his capacity to complement old sites with new interventions. His works in that city, such as the 1974 Christian Science complex and 1971 Harbor Towers, evince monumentality without grandiosity, modernity without brutality, and the acknowledgement of historical neighbors without maudlin imitation of their forms.




Danish architect ready to leave his footprints in Manhattan and beyond: Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, principal of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), has set his sights on the Big Apple. Since September, he has been jet-setting back and forth between his Copenhagen headquarters and his new Manhattan office in preparation for a closely-watched mystery debut. Already an established member of the young architectural vanguard (with an icon of his own in the shape of a figure-eight-shaped housing complex in Copenhagen), Ingels told AN that he is prepared to take American real-estate development head-on: “Everyone has been warning us that it’s impossible to work with American developers—that they’re too profit-driven,” Ingels said. “But it’s really exactly the same with developers everywhere.”

Peter Aaron / Esto


Crit> Museum of the Moving Image

Thomas Leeser's intricately-paneled architecture recalls the experience of film itself: Oh, to live in the unbuilt world of Thomas Leeser! While most architects have by mid-career accumulated a village of unrealized projects, all offering glimpses of unbuildable wonders or cancelled near-misses, Leeser’s exceptional collection features unbuilt buildings that seem at once otherworldly and down-to-earth. With a long-refined vocabulary of tessellated-panel cladding, continuous-curve surfacing, laconically sculptural massing, knife-sharp edging, and a certain icy taste for sparkle, his practice has produced an evanescent architecture for a counterfactual world, more exciting and exacting than our own: For Yakutsk, Russia, a wooly mammoth museum whose facade tessellations extrude into leggy permafrost-foundation piles, all with the irresistible creaturely charisma of the animal it exhibits; for Abu Dhabi, a hotel whose voluptuous curves manifest as Wright’s Guggenheim in full ballroom spin; for Heidelberg, Germany, there’s a solid-looking museum that, at least seemingly, melts into air.




Landscape architecture continues to experience a professional flowering based on the growing significance of sustainability and ecological issues as they relate to planning the broader built environment. But awareness is also growing among architects that they are no longer kings of the mountain. Gwen Webber scouts the perimeter of a possible turf war in the making.




Vera Sacchetti discusses the 2011 Pritzker laureate: In Porto, a small, gray city in the north of Portugal, you grow accustomed to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century weathered granite buildings that seem to rise from the ground as naturally as mountains. This is the foggy, damp place that has shaped the life and work of Eduardo Souto de Moura, the 2011 Pritzker Prize laureate, and he, in turn, has helped bring the city into modernity over the past thirty years. “In Porto, you have the beautiful historical city,” the architect has said, “the monuments and buildings trying to find—like cats when they go to sleep—their natural place and positioning, and then they become almost natural, all made with the same stone… And that gives them an immense serenity.”




Today cities are putting people before cars, replacing highways with green boulevards: Remember highways, those ribbons of concrete that in the 1940s and 50s looped together cities, states, and regions in much the same way as ocean liners connected America to Europe in the 20s and 30s? Once highways represented the country’s proudest infrastructure. Those days are over, as are the urban policies that allowed New York’s ultimate powerbroker Robert Moses, late in his heyday in the 60s, to ram roads (the bigger, the wider, the busier the better) through fragile communities, ripping the urban fabric to shreds for decades to come. Today’s urban thinking puts pedestrians before cars.




Mapping higher education as a potent force of development across the city, now and in the future. Essay by Mitchell Moss: In spite of the recent economic slowdown, New York City’s colleges and universities are on a building spree, providing planners, land use lawyers, architects, and construction workers with well-paying and stable employment. Once a sleeping giant, the city’s colleges and universities have long been active in acquiring individual parcels, modernizing outmoded structures, and building “as-of-right” by taking advantage of the city’s permissive zoning that falls under the heading of “community facilities.” But today, the city’s higher education industry is playing hardball as it seeks to build classrooms, labs, residence halls, student centers, and administrative palaces in order to attract students and faculty in the 21st century. And the leaders of the city’s colleges and universities are anything but shy when it comes to expanding their campuses. In fact, they are using every possible planning and zoning tool: eminent domain, rezoning, leasing, trading air rights, public-private partnerships, strategic acquisitions, and, of course, contributing space for public purposes, as they negotiate the treacherous minefield of land use planning in New York City.




