Monday, March 23, 2015

Why We Must Tear Down I-345

Downtown Dallas is designed like a McDonald’s. It needs to be more like a sit-down restaurant. How do we make that happen? Tear down Interstate 345. 

Our infrastructure supports evacuating Dallas as quickly and efficiently as possible. I-345 is a big part of that evacuation plan. Opened in 1974, the 1.4-mile elevated highway connects Central Expressway to interstates 45 and 30. To do so, it cuts right through what once was, and could be again, a vibrant part of Dallas. It divides downtown and Deep Ellum and creates blight on both sides. The area underneath and around I-345 is a tangled, depressed mess. Joel Allison, CEO of Baylor Health Care System, has said the Baylor hospital near Deep Ellum gets calls from ambulances that don’t know how to get there.

Length: 1.4 miles
Opened: 1974
Connects: Central Expressway and interstates 30 and 45
Problem: Divides downtown and Deep Ellum, creates blight
Proposal: Tear it down, replace it with an urban parkway, and redevelop the surrounding 245 acres
Benefit: $4 billion in new investment and more than $100 million per year in property tax revenue over 15 years

Dallas’ system of freeways has been in service of pushing the population farther away from downtown and into the suburbs. Removing I-345 and replacing it with a well-designed urban parkway (an idea that is the brainchild of urban planner Patrick Kennedy) is a way to counteract that, to reverse that shift and fall in line with a trend that is already happening. Downtown had a few hundred residents 20 years ago. Now it has more than 8,000—a number limited mostly by housing supply. The occupancy rate is 94 percent. There is pent-up demand.

With so many people wanting to move to a true urban neighborhood like Uptown—narrow and dense, perfectly walkable—why has there been so little growth? Because there is an unsightly, unnecessary highway sitting right where a true urban neighborhood could be. Blowing up I-345 would free up 245 acres for development that could bring in another 27,540 downtown residents and, based on developable-square-footage estimates, more than 22,550 jobs. (It breaks down to more than 5,000 in retail, more than 16,000 office jobs, and almost 1,000 in the hotel and hospitality industry.) And those estimates are conservative. It would restitch the grid, reconnect Deep Ellum and East Dallas to downtown, and allow the active development happening farther up Central Expressway to move south. 

What happens then? Within 15 years, as much as $4 billion in new investment and more than $100 million in yearly property tax revenue. To put that in perspective, there has been only $19 million in improvements to those 245 acres, and property tax revenue today is a measly $3 million per year. 

How much would it cost to make this happen? It wouldn’t be cheap. The Texas Department of Transportation has thrown out the estimate of $1.9 billion. But the I-635 reconstruction project, which was 10 times larger, cost only 38 percent more. So $1.9 billion doesn’t make sense.

A more realistic estimate: $50 million to demolish I-345 and $250 million to replace it with a parkway and redo the utilities for development. The city could easily pay for it—without TxDOT—by using an idea from the real estate community: create a tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ) and sell 30-year bonds. 

The resulting new investment in the area would more than make up for the initial cost and pay off the bonds ahead of schedule.

Zac Crain, D Magazine