Tag Archives | Demolition

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).

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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.


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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).