Drawn largely from stories in our own pages, this selective timeline recalls key design moments, revisions, and decisions leading up to the tenth anniversary opening of the 9/11 Memorial.




The director of Helvetica and Objectified talks about his new film on cities, Urbanized: This month Urbanized, the latest film by Gary Hustwit, premieres in selected cities around the U.S. after making its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. Coming on the heels of his odes to typography (Helvetica, 2007) and product design (Objectifed, 2009), Hustwit has now turned his lens on the design of cities. AN met up with the filmmaker to talk about how the key players in urban planning and design and make their ideas comprehensible to a wider public.




Dattner Grimshaw Bronx partnership yields model sustainable housing: Via Verde, the affordable housing complex designed by Dattner Architects in partnership with Grimshaw, would fit with any of the sexy newcomers on Manhattan’s West Side Highway. Built atop a former rail yard in the Melrose section of the South Bronx, the triangular site sits directly across from some featureless low-income housing in uninspiring old-school red brick.

Tom Stoelker / AN


Comment> Jerold S. Kayden

Occupying Wall Street at the public-private frontier: In future years, people will remember 2011 as the year in which physical public space reclaimed its lofty status in the public sphere thanks to the audacious actions of engaged individuals. From Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, physical public space has aggressively reminded the world of its centrality in accommodating and nurturing political debate and protest. Public spaces come in many flavors. They include city-owned streets, sidewalks, and parks. In New York and other cities, they also include a zoning-created variety known as privately owned public space. Through a technique known as incentive zoning, New York since 1961 has encouraged developers of office and residential skyscrapers to provide a now-substantial array of more than 500 plazas, arcades, and indoor spaces in return for valuable zoning concessions. The most valuable concession of all has been bonus floor area, and the City has thus granted more than 20 million square feet of extra building area for developers. Although the spaces differ in terms of the legal specifics that created them, the signature requirement is that they be usable by the public.




High on Metabolism, Rem talks about his latest book Project Japan: Sounding weary with focusing on his own positions and prominence and energized by researching Japan in the 60s and 70s, Rem Koolhaas came down for coffee at the Carlyle Hotel to talk to AN about his new book Project Japan: Metabolism Talks (Taschen), a six-year project undertaken with Swiss critic and historian Hans Ulrich Obrist to interview the founders and thinkers of what the architect calls “the first non-Western avant-garde movement in architecture” and the Dutch architect’s search for a more meaningful engagement between architecture and societies.




What does it mean when museums position themselves as engines of social change...powered by luxury car companies? Stephen Zacks considers new claims on the urban environment: This fall, BMW funded a Guggenheim lab on the Lower East Side that will travel—along with a lot of forward-thinking programs and events—to nine cities around the world for the next six years. Earlier this year, Audi funded the New Museum’s Festival Ideas for the New City on the Bowery which the museum plans on staging every other year. And in May, Volkswagen announced a two-year partnership with MoMA to fund online educational programming, on-site “labs,” and an exhibition of socially conscious international work at PS1.

Courtesy BHA


Rolling Out

Philly's elevated railway is struggling to become a High Line: The Reading Viaduct, a grass and tree-covered stretch of historically rich yet defunct industrial rail line in Philadelphia, has opened up a lively dialogue about its potential as an urban connector. With a location ripe for redevelopment, the mile-long viaduct runs north from the edge of Center City to Callowhill, a former manufacturing neighborhood. However, as in most public projects where budgets are tight, the realization of an elevated park has a long way to go.




The National Building Museum presents the nation's capital as it might have been: More and more, the National Mall is living up to its moniker “America’s front yard”: patchy turf, puddles, and cracked sidewalks give it an air of foreclosure. The National Mall Design Competition, now under way, will surely produce ambitious proposals to mend the Mall, but getting them approved and funded could take years and is far from guaranteed.


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Go Down, Moses
Underneath New Orleans' elevated Claiborne Expressway.
Courtesy Waggonner & Ball Architects/Smart Mobility

Remember highways, those ribbons of concrete that in the 1940s and 50s looped together cities, states, and regions in much the same way as ocean liners connected America to Europe in the 20s and 30s? Once highways represented the country’s proudest infrastructure. Those days are over, as are the urban policies that allowed New York’s ultimate powerbroker Robert Moses, late in his heyday in the 60s, to ram roads (the bigger, the wider, the busier the better) through fragile communities, ripping the urban fabric to shreds for decades to come. Today’s urban thinking puts pedestrians before cars.

