Tearing Down I-345 Is Not as Crazy as It Sounds

UPDATED JULY 28 2014: Tearing Down I-345 Idea Is Starting to Get Interest From Important Rich People ORIGINAL POST

The idea is to blow up, tear down, erase, make go away an entire elevated freeway at the eastern end of downtown Dallas. Chechen rebels couldn't do better than that. But the region's most powerful transportation planning official recently shrugged and dismissed the scheme to tear down I-345, the elevated freeway span separating Deep Ellum and downtown, as "the do-nothing option."

Do-nothing? Tearing down a freeway? Maybe. It depends on who you are and how you view the future — that's the trick in attempting to understand the tear-it-down idea. This isn't really about politics. It's more out-there than that. This is about people having visions.


Email the author at jim.schutze@dallasobserver.com.

Close your eyes. Relax. Try to envision the perfect place to live. No fair thinking about mountains, beaches or anything French. This is just about your block, your 'hood, the area right around you in real life. See it. Hear it.

Maybe your vision is silent. Do you see the smooth blue surface of a swimming pool, a green yard at the dead end of a vast band of bone-white concrete? Or noisy. Do you hear people calling down to friends from second-floor apartments, a trolley clanging, heels clattering on sidewalks, an outdoor tablecloth snapping in the breeze? That's what the debate over tearing down I-345 is all about. This is The War of the Visions.

If you think of visionaries as hippies, however, you won't recognize the two people coming into this coffee shop on an early morning in an old house in the State-Thomas District north of downtown. These are the two guys who first proposed tearing down this particular freeway. Brandon Hancock, 32, is a real estate developer. Patrick Kennedy, 35, owns a design firm that works mainly for mixed-use developers.

Their idea is already inspiring long-winded editorials and foghorn treatises in the daily newspaper, setting off cranky debates at obscure regional planning agencies and being treated so carefully by the mayor he could be disarming a nuclear device.

The two men seem stunned. "We never started off for glory," Hancock says. "It was just a project we were working on. The fact that it's gotten this far is beyond what we ever thought would happen."

Kennedy says they started out just talking socially about something called the "Dallas 360 Plan," a big planning document adopted by the City Council last year to spur downtown rebirth. In it they thought they saw a lot of not very smart politics and little to no market savvy.

"Basically me and Brandon were talking one night about how the 360 Plan was all basically cost and subsidy, and it wasn't using the market in a way that would make development profitable," Kennedy says.

Indeed the situation downtown is worse than that. Local politics involved in divvying up federal subsidy money has earned the city a major black mark levied last year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, still unresolved. HUD has accused Dallas City Hall of deliberately practicing racism in its downtown development policies.

Hancock and Kennedy see another shortcoming in the 360 Plan. "The city would have to subsidize every single project," Kennedy says. "That's what we're seeing in downtown right now. Everybody's got their hands out for $50 million for a project."

Their idea is to take down the freeway, package the land with other public holdings, create an entity to hold it and then use the land as an incentive to spur mixed-use development including affordable residential, office and retail space. The resulting new community, they say, would knit together the Deep Ellum entertainment district, the Baylor medical district and the eastern end of downtown.

Invited to close their eyes and envision the area 10 years from now, they say they see tree-lined boulevards, lots of cycling, apartments, shops and office uses in low-, mid- and high-rise buildings. But they aren't really close-your-eyes guys. They began two years ago using their own business experience and technical expertise to study the market realities.

They came up with numbers to show two things. Land costs in the target area are too high to allow that kind of development without massive public subsidy, but greatly reducing land cost, even giving it away, would spur between $4 billion and $6.5 billion in investment in the area, providing a bonanza for city tax coffers instead of an endless drain.

"Why don't we drive demand?" Kennedy says. "Take out the highway, create land, and all of a sudden we've got a desirable neighborhood that everybody wants to be a part of."

Two measures of how seriously their idea is being taken and how persuasive some people have found their numbers: Neither the officials at Baylor, with a vast institutional presence in the area, nor the major investors in Deep Ellum, pouring money into the ground over the last several years for a major redevelopment initiative, have called for Hancock and Kennedy to be hanged. Instead they all want to talk to them.

Kristi Sherrill Hoyl, vice president of external and governmental affairs for Baylor Health Care System, says Baylor has met with the mayor on the idea. "There was some discussion with the mayor about a study to look at it," she says, "and I think we're very supportive of that."

