The power of urban demolition

Three areas where tearing down obsolete highways or viaducts could improve the urban environment.
One of the things which Portland is famous for in urbanist circles, was the decision in the 1970s to remove Harbor Drive and replace it with Tom McCall Waterfront Park (or Waterfront Park as it was known back then). And more recently, another urban demolition project–of smaller scope–helped in making NW Portland what is is today: the 1999 removal of the Lovejoy Viaduct.

The viaduct, an elevated structure running between the Broadway Bridge and NW 14th street, with a spur connecting to NW 12th, crossed over a railyard which used to exist in NW Portland. As part of a series of projects to transform the industrial NW into what is now the Pearl, the bulk of the viaduct was removed (at a cost of $14.5 million, most of which came from Uncle Sam) and replaced with a surface street, with a shorter 2-block ramp connecting Lovejoy Street to the Broadway Bridge. The former railyard is now the heart of the Pearl District, with parks and mixed-use buildings replacing rail spurs. The trains that run there now are streetcars, not freights, and the removal of the viaduct was key to the transformation.

Other cities have seen similar benefits from removing elevated structures and replacing them with surface streets. The collapse of the Embarcadero Freeway in the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and its subsequent demolition and removal, has transformed the waterfront of downtown San Francisco. With that in mind, here are three other locations in the city where removal of viaducts or obsolete highway alignments may have a transforming effect.

After the jump.
Before the list beings, a few conditions:

  • The structure or alignment in question ought to be of limited transportation value. The Lovejoy Viaduct served a useful purpose when it crossed a railyard; not so much when it crossed a vacant lot. Absent from this list are proposals to remove freeways–while some of us may like doing that, such things are, obviously, a harder sell. In general, if removal of the structure would create a bottleneck where none exists before, it’s not on the list.
  • Some potential for urban transformation is also required.

With that, here’s the list.

The Kerby Avenue viaduct

The Rose City Freeway/Prescott Freeway was planned to be a freeway extending from the east end of the Fremont Bridge to an alignment along Prescott Street, then east out to I-205 somewhere near Rocky Butte. It was killed when the Mt. Hood Freeway was killed, and is today a dim memory–except for one glaring reminder–the Kerby Avenue ramps connecting the Fremont Bridge (I-405) with Emanuel Hospital. Quite a few blocks of NE Portland were demolished in anticipation of this freeway; the short stub of it which was actually built serves no useful purpose, and separates the neighborhood to the north with Emanuel Hospital. And for several blocks, the Kerby ramp runs parallel to Kerby Street itself–or the mutilated alignment of Kerby.

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An obvious improvement would be to end the ramp at the place where the existing Kerby Street curves (just north of the hospital) with a signalized intersection, and continue the route eastward on the existing Kerby/Cook alignment–possibly reconnecting Kerby Street with its northern self, providing easier access to the hospital (and to the bridge) from the north, without having to use the Vancouver/Williams couplet. The land occupied by the existing alignment then could be put to some better use.

Naito Parkway south

This isn’t so much of a viaduct removal as it is an obsolete-highway removal. Long before the construction of the Baldock Freeway (I-5), traffic through town from the southwest came in on Barbur Boulevard, which connected to Harbor Drive via Front Avenue (now Naito Parkway). While Harbor Drive itself is mostly gone, the section of Naito Parkway which joined the two (roughly between SW Harrison and Barbur) still resembles its former freeway-esque glory, with no left turns, cross traffic, or signals in the entire stretch. A few streets have grade-separated crossings of Naito in this stretch (I-405, SW Arthur, and SW Grover), along with an elevated pedestrian bridge and the Portland Aerial Tram, but the street is a major barrier to bike and pedestrian traffic–as well as to cars trying to get through South Portland. Oh, and the ramp system connecting Naito to Arthur and the Ross Island bridge is a dangerous, confusing mess. And frontage roads provide local access in many places, lest a parked car interfere with high speed traffic.

There’s no reason for this stretch of road to resemble a 1950s-era freeway. Barbur to the south has plenty of signallized intersections through Burlingame, and Harbor Drive is long gone. (One bit of evidence which remains–the oversized overpass crossing I-405, which used to feature ramps to Harbor).