For Robert Moses, a mastermind in the dawning age of the car, four-wheel travel promised the world and then some. Highways were supposed to be the “lungs of the city”—and those concrete behemoths, once thought to be permanent fixtures in cities, would preserve his legacy. But what would Moses say today if he knew that major cities across the country now see highways as a root of blight and are considering taking down his creations? Half a century after the height of urban renewal, a national movement is set to try a new road to urban growth, reintegrating communities through dismantling the highways that were the focus of Moses’ life’s work.

Aerial view of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway looking north, 1950.
Courtesy NYCDPR

“It’s about rebalancing now,” said New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. “We’re looking for ways to reconsider highways to maximize their highest and best uses in light of today’s intensely urban settings, which are different from uses in earlier parts of the 20th century.”

Syracuse and Buffalo on the East Coast, Seattle on the West Coast, and Louisville, Dallas, and Cleveland in between, are among the cities talking about removing highways from their downtowns. The convergence of all these campaigns is no coincidence. As the National Interstate Highway turns 55 this month, many highways are reaching the end of their design lives. Cities now face the option of investing billions in maintenance or getting rid of them altogether. It makes perfect sense in the current economic climate, says John Norquist, the Milwaukee mayor who presided over the 2003 removal of Park East Freeway—a highway whose annual maintenance between $50 and $80 million would have cost twice as much as its demolition. But for Norquist, the current president of the Congress for New Urbanism, the end of the highway’s useful life was just an opportunity to end its damaging effects on pedestrian life and downtown real estate values. “If you look at the real estate near a freeway, almost always it’s degraded,” he said. “You get surface parking lots or buildings with high vacancy rates, no walking.”

Anti-highway sentiment is nothing new. In fact, the country is dotted with unfinished highway projects, from New York’s Sheridan Expressway to an extension of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, that were halted by public opposition. One of the watershed moments in the movement against highways was the campaign against one of Robert Moses’ most controversial proposals: the Lower Manhattan Expressway in New York, a ten-lane highway that would have razed the present-day neighborhoods of TriBeCa, Soho and Chinatown. Activist Jane Jacobs and local residents lobbied to defeat his proposal, ushering in what some would consider a new school of thought that emphasized neighborhood life and community input in urban planning.

The Claiborne Expressway is a disruptive presence in New Orleans (top); An aerial depiction by architects Waggonner & Ball of the Claiborne Expressway today (left) and a preliminary rendering of what the city could look like with Claiborne Avenue restored as a surface boulevard (right).
Courtesy Waggonner & Ball Architects/Smart Mobility

The recent buzz about highway removal projects is another powerful testament to the reversal of Robert Moses and what post-war America accepted as good urban planning. Local officials are looking to demolish highways to end the blight they brought to the neighborhoods they run through, 60 years after cities first started putting them up in the name of progress and modernity. In New Orleans, community groups believe that replacing the stretch of Interstate 10 that runs above Claiborne Avenue—a once-thriving commercial corridor in the Treme neighborhood—with a boulevard would rid the city of an eyesore and promote economic development. The proposal has become central to rebuilding the city, included in both the Unified New Orleans Plan created for post-Katrina recovery and the city’s new master plan. Decades before the hurricane, the construction of I-10 in the 1950s precipitated Treme’s decline from one of the city’s wealthiest African-American neighborhoods to an area with high poverty and vacancy rates. The number of businesses on Claiborne Avenue fell 75 percent between 1960 and 2000, says the community organization Claiborne Corridor Improvement Coalition who commissioned the study from architects Waggonner & Ball working with Smart Mobility.

The St. Bernard Market in New Orleans facing the elevated Claiborne Expressway.

