Is it time to rethink U.S 35 through downtown?

It may not be something most people think about as they drive around day to day, but Dayton’s urban fabric has been indelibly changed by the two highways that criss-cross downtown: Interstate 75 and U.S. 35.

I-75 sliced off Roberts Drive from downtown and led to the bulldozing of a wide boulevard of elegant mansions.

U.S. 35 cut a two-mile-long swath through the densest part of Dayton, dividing neighborhoods in half as it collected and disgorged cross-town commuters.

As I-75 nears the completion of millions of dollars of upgrades, we should think twice about the Ohio Department of Transportation’s current proposal, still awaiting funding, to streamline U.S. 35.

Let’s think instead about how to remove it.

Cities can reconsider freeways

Freeway removal is not a novelty. In 1989, the Loma Prieto earthquake struck San Francisco and badly damaged the Embarcadero Freeway, a double-decker snaking along the waterfront. The image of its upper deck collapsed onto the lower has long been TV shorthand for the earthquake.

But instead of rebuilding the freeway, San Francisco elected to remove it altogether. In its place the city built a boulevard with trolley tracks down the middle. What had been a looming, two-story edge to downtown was now sun-lit, tree-lined, and welcoming to pedestrians. San Franciscans had their waterfront back.

Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway also faced a huge bill for repairs and upgrades – almost $100 million. So, in 2002, the city spent a quarter of the projected cost of repairs and tore it down. Unlike San Francisco, the removal of the Park East freed land for new development – 26 acres that attracted $300 million in new construction. With no freeway and without the no-man’s-land underneath the overhead viaduct, removal also served to knit back together parts of downtown that had been divided for quite some time.

Freeways were bad for downtowns

Most freeway proposals nationwide have removed the urban parts of freeways, particularly viaducts, spurs, connectors, and freeways along rivers or other waterfront sites. These are roads that have done the most damage to urban neighborhoods and downtowns. They’re also usually well-positioned to take advantage of density and surrounding development, so removing a freeway often allows for new uses and new development.

Why couldn’t it happen here?

Focusing on the portion of U.S. 35 between Steve Whalen Boulevard and Ludlow Street, I propose replacing this section with a new boulevard connected to the street grid. This stretch of roadway is around two miles long. It cuts through the densest zip code in the region and happens to run through parts of the city that have seen the most recent investment. Some of the roadbed is already on grade or close to grade, while other portions consist of embankments and overpasses (bridges) that would need to be re-graded or removed.

Admittedly, U.S. 35 has not been damaged by an earthquake. It’s in good condition. The current ODOT proposal to streamline the freeway through downtown still awaits funding, but it won’t have a $100 million price tag. So why is it, in my opinion, a candidate for removal?

First, because it’s outdated. As early as 1920, plans were being laid by Dayton civic leaders to create faster automobile routes through the city. Generally these were envisioned as parkways, and Riverside Drive was one concrete result. But the idea of a cross-town expressway linking East Dayton with West Dayton persisted. In 1948, planning started in earnest for what would become U.S. 35, and construction finished as Dayton’s population peaked in 1960. After 60 years, I think it’s time to reconsider the underlying premise of a cross-town expressway and whether we devote prime urban real estate to through traffic.

Second, it wastes urban land. Look at an aerial photo of Dayton. Look at the area devoted just to getting on and off U.S. 35. There’s the sprawling Main Street/Jefferson cloverleaf, or the Keowee Street off-ramp. It basically parallels U.S. 35 for a mile. A narrower, 100-foot-wide boulevard would be much less expensive for state taxpayers to maintain. There would be no grass to mow, no bridges to maintain and keep lighted. And it would free up – by my calculations – nearly 100 acres of land for new development.

Rebuilding neighborhood connections

Third, removing U.S. 35 would re-establish connections between inner city neighborhoods that were severed. The Oregon District, St. Anne’s Hill, Twin Towers and South Park were once part of a generally cohesive whole, developing outward from downtown at the turn of the last century. Without the elevated freeway structure of U.S. 35, their neighborhood boundaries would be indistinct, only the commercial corridors giving a clue as to whether you’re looking at Oregon or South Park.

