Some locals want their own High Line; others want a fresh start.
Like so many American cities in the 1960s, Houston built a raised interstate right through its core—a segment of Interstate 45 known as the Pierce Elevated. Despite objections that life around the Pierce Elevated would become "psychologically intolerable," officials advanced the plans anyway. They even argued the area beneath the highway would be a pleasant place to, say, play basketball.
Shocker: no one played basketball under I-45. "I see that as a public relations attempt to say, 'No, really, honestly, it's not that bad!'" says Kyle Shelton of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, who's documented this particular era. Instead, like so many other urban freeways, the Pierce Elevated divided the city, mangled the street grid, and served as a barrier to local development.
But there's hope yet for Houston. In conjunction with the Texas Department of Transportation, the city is advancing plans for what the Chronicle says "could be the largest freeway rebuilding project ever undertaken in the Houston area"—an effort that targets the Pierce Elevated for closure. So just as so many cities built urban interstates, Houston might join those finally removing them.
The hot question around town right now is what to put in Pierce's place. Some favor the latest official proposal, which recommends tearing down the highway and "enhancing the visual sight line of the Midtown and Downtown areas." But others prefer to keep the structure in place, close it to traffic, and convert it into an elevated park that becomes Houston's answer to the High Line in New York.
Any plans for Pierce are still many years (and rounds of public feedback) away from being realized. But given the broad interest in closing the highway, and the time it takes to piece together support for big public space projects, it's not too soon to start looking at the transform-versus-teardown debate more closely.
The pro-transform folks certainly have pretty design renderings on their side. They also have the Chronicle's Lisa Gray, who's been writing a lot about potential park transformations and seems to favor them. Gray, like other locals, is partial to the views of the city that the raised road provides:
Houston's downtown has always looked best from the freeway, and the Pierce's elevation feels exhilarating in mathematically flat Houston. What would it be like to savor those views slowly, without fear of collision?
One of the leading ideas for transforming the interstate is called the Pierce Skypark. The idea here is for a 2-mile, 38-acre elevated park in the style of the High Line. Gray also likes what a Skypark could do for the space underneath the interstate: "that shaded area could become a pedestrian- and bike-friendly landscape of apartments, shops, offices, restaurants and other attractions — a pleasant urban place to live or while away an afternoon."
Perhaps there could even be basketball courts.
Another idea in the transform camp is called the Pierce Elevated Park. This vision fashions itself a more "recreation-oriented" use of the superstructure. It would include a 2.6-mile walking and jogging path, bike and rollerblade strips, designated exercise areas designed for yoga and "fitness boot camps," a skateboard park, and connections to the Buffalo Bayou trail system. The Pierce Elevated Park also touts its lower cost of construction, compared with the Skypark.
In response to Gray's posts on elevated parks, John S. Jacob of Houston's Eastwood Civic Association counters that Pierce should be torn down to make way for "a pedestrian promenade" on par with the Champs-Élysées in Paris or La Rambla in Barcelona. He envisions a place with pedestrian plazas, outdoors markets, civic spaces, lots of big trees, and yes, even a little room for cars—but most importantly a reconnection between midtown and downtown Houston. He retorts:
Clearly we need to do something innovative and lasting with this new space. Turning it into just another street would be a total waste. But we must undo the bad that was done by the Pierce Elevated: the destruction of vital urban fabric for traffic efficiency. We need a bigger idea for that. We must reclaim this space in ways that increase usable and lively civic space by building exceptional urban fabric.
At the Kinder Institute's blog, Shelton wonders if there might be some middle ground between transform and teardown. He proposes turning a short segment of the elevated structure into a high park but razing the rest of it for other types of development, such as public squares and mixed-use buildings. Given the area's proximity to Houston's growing light rail system, and the fact that the state already owns much of the land, Shelton sees the neighborhood as ripe for transit-oriented, affordable housing. Plus that way, Houston could keep some of those great views but still remove a physical barrier that's harmed the city for decades.
"Cities like Houston—despite its reputation, and really the reality, that it's a pretty spread-out city—there's a lot of stuff happening in the center," Shelton tells CityLab. "If you can potentially be innovative and think about how you re-route and move some space through downtown, you might substantially remake what's been in place since the 1960s."