In New Orleans and elsewhere, removing highways is providing an opportunity to redress the racist urban renewal policies of the 20th century that impacted communities inhabited largely by minorities. In 1974, construction of Route 40 in West Baltimore demolished 700 homes and displaced 2,000 residents in a middle-class African American neighborhood. Demolition of Route 40, otherwise known as the infamous 1.4 mile “Highway to Nowhere,” began last fall. “Tearing down every last remnant of that ill-fated road will help heal the communities that have long been split by the portion of highway that we couldn't stop,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski, who launched her decades-long political career rallying against the highway. Now, demolition will restore a street connection between two neighborhoods and make way for expanded station parking for an existing commuter rail line and a future light rail line for the city. “It’s not just a good land use solution or transportation solution, but it rights many past wrongs done to the communities that the highway runs through,” said Joan Byron, the policy director at the Pratt Center for Community Development in New York.

Byron also credits the re-emergence of cities for the growing movement against urban highways. The United Nations reported that more than half the world’s population lived in cities for the first time in history in 2007. “Affluent middle class people are moving back to cities,” Byron explained, “So land blighted by highways is now being valued differently.” In New York, pressure to cap the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which forms a below-grade trench through Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Williamsburg, is mounting as more people move to the west side of the highway. Residents near the highway, which was built in the 1950s and 60s to connect the city’s boroughs, have contended with high asthma rates and noise pollution. Now, the city is exploring ways to make life near the highway less onerous, including covering the trench with a “green canopy” of acoustic and photovoltaic panels to reduce noise and generate electricity.

Left to right: NYCEDC’s study by Starr Whitehouse and Kiss + Cathcartis explores capping a section of the BQE trench with a “green canopy” of photovoltaic panels; the capped highway could support recreational fields; removing the highway trench provides more opportunities for community interaction.
Courtesy Courtesy Starr Whitehouse/Kiss+Cathcart Architects

The most telling sign of the times was funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation for three highway removal projects last fall. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $600 million for 75 infrastructure projects through TIGER II, a competitive grant program designed to promote livability and sustainability. The conversion of Route 34 in New Haven, Connecticut into a boulevard received $16 million. New Haven officials have long blamed the highway for stifling foot traffic downtown and choking downtown off from the rest of the city. Now, its removal will open up 11 acres to new real estate development for the city’s biotech boom and is part of larger efforts to create a pedestrian-friendly city, according to Bruce Alexander, vice president for New Haven and State Affairs. New Orleans and New York also received grants to study the potential teardowns of the Claiborne Expressway and the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct runs along Seattle's waterfront (top); Looking south on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a major highway slated to come down later this year; A rendering of the proposed Alaskan Way street as the surface section of the greater tunnel system.
Courtesy Washington State Department of Transportation

A $1.5 million TIGER II grant will fund New York’s first study of alternative uses for the Sheridan. Opened in 1962, the 11⁄4 mile highway was originally intended to connect New York to New England, but it was never finished and now merely connects Bruckner Expressway and the Cross Bronx Expressway, which already intersect to the east. Local residents count the highway as one of numerous environmental injustices in the South Bronx, responsible for higher asthma rates, traffic congestion, and blocking access to the Bronx riverfront. It is a thoroughfare for truck drivers to Hunts Point, a major food distribution center for supermarkets in New York and New Jersey, but advocates of removal insist that the Sheridan’s low traffic volume—which amounts to 50,000 vehicles a day—justifies getting rid of it.

 “The design is dysfunctional for drivers, and it’s harmful for the community because it sits at the hub of retail and transportation for Amtrak and Metro North,” argued Byron, who has been working with neighborhood groups to campaign for the Sheridan’s removal for over 10 years. “There’s no rationale for keeping it.” In 1997, the New York Department of Transportation’s proposal to expand the Sheridan spurred local residents to action. Working with the Pratt Center and other community organizations, they developed an alternative plan that would remove the Sheridan, build access ramps to Hunts Point off the Bruckner Expressway to accommodate truck traffic, free up 13 acres for 1,500 units of housing, and connect 15 acres of open space to the Bronx River Greenway.

The Sheridan Expressway viewed from the Whitlock Avenue subway station (top); The proposal to remove the Sheridan in the Bronx (center) includes elevating the Bruckner Expressway at Hunts Point Avenue, where a new commuter railroad station will be built (left and right).
Sojung You (top) and Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance

Byron called the TIGER grant for the city’s study “huge,” because states typically run their highways with little input from municipal governments and local communities. The study will integrate the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Department of Parks, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation into the planning process, a decision that Byron predicts will make the state much more likely to favor the alternative plan.