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There’s quite a bit of good news, however:

  • MLR will introduce a new signallized grade crossing at SW Lincoln, shortening the de-facto freeway stretch by about two blocks.
  • In 2010, the city and ODOT agreed to transfer jurisdiction of the parts of Naito Parkway north of I-405 to the city of Portland. (Many have called for all of Barbur Boulevard north of the Tigard interchange to be transferred to local jurisdiction).
  • The Southwest Corridor project will no doubt look at future opportunities along this corridor–Naito could be a routing of a future MAX or BRT line. (Such an alignment would have issues with OHSU access, but it’s possible).


The stretch between Arthur and the Ross Island Bridge is probably difficult to modify because of its role in handling US26 traffic, but the stretch north of there (north of the freeway and south of the bridge) likely would be easier to improve–and the improvements are obvious:

  • Put in signals so people, bikes, busses, and even cars can cross the thing. A signal at Curry would make sense, as it’s parallel with the pedestrian bridge over I-5.
  • Likewise, remove the frontage roads, and provide direct on-street parking. The width of the corridor, if this it is done, makes it attractive for a busway or other rapid transit in the median.

  • Longer term, the US26 ramp system could use some serious redesign.

East approaches to Hawthorne and Morrison bridges

I group these two together because they are only a few blocks apart, and many of the comments for one will suffice for the other. At the east end of both bridges are twin viaducts (one for eastbound traffic, one for westbound) that connect the bridges to OR99E–for some reason, crossing over southbound OR99E (MLK Jr. Boulevard) but intersecting at grade with northbound 99E (Grand Avenue). Both viaducts also cross over the UPRR mainline and I-5 (or under it, in the case of the Hawthorne). Long term, it would be nice to bury the UPRR mainline so it no longer bisects the neighborhood, but three blocks separate the train tracks from MLK.

Thus, the obvious suggestion: Shorten the viaducts by these three blocks, so both come to the surface at SE 2nd.

The Belmont Street viaduct may be a bit difficult to truncate at that place, because of the ramp from southbound I-5; but it’s also the one that provides a big safety hazard: the dangerous merge-weave between that ramp and the offramp to MLK. With the viaducts removed, the latter ramp would no longer exist.

View Larger Map

Effects of this:

  • The wasted blocks between MLK/Grand/Belmont/Morrison and MLK/Grand/Hawthorne/Madison, currently taken up by ramps, could be put to more productive use.
  • The pedestrian environment would be much improved.
  • It would have transit calming effects on MLK Jr; motorists tend to speed on this stretch due to the grade separation and absence of signals.
  • It would improve transit connections between the 14 and 15 and the southbound Streetcar when it opens–right now, getting from the Streetcar route to either of these frequent bus lines is a big pain in the butt.

Needless to say, the current bus lane on Madison would be extended in such a proposal, and a corresponding bus lane on Hawthorne installed. (Or Streetcar, if a Hawthorne line is ever built).

26 responses to “The power of urban demolition”

  1. The Kirby ramps are just silly, and I can’t imagine why the city has not eliminated them yet. This seems like a no-brainer, particularly with the revival that the Mississippi district is seeing. Great chance for infill development at a very low cost to the taxpayers.

    Naito south is also a great opportunity. It only needs to be one lane with turn lanes for most of the distance between 405 and Barbur. It is scary for cyclists and pedestrians alike. This could be a model road diet + green street project.

  2. Great post,
    Two of my nominees would be:

    Phantom ramp onto Eastbound Hawthorne Bridge from Southbound Naito.

    West end Morrison Bridge Ramps. Not gonna happen in our lifetime but a guy can dream

  3. The Kirby ramps could pay for their own removal by selling the land (unfortunately, under ODOT ownership it could be a hard sell).

    The Barbur/ Naito/ Ross Island Bridge area has been in the city’s eye for 3 decades now. Most ideas directly link R. I. Bridge to I-405 with westward ramps to downtown, and then reduce Barbur/ Naito to a complete street with intersections, crosswalks, bike lanes, etc… Unfortunately, any and all of these ideas are very costly without easy funding mechanisms.