Barry Annino, president of the Deep Ellum Foundation, says major investors in the area can't help worrying about the wisdom of cutting off a major regional access route aimed right at their front door. Deep Ellum in recent years has seen serious investment aimed at transforming a quirky-funky local bar scene into a regional entertainment destination capable of pulling traffic in from outside the region.

"Not just Frisco," he says. "We'll go further up, all the way to the casino up there in Oklahoma."

But even with that much incentive to keep the freeway up, Annino says, the Deep Ellum investors want a closer look at the numbers Hancock and Kennedy have been showing around. "My guys are for development and making stuff happen," he says. "Whether that's tearing it down or leaving it up, that's the X factor. Those are all the questions."

Annino says Deep Ellum, like Baylor, wants another study, a second opinion, not because they have skepticism about the work they have seen from Hancock and Kennedy but because they have interest. "It's gotten a lot of legs," he says. "I think it's surprising that it has. But you gotta hand it to those guys."

Hancock and Kennedy are quick to say their idea, radically new for Dallas, is not at all new in the world. If anything, tearing it down in order to make it grow is becoming a kind of universal meme in urban planning. There's a great TED talk about it from a couple years ago on YouTube ("TEDxPhilly-Diana Lind-On dismantling urban freeways") in which the executive director of a Philadelphia think tank opens her speech with a very Northeastern-style backhanded compliment for Dallas.

Speaking of Klyde Warren Park over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, then still under construction, Diana Lind says, "One of the things that gets me most excited about the ways that cities are changing is that they are responding to urban highways. So many of our cities have essentially been destroyed, separated, broken by a lot of these different highways, and cities are finding ways to knit back communities together."

Graphic of Klyde Warren on screen. "This is a rendering of a project that's actually under construction in, of all places, Dallas," she says, "one of the cities that has a really strong car culture. It's a five-acre park that's being built over a freeway that runs through the center of the city."

What a wonderful motto that might make for us some day: "Dallas. Of all places."

The idea that scraping, opening up and giving away a lot of raw land in the center of a major city would spur investment is pretty straightforward, but it does raise a question. What happens to the traffic?

The name, I-345, is a kind of technical term for a section of Central Expressway/U.S. Highway 75 where it runs across the eastern end of downtown and hooks up with Interstate 30 and I-45 at the southern end. For most people that name has never meant more than one of those weird little extra instructions on your GPS telling you to keep going the way you are already going.

For Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments (commonly called "the Cog"), I-345 is an essential link in the local transportation network. He believes tearing it down can't even be seriously considered unless somebody has an idea for replacing it. He's the one who called knocking it down and not replacing it the "do-nothing option" at a recent meeting of the powerful regional transportation council.

Morris, who is white, had to open that meeting by eating some crow for remarks he had made earlier suggesting that the tear-it-down idea might have a racist element, since I-345 is a direct link between North Dallas, downtown and black southern Dallas. "That was a mistake on my part," he said.

Minutes later an African-American Dallas City Council member who is a member of the regional planning body leaped to his defense. "I-345 directly impacts the people that I represent," Vonciel Hill told the body. "They have to have a way to get from where they live, South Oak Cliff, Pleasant Grove, South Dallas, to where the jobs are, downtown, the medical district, the airport and other points north. Taking down I-345 would drastically and adversely affect the folk that I represent."

Morris buttressed his argument with a graphic showing that the I-345 segment carries almost 200,000 cars a day, many of them traveling back and forth between southern and northern Dallas. That obviously is the stress point in the tear-it-down argument, the place where the rubber doesn't meet the road. Where do all those people go?

Hancock and Kennedy have answers, but many people will not like them. In a nutshell, they say the traffic needs to go away.

First of all, it's what does happen in the short-run when freeways get shut down. In 2011 when the notoriously congested 405 in Los Angeles was shut down for two days for bridge construction, dire media predictions of "Carmageddon" turned into a running joke as motorists just found other ways to go, congestion failed to materialize and air quality soared. Kennedy and Hancock say their survey of available research shows that the find-another-way solution will take care of as much as 25 percent of I-345's normal traffic load.

They assert that another 25 percent will be resolved in the longer range through population shift, if the new land created by the tear-down is leveraged to assure affordable housing. A vibrant and affordable center will draw more people to live and work inside the loop, eliminating that many commuters.

Another 25 percent of the traffic can be accommodated by regional solutions, they say. Rather than using the center city as a race track for regional commuters, the outer freeway loops must be beefed up and redirected to keep regional traffic out of the city's core. And finally the remaining 25 percent of traffic that really wants to be in the core should be on local streets where some congestion can be a good thing. Just ask any merchant.

