Recently I was walking down by Western and California avenues and came across the remains of the old I-40 crosstown expressway. Most of the elevated highway has been removed. Where there used to be an interstate there is now a broad swath of green space stretching east toward Bricktown. This is where the new downtown boulevard will be built.
Last summer there was some controversy when the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) unveiled its plans for the boulevard to be six-lanes wide and elevated above grade from Western to Lee, much like the old I-40 it is going to replace. The prospect of what would effectively be a six-lane limited-access expressway cutting through the heart of OKC stirred city leaders and urban advocates to insist on an alternative design that would better integrate the boulevard with surrounding neighborhoods. The final plan approved by the City Council in January is for four lanes, rather than six, to be built at grade beyond Reno. It would have been better to have a roundabout rather than the overpass at the intersection of Western, Classen, and Reno, but given other alternatives, this was a win for urbanists. When it is completed in 2016 the new boulevard will accommodate pedestrians and provide convenient auto access to nearby neighborhoods and businesses. There will be opportunities for economic development: condos, office buildings, restaurants, bars, etc.
That is all to the good, as far as it goes, but to me it is also illustrative of a certain failure of imagination. With few exceptions, the debate on the boulevard has always been over the question: what kind of road should we build? And, not the question: Should we build a road at all? Long continuous corridors of green space in urban areas don’t open up all that often. The existing street grid can handle traffic from the interstate. Let’s use the old I-40 corridor for a different purpose. Imagine the possibilities! What if, rather than a boulevard for cars, the old I-40 corridor was made into a boulevard for pedestrians? Something similar to the High Line in New York City or the Promenade plantée in Paris. Both are abandoned railways that have been converted into urban oases. It is only a small conceptual leap, right?, from making a garden out of an abandoned railway to making a garden out of an abandoned interstate.
The old I-40 epitomized urban grit. It partitioned the city and contributed to blight. To transform the space it occupied into a pedestrian boulevard would signal to the world that we are serious about providing infrastructure alternatives to car dependency by providing walking paths, dedicated bike lanes, and perhaps a right-of-way for the westward extension of the new street car line. The whole route could be landscaped into a series of distinct garden environments, showcasing native and exotic plant species adapted to the Oklahoma climate. It could be a beautiful and convenient link between the south and west sides of downtown, including the Farmers Market District and the Film Row area, with the rest of the Central Business District. It could complement the new Core-to-Shore park by providing an east-west axis of green space and trails that intersects the north-south axis of the new park. Such a pedestrian boulevard could unify a part of the city that has been divided by automobile infrastructures for decades.
Obviously, such a thing is not going to happen. A boulevard for cars is a project that has been in the pipeline since the 1990s. Its funding sources are set. All decisions have been made. And, it will ultimately be good for the city, even if something else might have been better. I bring all this up only to point out the limits of our public discussion on land use and transportation. At no point was there a possibility that the land in the old I-40 right-of-way would not be rededicated to the automobile. Cars remain at the center of the development paradigm in Oklahoma City. There are lots of exciting things–like fewer parking lots–that could happen here if that weren’t the case. Not an original idea, but it bears repeating nonetheless.