    I disagree with the Eastside viaducts. I like them. I like the energy and sounds they create. They are part of Portland’s history and create a distinct area feel that is nowhere else in the city. If anything happens to the Central Eastside it should be the removal/ trenching/ burying of I-5. We do not need more land for Pearl style development, we still have room to build in the Pearl, plenty of empty spaces in the West End, lots in South Waterfront, and even more in the Lloyd district. Leave the creative employment center of Portland alone.

  4. I agree with NJD on the east side viaducts. There really is no demand in that area for much infill development at this time. As demand rises, we can use a phased approach:

    1. Eliminate cloverleaf ramps at Grand and MLK. This will add a few empty lots for development.

    2. Bury the rail line along 2nd Ave (to prevent disruption of the main line during construction. Turn the existing rail corridor into a bikeway/park

    3. Truncate bridge ramps at Water or 2nd. Tear down those towering flyover ramps to I-5. With the viaducts truncated, much simpler ramps can be used with a simple overpass style interchange.

  5. I’m not sure tearing down the Morrison and Hawthorne Bridge ramps would be worth the cost. It would add four more intersections on MLK, slowing traffic accordingly and providing more opportunities for accidents.

    These are interesting ideas, though, and worth discussing.

    We should not distract ourselves with dreams of burying I-5. It would cost a stupendous amount of money and result in a small gain. If you were king of the city and had enough money to bury that freeway, would you really want to spend it that way with so many other problems crying for money? Think homelessness, energy independence, job creation, schools, bike infrastructure, public transportation, etc.

  6. As someone who lives right by the Kerby Ramps, I know that removing these is a popular idea. How would I (or anyone) help get this idea rolling? I was told to talk to PBOT, but the folks I’ve chatted with so far are not terribly interested or are overworked on other projects. We could call this project the ‘Fremont Bridgehead’

  7. [Tearing down the Hawthorne/Morrison bridge ramps] would add four more intersections on MLK, slowing traffic accordingly and providing more opportunities for accidents.

    Slowing down traffic a bit is the point.

    It likely wouldn’t increase accidents. Projects which are safety improvements (such as grade-separation) seldom improve safety–instead they increase speed and/or volume, with these two parameters increasing until the accident rate is the same as before. (See Smeed’s Law).

  8. Would it slow down traffic? Aren’t the lights on MLK/Grand sequenced? Given that this would be a one-way to one-way intersection, and there are no wasteful left turn cycles…

  9. I believe the lights are sequenced, but the traffic tends to move at a greater speed than the light sequence.

  10. We should bury & expand the rail corridor along with the I-5 corridor. A light rail line should also be included to connect to the Milwaukie line & bypass downtown.

  11. For light sequencing to work properly in regulating speed on MLK, you would need them to be a lot more frequent, every block or two at least. The way it is now, when cars have a green light they speed up really fast because they have 6 blocks or so before the next light. Adding more signals and more crossings would do wonders in making MLK and Grand more pedestrian-friendly and safe for everyone, and I don’t really see how the Eastside streetcar will be very successful unless something like this happens. Since they chose to put the streetcar on the west side of MLK and the east side of Grand, people will have to cross both 4-lane high-speed roads to switch directions. This is a recipe for failure as currently designed. Plus, as Scotty mentioned, connections between the streetcar southbound and buses will be very difficult to make.

  12. NW 14th street

    Streets go east and west, avenues go north and south.

    Also, I’ve thought about the eastside bridgeheads.

    Regarding Naito, check out the South Portland Circulation Study Report & Recommendations. And it seems a “Phase I” could be done at any time, specifically:
    -Connect southbound Kelley to the bridge, much like the bridge is connected to northbound Kelley; eliminate the current ramp that starts at Arthur and parallels Naito
    -Construct the direct connection from Kelley to Hood; eliminate the “off-ramp” that ends at Kelley & Gibbs
    -Possibly construct a counterclockwise loop ramp from Macadam under Kelley to the bridge; eliminate the on-ramp from Kelley & Gibbs to the bridge
    -Possibly construct a connection from the south end of Hood up to either Bancroft or Hamilton and over to Barbur to replace southbound Naito
    -Possibly connect Naito directly to Kelley
    -Possibly replace the Sheridan curves with a new Sheridan Street roadway that heads directly east along the south side of I-405.
    I may make a graphic of these changes.

