A possible solution

Solving this problem becomes ever more urgent

The I-20/59 interstate connector that runs through downtown (above) has been mentioned in this blog and by many over the years as a real impediment to integrating the convention center (seen on the right, or north) with the rest of downtown (seen on the left, or south). The 2004 City Center Master Plan suggests submerging this portion of the interstate, creating bridges and plazas above that would re-link these two areas of the center city.

It's an improvement, but is it worth it?

Above is a rendering of the same view, with a suggestion of possible bridges, plazas, and landscaping. While preliminary engineering shows this can be accomplished, the price tag will certainly be greater than just replacing the existing connector with a similar elevated structure (which will have to be done anyway soon, as it nears the end of its useful life). Unless the highway is mostly covered over, allowing lots of green space and buildable area, will the effort be enough?

Over at Next American City, it’s worth reading this interview with John Norquist, current CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, where he discusses the success other cities have had in submerging or otherwise replacing similar downtown highways. If anyone comes up with another, less costly solution, we are all ears. But in order for the new BJCC entertainment district and the convention center itself to reach their potential, a solution does need to be found.

Beautiful in Boston, but the Big Dig was costly in many ways

The photo above is a new park located above a submerged highway in downtown Boston: a reminder of visible benefits this sort of project can bring to a city. The huge cost overruns and corruption associated with this Big Dig project are at the same time a cautionary tale. Birmingham’s plan is much smaller and less complex, to say the least. One way or another, we need to figure this one out. It’s too important not to.

[thanks to City of Birmingham, ONB and bhamwiki for the connector images and helveticafanatic for the Boston post-Big Dig pic]

34 responses to “A possible solution

  1. Good to see these contrasting images and be reminded of the problem. I have heard speculation about diverting I 20/59 north to the Finley Ave. corridor. Assume a local boulevard would replace the present elevated segment to serve downtown access. Might be less expensive and disruptive.

    • Interesting. I think the rendering shows well that just submerging isn’t enough; it probably needs to be mostly covered (with a lot of thought given to what’s on top), or diverted somewhere else as you say.

    • I’m also in favor of moving it up to Finley. I don’t think that haven a sunken interstate is going to help connect the convention center to downtown.

      I have heard other ideas floating around and one I particularly like involves moving I20/59 to Finley, and rerouting the river that runs next to Finley through downtown where I20/59 is to create a riverwalk. A small riverwalk next to the convention center would be very nice!

      • I used to be dubious about ideas like artificial rivers-but seeing how successful the one in Oklahoma City has been, I’m open to it! Thanks.

      • Well, we’re supposed to have the river ready-made, aren’t we? Under the city, and nobody has seen it lately, but there are all kinds of stories about it. Maybe somebody should find a way to release it to the light!

      • Yes! Reveal the mythical “river”!

  2. I’ve been a fan of sinking this eyesore for years. In fact, I’d love to see all of our downtown expressways dropped below grade. I often wonder why most of our interstates were built using viaducts and elevated land. Perceived cost measure at the time? Something more nefarious (e.g. physical and psychological barrier between races/classes?).

    True, our hilly topography makes such an idea unreasonable in many parts of the region. But for the relatively flat areas in Jones Valley, it would seem to be a rather modest notion.

    Apologies for the side rant. Does anyone know if updates regarding this project have been made available?

    • I would guess a combination of cost and culture created the expressway conditions we have today. As to updates, I’m not sure of the current status of this project except that it remains conceptual. Thanks.

  3. The construction would likely be less costly to only lower the interstate highway down to ground level and then to elevate the greenway/plaza/etc. above/over the highway. This would be a compromise plan which would still relink the two parts of the city while probably being more cost effective to construct.