Those are assumptions that Baylor, the Deep Ellum investors and many of the members of that regional planning body want to see tested. As impressive as Hancock and Kennedy can be, the people with a lot of skin in the game want to see all of this in black and white from somebody with institutional credibility, which brings us to the last challenge. Who has credibility on road issues?

A study, if there is to be one, probably will be carried out by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Normally TxDOT does traffic counts, not analyses of population and cultural shifts, but it likely will look at whatever the city of Dallas asks it to look at, says TxDOT spokesman Tony Hartsel.

"We want to hear from the city, first off, that they want to have the feasibility study, that there is some consensus there about doing the study and what that might entail," Hartsel says. "Then we can have those further studies about actually developing the feasibility study."

But TxDOT and its frequent partner on local road studies, Morris' employer, the Cog, have a deeply dicey reputation among local freeway opponents, who have accused them of baldly manipulating studies and data in the past to support construction of the proposed Trinity toll road along the river through downtown. The toll road has been a source of bitter debate between road foes and road backers for almost two decades. It doesn't help that Morris has been trying for weeks to forge a link between tearing down I-345 and building the toll road.

Sparks erupted at the recent regional transportation council meeting over Morris' insistent demand, expressed in an earlier public letter and again at the meeting, that anyone in favor of tearing down I-345 must state his or her position on the as yet unbuilt toll road. For Morris, tearing down one and not building the other would be the true do-nothing option.

Dallas City Council member Sandy Greyson, a member of the RTC, chastised Morris, suggesting that any linkage of the two roads should be left for a study to prove, not injected into the debate ahead of time as a political litmus test.

"It's hard for me to imagine that they wouldn't be linked," he fired back.

The assertion that a toll road along the river could or would ever handle any of the traffic displaced by tearing down I-345 hits a raw nerve with former City Council member Angela Hunt, who led an unsuccessful 2007 referendum aimed at moving the planned route farther away from the river. Hunt, a lawyer, keeps good files. From them she quickly produces Morris' own document published August 27, 2007, called "Corridors Impacted by Trinity Parkway Removal."

A color-coded map on the page shows all of the downtown Dallas freeways that Morris said in 2007 would be affected if the toll road were not built. In other words, he was counting motorists who might use the toll road if it were built or might use some other freeway if the toll road were not built.

Interstates 30 and 35 and highways 183, 67, 80 and 175 are richly colored on the map. But I-345 is grayed out. At least in 2007, Morris' own story was that I-345 and the toll road were not even kissing cousins. People who drove on one would not drive on the other.

Hunt says anybody who looks closely at the proposed route for the toll road can see why. It goes the wrong way. I-345 carries cars straight up and down the north-south axis. The toll road would slant from the far southeastern corner of the region up into the far northwestern corner on the way to the airport.

"It's kind of simple," Hunt says. "You can look at it like this. Where does the Trinity toll road connect? It connects at 175 [in the far southeast]. It hits that. You can't exit onto I-30. It heads west. You can't exit onto I-35 without going through a stop light, so there isn't a direct connection there. And you get all the way to 183 [in the far northwest]."

In other words, if we tore down I-345, people would indeed have to find another way to go, but they would never use the toll road. "If you go back and you look at the transportation patterns, no matter how Michael Morris wants to spin this, folks in southeast Dallas aren't traveling to or from northwest Dallas or the northwest part of our region."

So what's going on? Hunt says Morris, whom she calls "the best politician in the region," is simply a road guy who never wants to lose roads. If one goes away over here, he thinks he needs another one over there.

"He is madly in love with increasing the amount of roads in Dallas at the expense of Dallasites for the benefit of suburbanites," Hunt says. "When it comes down to it, he just wants more roads."

Morris' own vision, expressed explicitly if plaintively at the RTC meeting, is that there is no other choice. "If someone is saying, 'We are going to tear down 345 and not replace it with a freeway,'" he said, "then you immediately have to say, 'Well, what else am I going to do?'"

The answer from the other side, from the people with the competing vision, is exactly what he fears. Do nothing. The other vision is that roads and automotive super-mobility make a cancer that burdens, degrades and eventually may destroy communities. Tearing it down and replacing it with nothing, then, is the do-something option.

"It's really a way of rephrasing the conversation about how we build the city," Hancock says. "Dallas needs to stick up for itself."

Far from being a replacement for I-345, in this view, is the toll road not the same problem all over again? If we would tear down one freeway because it divides the city and does more harm than good, why would we build another one to do the same thing? That's what this is really all about.

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