A Walkable S.M. Wright Freeway is Not Happening, But the Fight is Far From Over

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The proposed redesign of the S.M. Wright Freeway, a stretch of Highway 175 that runs parallel to I-45 south of Fair Park, will solve a lot of problems. It'll turn the road from an indisputably ugly slab of concrete into a landscaped urban boulevard, and will straighten out the connection with North 310 known as Dead Man's Curve. Everyone agrees those things need to happen, but not everyone's happy with TxDOT's plans for a six-lane road.

Michael Lindenberger has an excellent recap of last night's public hearing, and boils the the debate down to a single question: what are highways for?

Unfair Park caught up with Hank Lawson, one of the more vocal proponents of a scaled-down S.M. Wright. He's still mad that TxDOT and the city ignored the South Dallas Action Plan, which called for a four-lane thoroughfare.

To Lawson, this is all part of a historical pattern. When S.M. Wright was built in the early 1960s, it was designed to move cars quickly to and from the city with little heed for the mostly poor, black neighborhoods it passed through. Those communities were unceremoniously divided. The resulting dislocation may not have caused the downward spiral of crime and economic stagnation that has befallen much of the area south of Fair Park, but it was a contributing factor. Even now, you have to be careful where you turn. It's the dead-end streets that run into the highway where the drug dealers congregate and crime festers.

Tearing down the existing S.M. Wright will help regardless of the final plan, Lawson says, but TxDOT's six-lane version still places the emphasis on moving cars through the neighborhood. "I've made it clear we don't want a Lemmon Avenue," he says.

Instead, he wants to reconnect the streets separated by S.M. Wright, build wide walkways to make the street more pedestrian-friendly, encourage mixed-use developments where people can live and work and hang out, maybe add bike lanes. Fewer cars will come through and traffic will probably suck, but Lawson's fine with that. "Let 'em go bumper to bumper on I-45." After all, it's quality of life, and not the ability to move quickly from one point to another, that attracts the type of new blood that can revitalize neighborhoods.

Lawson knows he's probably on the losing side of the argument. Purposely limiting a road's capacity goes counter to conventional wisdom, and TxDOT's plan has many supporters, such as Councilwoman Carolyn Davis and S.M. Wright, Jr., the son of the reverend for whom the roadway is named.

Still, Lawson told me he's not shutting up. He and some other are going to keep telling TxDOT the agency's wrong. After all, he says, it's the neighborhood's only chance to truly heal.

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