    Lastly, the eastbank portion of I-5 could possibly be removed if I-405 could handle the traffic. It may have room for another lane and some of the ramps could be removed (is there really a need for on-ramps at both Couch Street and 4 blocks north at Glisan Street?)

  13. Lastly, the eastbank portion of I-5 could possibly be removed if I-405 could handle the traffic. It may have room for another lane and some of the ramps could be removed (is there really a need for on-ramps at both Couch Street and 4 blocks north at Glisan Street?)

    I’ve thought about this in the past. I can see the “new” I-5 as the Fremont Bridge and a widened (eight lane) Stadium Freeway running through downtown with just three interchanges — a “north” interchange with Highway 30/NW Portland, a “central” interchange with 26, and a “south” interchange around SW 4th/5th/6th. Turn the Marquam bridge into a access: three lanes each way across the bridge, and the east end connects to MLK/Grand/McLoughlin and Division.

    Keep access from the Morrison Bridge to the Banfield and I-5 north for direct access to/from downtown. But with the east bank freeway gone, there’s the chance to dramatically improve freeway access to the Banfield and I-5 north from the Central Eastside Industrial District, as well as providing a direct approach from CEID to the Marquam Bridge for access to and from I-5 south.

    Certainly cheaper than moving the east bank freeway, since all you need to to is close it down and build some new access ramps.

  14. Regarding traffic lights/pedestrian crossings on MLK/Grand, the current streetcar project is adding a number of lights on MLK and a few near the south end of Grand. While this may not calm overall traffic speeds by much, it will add signaled pedestrian and bike crossings in some places where they were are sorely needed.

    Also, although the project is not removing the Hawthorne and Morrison viaduct approach ramps from MLK, it is eliminating the “off ramp” style turns from the eastbound direction of those viaducts to northbound Grand, instead configuring the intersections for normal signalized turns you’d find on any grid.

    Finally, you may have recently noticed the unused land caught in the loops of the ramps from MLK to the viaducts have been converted to large bioswales with new plantings. I haven’t checked on them in the past couple of weeks, it will be interesting to see how they are holding up to the recent rains, as the plantings weren’t mature.

  15. If I-5 moves over to I-405, it would be tempting to tear down the Marquam. It is a huge eyesore and will come down during the next big Cascadia earthquake anyway. Imagine Portland with no east bank freeway, through traffic routed to I-205 and a capped I-405, parks along the waterfront on both sides of the river…

    Another benefit: no need to widen I-5 through the Rose Quarter, as it would now just be there to feed I-84. Has there been a city that has regretted tearing out their waterfront freeway? I’m not aware of one…

  16. For some reason I really like vertical separation and it kind of makes me sad to see a viaduct go away for just a surface street. Couldn’t they often be improved with things like more pedestrian stairs and building new developments above/below/around them? I probably just haven’t gotten past whatever it is urbanists of the 50s got over.

  17. Pedestrian stairs pose difficulties for the disabled, as well as those on bikes. And when you have too many vertical layers on the street, you get what I’ll call the Coruscant effect (after the city-planet in Star Wars; though there are numerous other examples of this in science fiction). All layers but the top are generally blocked from the sun, and thus might as well be indoors–this is especially true in dense urban environments, where building heights limit the penetration of direct sunlight. (Circulation of air is also a problem).

    The other issue with grade separation is that when it IS built, it’s frequently built for speed. All of the viaducts mentioned in this article were designed to permit vehicular traffic to flow smoothly and swiftly through a dense urban area with minimal interference from (and in some cases, to, though for Naito Parkway this failed) pedestrian activities. Being up on one of these viaducts, with traffic whizzing by, is not a particularly pleasant pedestrian experience.

    The most successful multi-level pedestrian environments I can think of are “underground cities” in various places. But these are essentially indoors, and are generally discontinuous. They seem to be found in dense urban environments where it’s either often very cold (Toronto) or very hot (Hong Kong).

