1. Highway-to-Boulevard Projects Should Focus on Neighborhood Reconnection and Reinvestment for Current Residents of the Area.
Imagine this: You are living in an area that was largely demolished for a highway or urban renewal, many of the stores and businesses you once frequented are gone, and many of your neighbors you knew have relocated or were forced to move for the highway’s construction.
Over several decades, you get used to the highway being there; you see it as a part of your daily commute, perhaps a part of your neighborhood fabric. Now state officials want to right a wrong by removing a highway that shouldn’t have been built in the first place. Your neighbors are scared that removing the highway will lead to gentrification and displacement throughout the community. They feel the process doesn’t include them and that the new infrastructure isn’t for them.
Put yourself in the shoes of communities that have gone through the emotions of highway removal. These areas will be affected the most by the deconstruction of the highway, and residents could be displaced if the area becomes too desirable. To mitigate the issues these communities will face, they must be partners from the start of the project, not the middle, and certainly not to check off a box. What do current residents want and what anti-displacement tools can be implemented to keep them in their communities?
You can find a great example of how to address this challenging and complicated question in Syracuse, New York, with the Blueprint 15 project. The Syracuse Housing Authority and partners are looking to redevelop its housing stock into a mixed-use, mixed-income community. This redevelopment will be happening adjacent to the I-81 Viaduct Project that will replace the aging 1-81 with a multi-modal boulevard. Both projects will most likely coincide, increasing the risk of displacement. To mitigate this, the Blueprint 15 team is filled with community stakeholders and leaders who are working to advance a holistic approach to neighborhood development that reflects the needs and wants of neighborhood residents. The group has held resident listening sessions to educate the community on the project and increase support. While the I-81 Viaduct Project and Blueprint 15 projects are a few years away, developing these critical relationships with their communities well in advance of project implementation means there is time to work on preventing displacement.
2. Any Plan To Remove a Highway Must Include the Input of Residents and Must Employ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Design, Implementation and Construction.
If you plan to remove, relocate, or bury a highway, community engagement throughout the process is essential. My biggest recommendation is to look for equity-serving, community-based organizations (CBO) to work directly with. CBOs are a great way to connect with potential community ambassadors and get better input on how infrastructural changes could affect a community.
3. Traffic Data Will Always Be an Excuse for Why a Highway Shouldn’t Be Removed.
Rochester, New York, is steadily moving toward removing the northern section of its Inner Loop. Overall, the community is behind the preferred concept that will essentially recreate the original street grid. Unfortunately, the project has one sour apple: an interchange to I-490. The new interchange would sit on land adjacent to a historic district that could have been redeveloped, and many community activists have voiced concern over it. Still, they have been told by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) that the interchange is needed to prevent overcrowding at downtown highway exits. This is one example of how traffic data and metrics can and will be used against freeway fighters, even in projects where highways are actively being removed.