U.S. 35 is a strong edge, forming a wall between midtown and downtown and a moat between St. Anne’s and Twin Towers. Edges can isolate investment. In other cities, hot neighborhoods quickly expand, if only through appropriation by real-estate agents and developers. If U.S. 35 were less of a barrier, less of an urban edge, we might see new investment spill over more readily north to south.

And last, U.S. 35 is ugly. Take a trip down Buckeye Street by the concrete-faced embankments patchworked with graffiti-concealing paint. Drive alongside the dark gravel colonnade that abuts Washington Street. Better yet, walk under 35 on the dirty sidewalks along Wayne Avenue, or cycle through if you’re adventurous.

Removing U.S. 35 would eliminate the forgotten, neglected corners where trash accumulates but people don’t. We respond to visual cues from our environment — why else do we buy flowers or paint our houses, but to bring joy and visual order into the world? We shouldn’t accept engineering that offends our senses and discourages us from experiencing the city by whatever mode of transport we choose.

Dayton would be better off without U.S. 35 in its present form. In transportation parlance, U.S. 35 is a limited-access road, which means traffic doesn’t stop (until you get to Abbey Road in West Dayton or Factory Road in Beavercreek). On- and off-ramps limit access by car, and state law (and common sense) limits cyclists and pedestrians from using the road. The expressway doesn’t nurture the life of the city, which develops on the street. The grid, in contrast, offers universal access, a smile, a “hello.”

So I would slow down U.S. 35 as it approaches downtown.

Opening new land to develop

From Steve Whalen Boulevard heading west, imagine a boulevard with 35-mph traffic. There are a few traffic lanes in each direction with tall trees arching over the street.

Past the trees are bicycle-only lanes going east and west, separated from both car traffic and pedestrians and with their own traffic signals. Then, beyond the bike lanes, wide sidewalks for pedestrians who enjoy strolling past the new mixed-use buildings flanking the new boulevard. Nice, right?

The model for the new boulevard is European, something like the Paseig de Gracia in Barcelona. The Spanish boulevard is wider than I propose (200 feet versus 100 to 150 feet), but has the basic features you want in an urban street. It has a mix of transportation types, a mix of things to do, a mix of people. And lots of trees. The Paseo is flanked by six- and seven-story buildings, which might not be appropriate in, say, St. Anne’s Hill. A gradual increase in density might better match the surrounding neighborhoods.

Townhouses could line the boulevard from Steve Whalen to Keowee, with retail space at the corners for bakeries, restaurants, and professional offices. From Keowee to Ludlow, taller apartment blocks might be in order (four to seven stories), with shopping and restaurants on the ground floor. With the street on grade, with the overpasses and sunken roadway gone, U.S. 35 would be an active urban street instead of a marginal urban edge.

I estimate that removing 35 would free up 100 acres of land that could be auctioned off and redeveloped for these townhouses and apartment buildings. That is a large area – equivalent to 20 Water Street developments or 11 sites the size of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. These parcels would be well-positioned to capitalize on investment in adjacent neighborhoods and to provide amenities to existing residents. If the assessed values of these adjacent properties are a guide, those 100 acres would represent over $100 million in new property value to the City. Remember that Milwaukee had $300 million in new investment on just 26 acres.

Cities are economic generators

John Norquist, the mayor of Milwaukee when the Park East Freeway removal was completed, said that “Highways don’t belong in cities.” He’s right. Urban places are economic generators – more people living and working in the densest part of our core benefit the city and region.

There are many hurdles to removing or altering U.S. 35 – cost, political inertia, the coordination between city, county, and state that would be needed, re-routing trucking and other constituents of the freeway. But fundamentally, the benefits would outweigh the costs. There is no better-situated land in Dayton on which to consider new development. There is no other opportunity to build a new street from scratch, a modern street with a sense of place, designed from the start to support walking, biking, and safe vehicular traffic.

After 60 years, it’s time to rethink U.S. 35.

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Matt Sauer is an architect who lives and works in Dayton.

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