To Remove A Freeway In Long Beach

Shoreline Drive in downtown Long Beach

8:15am | The Institute of Transportation and Development Policy, an international planning think tank, recently commissioned ten architects to create bold visions for the world’s cities, to imagine a planet no longer dominated by the automobile. This “Our Cities, Ourselves” initiative included Michael Sorkin’s design concept for lower Manhattan. Sorkin envisioned replacing the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive ring road (also known as the FDR Freeway) with open space, bike paths, and ecological restoration. (New York Mayor Bloomberg’s administration is not taking the concept seriously.) Meanwhile, one of three options under consideration by the New York State Department of Transportation for the Sheridan Freeway is “remapping” this 1¼-mile-length of underused asphalt blocking the Hunts Point neighborhood from the Bronx River—in other words, removing it altogether. This would not only get rid of an obstruction between this community and its waterfront; the land made available would be used for private development, new open space, and other public amenities.

This South Bronx neighborhood joins a growing number of communities working to remove counterproductive infrastructure. While thousands of miles of freeways are still being created around the world, select cities, in response to evolving priorities and transportation needs, are repurposing some of these transportation corridors for other uses. From Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Seoul, South Korea, amazing transformations are taking place as freeways are transformed into parks, schools, and development opportunities.

At first glance, it can sometimes be hard to know if a freeway is unnecessary. One of the most famous examples of this dilemma involved the removal of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway after its partial collapse during the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. This freeway was largely deemed indispensable before the quake; indeed, in 1985 residents voted against removing the freeway for fear of causing massive gridlock in the surrounding community. But when the freeway was closed after the quake, traffic shifted to the adjoining street network. While this initially caused gridlock, it gradually eased. It was then decided to permanently remove the freeway, creating value for adjacent neighborhoods with a multi-modal boulevard flanked by a range of street activities and open space.

The experience of San Francisco, alongside other successful examples of freeway removal in places like Portland and Toronto, have fueled efforts to pursue similar opportunities in cities like Seattle, New Orleans, and Washington, DC. In Southern California, the “Land of Freeways,” there are currently few examples of such vocal advocacy, but not for lack of potential opportunities. According to a 1958 master plan, Los Angeles was to have a dense grid of freeways expanding on the existing system, to include a Beverly Hills Freeway, extending the 91 Freeway into the South Bay, and converting Pacific Coast Highway into a freeway connecting coastal cities from Santa Monica to Orange County.

The fact that these additional freeways went unrealized (for good or ill) has rendered other portions of the system less necessary. For instance, as the I-710 Freeway travels over the Los Angeles River into downtown Long Beach, it becomes Shoreline Drive, a name alluding to a more scenic experience along the waterfront. Shoreline Drive weaves through downtown, leaving parking lots and other remnant spaces in its wake. Aside from its terminus at the intersection with Ocean Boulevard and Alamitos Avenue, there is never enough traffic to warrant either its width of over 120 feet, or the various off-ramps, on-ramps, and overpasses that currently restrict pedestrian access to the waterfront.

We thus are presented with an opportunity to reconfigure Shoreline Drive into a beautifully landscaped multi-purpose boulevard along the lines of San Francisco’s renewed Embarcadero. Shoreline Drive could become a marquee address like Pine Avenue and Ocean Boulevard, featuring buildings that contribute to its vibrancy—rather than buildings that turn their backs to it, as is now the case with complexes like the Pike and the California State University’s Chancellor Building . Transforming interchanges into vibrant intersections could spur needed economic development along the waterfront. A rejuvenated Shoreline Drive with active open spaces and engaging buildings would represent a more appropriate welcome for visitors, workers, and residents.

Other opportunities exist for freeway removal in Long Beach. The Terminal Island Freeway (I-103) spans 2½ miles from the Port of Long Beach to the Union Pacific Railroad facility on Willow Street. The primary purpose of the freeway has been to move freight from the port to rail yards to the north. It was originally intended to extend to Union Station, fifteen miles north, before the Alameda Transportation Corridor was built less than a mile west. Developing the 20-mile-long Alameda Corridor has thus made extending the Terminal Island Freeway unnecessary, and is beginning to make the existing length redundant. In addition, proposed creation of an expressway between Ocean Boulevard and Alameda Street would shift much of the remaining traffic from the Terminal Island Freeway. At the same time, the Union Pacific Railroad proposes modernizing their Intermodal Container Transfer Facility (ICTF) moving their primary entrance from Willow Street to Alameda Street.

The two infrastructure projects will make the northern half of the Terminal Island Freeway largely unnecessary. Foreseeing this redundancy, the state has already transferred ownership of this northern one-mile portion of the Terminal Island Freeway to Long Beach. Removing this segment of underused freeway altogether would yield nearly three dozen acres of park space along the western edge of the city, creating an open-space buffer between existing residential neighborhoods and school campuses, and the port complex and refineries to the west.

The time is right to open a serious conversation about both Shoreline Drive and the Terminal Island Freeway. The I-710 Freeway is currently being studied for possible expansion, including realigning the freeway (and thus Shoreline Drive) as it travels through Cesar Chavez Park toward downtown. The realignment of port-serving infrastructure has created the opportunity to replace the city-owned portion of the Terminal Island Freeway with a vibrant, inviting urban landscape. These projects are all undergoing environmental review, and their approval could be assisted by proposals to repurpose the space left by removing underused freeways. It is precisely through such creative transformations of our “built-out” environment that we can create a Long Beach with greater economic development, pedestrian life, and open space.

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