  18. @Chris I:

    “It is a huge eyesore and will come down during the next big Cascadia earthquake anyway.”

    So will the Fremont.

    @Jason McHuff:

    The NCNM Conditional Use Master Plan in process right now includes implementing many of the recommendations made in the South Portland Circulation Study. The concern is that Kelly Avenue is a dangerous place to cross (even for cars, much less bicycles and pedestrians) if accessing the college from one of the westbound bus stops. Pedestrian-activated signals with marked crosswalks may help calm some of the traffic that’s flying off the bridge westbound.

    The school also wants to tear down the non-ADA compliant crosswalk and have an at-grade crossing of Naito at Hooker Street. However, ODOT has so far demurred because of the ramp that leads from Arthur Street to the EB Ross Island Bridge paralleling Naito. It’s a real mess down there.

  19. @ EngineerScotty:

    If one of the main goals is improving the pedestrian experience, why not start small with cheaper streetscape improvements that will have a transformative impact on calming traffic and improving walking and cycling in parts of the city.

    Things such as adding more signals and implementing signal timing to calm traffic, reducing the cross-section and speed limits of major arterials to make them seem less like urban sewers and more as a main street, and painting marked crosswalks and bike lanes/sharrows.

    See West Burnside between 24th Place and the Park Blocks, SE Hawthorne between 12th and 39th, all along 82nd Avenue, Broadway/Weidler couplet, and Grand/MLK couplet for examples of this.

  20. Kelley would still be a major street in my proposal (though the direct ramps between I-5/I-405/Harbor Drive and the Ross Island Bridge envisioned in the study could still be done in a future phase). But regarding the bus stops, remember that they will go away when the new bridge opens.

    Also, I think you mean overpass and not crosswalk at Naito and Hooker.

  21. I’ll call the Coruscant effect (after the city-planet in Star Wars; though there are numerous other examples of this in science fiction). All layers but the top are generally blocked from the sun, and thus might as well be indoors

    Yes! Around here that also means protection from the rain. I’m actually surprised more of our parks and sidewalks and whatnot aren’t covered with roofs.

    When I become a billionaire I’m going to spend all my money on digging out a gigantic void underneath downtown and the Willamette. The underground city will unite the east and west side and have malls, parks, and easy access to the MAX lines that will be undergrounded. It will be like 12 floors tall with mezzanines and escalators and elevators all over the damned place. Or, you know, some more covered dry sidewalks would be nice.

  22. @Jason McHuff

    Correct on both counts. I did mean overpass and those stops are going away. Which is something that the college and neighborhood are very worried about (losing their transit access to the Eastside).

    Regardless, Kelly Avenue is a major impediment to crossing safely in any mode. The same goes for Naito and the approach ramps from Naito to the bridge. Eventually, those ramps may be eliminated entirely, with at-grade connections from Naito to the bridge. Thus restoring the street grid and improving connectivity for all modes. You could even sell those restored blocks for development.

  23. Regardless, Kelly Avenue is a major impediment to crossing safely in any mode. The same goes for Naito and the approach ramps from Naito to the bridge. Eventually, those ramps may be eliminated entirely, with at-grade connections from Naito to the bridge. Thus restoring the street grid and improving connectivity for all modes. You could even sell those restored blocks for development.

    Indeed, page 29 of South Portland Circulation Study Report & Recommendations has an illustration of this very concept, along with direct connections between I-405 and Ross Island Bridge.

  24. The proposals for rebuilding access to the west end of the Ross Isl Bridge/I-405/Kelly in the year 2000 study still seem logical. The only thing I’ll add is some consideration for eventually replacing the double-deck Marquam with a single-deck of the same capacity and redesignated as a connector to the Banfield, and I-5 traffic redirected onto I-405.

    A single-deck replacement for the Marquam would be a major undertaking, but I expect globalization can never reach projected growth and is likely to decline instead. Thus, the supposed need for more freeway capacity is bogus. Climate Change, Peak Oil & our insanely imbalanced and transport-dependent economies will prevent reckless republican business leaders from realizing their motto of “He who dies with the most money wins.”

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