Thursday, May 28, 2015

Reaching Pierce Elevated's Full Potential

Houston's Pierce Elevated still hasn't reached its full potential. I'll explain why in just a second. It moves thousands of cars per day through Houston, but it's got more to give... It was just a few weeks ago that TxDOT announced a radical (in the minds of most Texans) and sensible plan to re-route Interstate 45 to the east through Downtown Houston.

The Pierce Elevated portion of Interstate 45 that we see today in Downtown Houston is a throwback to the Robert Moses School of Planning. The thought was, "Let's push these freeways as close as we can to our downtowns, while wiping out any seemingly undesirable neighborhood (usually a minority neighborhood) that stands in the way."

A few weeks ago on the Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research blog, The Urban Edge, Kyle Shelton wrote that "Pierce Elevated may go back to the future." Shelton examines the details surrounding the development of the Pierce Elevated (Interstate 45) that came to divide what is now Downtown Houston and Midtown Houston. Shelton briefly highlights the evolving role of roads, especially in urban areas, and follows up with a historical look at how our highways and roads were imagined in the past. (For a comprehensive look at Houston's freeways, see here.) Some had the foresight to see what we see today regarding our freeways and how they affect our cities, but many did not.

Those without that foresight included the Houston Arts Commission, noting in a study that the space was "'ideal for “playgrounds, plazas, and parking' and included a number of illustrations depicting children playing basketball and office workers enjoying a break beneath six lanes of traffic." Well, as Shelton notes, those kids never ended up playing basketball under the Pierce Elevated. Under-the-freeway basketball courts have appeared in other cities, but no one has had the foresight (or better yet, fortitude) to make that happen in Houston as once imagined. This is all reflected in the first goal of the beautification study on freeways: "To provide pleasant changing experiences to the motorist driving on the urban freeway system of Houston." The concern of drivers drove their study.

Proposals have been made to turn nearly the entire downtown stretch of highway into something like New York City's High Line. I agree with Shelton that such proposals seem a bit limiting for an area that could benefit from a repaired urban grid. There's probably a happy medium that can be achieved that might allow some of the Pierce Elevated to be preserved as a High-Line-esque amenity, while the remainder is turned over to traditional development, joining together Downtown Houston and Midtown. Dallas planner Patrick Kennedy says that "...if I were to offer some context it would be to remind Houstonians that you’re Houston. Not NYC."

As major cities continue to question whether freeways belong in their downtowns, Houston's residents will have their say. TxDOT held a series of public meetings in April, and has now extended the public comment period until May 31st, 2015. If TxDOT wants to have an additional public forum to discuss the benefits of removing freeways from downtown districts, what better way than through a sports summit? The Houston Rockets have their #Pursuit of an NBA championship, and we have our pursuit of a downtown without a concrete scar of a freeway. (I really should have suggested this a few weeks ago before the Rockets were on the brink of elimination in the NBA Playoffs.)

When Jacobus Rentmeester captured Michael Jordan's first iconic Jumpman pose, he opted for an outdoor court as a setting. It probably had greater appeal than an empty gym at the time, and the setting allowed the photographer to create "a sharp and compelling silhouette of Mr. Jordan against a contrasting clear sky." Well, there's nothing of greater contrast to our cities than elevated lanes of concrete freeway, playing home to speeding masses of metal.

While most planning and engineering is now done behind a computer screen, there's no better way to see the contrast of our built environment than by getting out and experiencing cities firsthand.  I'm down for a game of 5 on 5 below Pierce Elevated. We can see how our freeways affect our neighborhoods. And, as Dallas debates the future of the Trinity Parkway, maybe we can invite down some of Dallas' most dedicated urbanists as well.

So, before we tear it down, let's let the Pierce Elevated reach its full potential. There's no better way to do this than some pick up basketball. Trust me, this idea is a slam dunk.