For now, the plan remains the subject of debate between community members and businesses at Hunts Point, who are skeptical that access ramps can replace a highway that carries 15,000 trucks everyday without crippling congestion. “One of the biggest challenges has been explaining the different parts of the plan to business owners and making sure it works for them,” Byron said.

What happens to traffic when a major artery is removed is probably the biggest concern for most drivers, and legitimately so. Intuition would suggest that replacing highways with boulevards with stoplights and lower speed limits would make traffic even worse. But that’s not necessarily the case, says Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do.

“The record seems to show that in many cases, when a highway segment is removed, the subsequent impact on traffic congestion and travel times has not been as dire as many would have predicted,” he said. Planners have consistently found that highway traffic demonstrates so-called “evaporated demand”—just as cars will come if there's a new highway, the reverse is true when highways are removed.  “Traffic demand is elastic,” said Vanderbilt.

Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Freeway before (top) was turned into a park (above).
Courtesy Preservenet and Infrastructurist

One of the most dramatic examples was Seoul’s removal of the Cheonggyecheon Freeway, a major highway that carried 168,000 vehicles a day, in 2002. Despite cries that the highway’s closure would produce chaos, adjustments to the downtown traffic system and the introduction of the city’s first rapid transit bus line were able to absorb excess traffic. Dr. Kee Yeon Hwang, one of the project’s key planners, told the Guardian, “As soon as we destroyed the road, the cars just disappeared and drivers changed their habits. A lot of people just gave up their cars. Others found a different way of driving. In some cases, they kept using their cars but changed their routes." The highway’s removal made room for the restoration of a four-mile stream that had run underneath the highway and an urban park that has become a point of pride for the city.

“This is not to say you can just eliminate any highway and magically ‘cure’ a traffic problem,” Vanderbilt cautions. “But certainly in the case of highways built through major urban centers, with proper planning and given enough travel alternatives, what were once considered vital arteries in cities like Seoul have been removed—and whatever negatives on the travel side may have arisen have arguably been paid back by benefits on the public space and quality of urban life side.” The closure of the elevated West Side Highway in New York City in the 1970s presented a similar case. Sam Schwartz was an engineer at the Department of Traffic, responsible for diverting traffic after the highway collapsed. “What I found out was that the traffic was able to take different paths,” he said in an interview for the website Street Films. “Things didn’t get worse on all the other routes that had to pick up the slack.” A new highway was slated to replace the old one, but public opposition delayed the project for 30 years until then-Governor Cuomo and Mayor Dinkins announced the construction of a surface-level boulevard adjacent to a new waterfront park along the Hudson River.

But even with proper planning, highway removals don’t always turn out the way advocates envision. Though it’s been hailed as one of the country’s first prominent highway removal projects, the demolition of Park East Freeway in 2003 hasn’t spurred downtown development as advocates had hoped. Demolition freed up 24 acres for development, but only the city-owned parcels—about ten percent of the land—have been sold to developers, while the county-owned parcels remain untouched. Norquist points to such new projects as a $54 million apartment tower that recently broke ground and a $175 million residential and retail development near the Milwaukee River as signs of progress. But county politics and strict regulations stand in the way of further transformation.

The elevated Bruckner Expressway in the South Bronx.
Sojung You

Indeed, the issue of highways—whether building or demolishing them—is a contentious one. It’s no surprise that Norquist got his start in politics as an anti-highway candidate running for the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1974. “I beat an incumbent who wanted to build a freeway right in the middle of a park designed by Olmstead’s son,” he recalled. The public revolt against highways in Wisconsin in the 1970s and 80s elected a block of anti-highway legislators who stopped plans for three highways.

Elected officials like Norquist and his colleagues aren’t common. Removing a highway is still a political risk in cities where most residents believe it would only slow traffic. Byron points to lack of courage among elected officials as one of the main barriers to highway removal projects. But in Seattle, Mayor Michael McGinn has taken a controversial stand against a proposed bi-level four-lane tunnel slated to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a major highway that must come down after sustaining damage in a 2001 earthquake. The debate has engaged everyone from drivers, who say they need a tunnel, and union workers to environmental groups and budget hawks opposed to the tunnel’s $3 billion price tag. After months of lawsuits and public debate, Seattle’s residents will finally vote on the tunnel this August. Whatever the outcome, the vote will be a powerful statement on the future of highways. And to be sure, other cities will be watching.