  4. I think the idea is intriguing, but one reason you might not want to sink interstates is the issue of drainage… We are in a pretty flat valley. Also, I’ve been wondering that in the case that just the portion of I-20/59 in the rendering above were sunk, wouldn’t getting the existing roadways to feed into the sunken portion require a rather steep grade? You’re going from, what, 20-30 feet above ground to 30 feet below ground? That’s quite a drop, in a relatively short distance. If you, on the other hand, just got rid of–altogether–the portion of I-20/59 going through downtown and instead diverted it north, either to the Finley Blvd corridor or (I’m sorry, I’m going to suggest this) to the proposed Northern Beltline, you’d get a lot of the through traffic–including the cross-country freight trucks–out of downtown and allow for a re-integration of the original Birmingham layout, with the opportunity to redevelop and reconnect the various original neighborhoods that have been for so long divided by the intrusive interstates. Utilizing the original primary east-west corridors–1st Ave N, leading to Woodlawn, Eastlake, and Roebuck, and 8th Ave N, leading to Graymont, Central park, Midfield etc (Bessemer Super Highway)–we could see a great chance of reinvigorating the areas outside downtown, economically and socially.

    • There are certainly examples of other cities that just got rid of connectors like this, and developed totally new traffic patterns as a result. Just thinking about options like this is healthy and worthwhile. Thanks.

  5. Sinking the Interstate below grade is only worth doing if something else is done to actually reconnect the areas split by the Interstate. While the park rendering is certainly more attractive from a design standpoint than late 20th Century elevated highway design, I do not see how it will actually reconnect any areas. Areas of Boston are now reconnected by the Greenway because their elevated highways system dated to the 1950s and was much narrower than Birmingham’s. Birmingham’s Interstates, if submerged, would simply create giant chasms like Atlanta’s Interstates and would not solve the problem of connectivity. The only thing that would solve that problem would be to create some kind of development on top of certain sections of the Interstate trench. Development (if done correctly) would reconnect neighborhoods more than useless plazas (like the one illustrated) and would be equivalent to actual parks on the Interstate trench (by parks, I mean places with playgrounds, ballfields, and other amenities that people actually use with no trendy paving stones allowed).

    The Northern Beltline should never be constructed, ever! What Birmingham and Jefferson County do not need are more boondoggles that destroy environmentally sensitive areas, encourage mindless sprawl, and cause civic disinvestment in the area’s urban center.

    • Agreed that ornamental plazas are better than what’s here now, but don’t necessarily do the job of reconnecting. The area above would need to be very thoughtfully programmed and, as you state, perhaps even built upon. As to the Beltline, the issues you bring up are all valid and I believe still remain in large part unanswered. Thanks.

  6. Let me first state that I am no supporter of the beltline. However, I agree with Greg, if the beltline is built, I think the best option for this section of 20/59 would be to turn it back into a surface level street. It would actually be the cheapest option and would reconnect the area. Since I am from Mobile, I think about I-165 and how thankful I am that it ends in downtown and becomes Water Street. Anyone who has been to the Mobile Convention Center can see how much more connected it is (literally!) to what would have been the other side of the interstate. I think the Claiborne project in New Orleans is a similar example, where the city is planning on turning that expressway back into a surface level street. It is able to do this because the expressway is carrying very little interstate traffic.

    • Fascinating to think about how traffic flows could be reimagined in this type scenario. It’s a bigger version of what UAB is hoping to do in the future–convert University Blvd into fewer lanes and move the interstate access points to more evenly distribute traffic throughout the whole grid. The object is to make a more pleasant, pedestrian/bike friendly area that will also give more options for drivers. Thanks.

  7. The interstate should be re-routed to 11th avenue as should have been done to begin with, since that is the direct path; double -decking where necessary. The present path meanders south closer to downtown and then back. Sinking really couldn’t be accomplished until the I-22 direct connection to I-20 near the airport is completed so that traffic can be re-routed.

    But who on earth decided to put the Civic Center in that location on the wrong side of the freeway?! It would actually be less costly to replace the civic center in another location than sink the expressway. Sadly, the concert hall and theatre are little used anyway. (But I have wonderful memories of a full Concert Hall 3 nights for each symphony program. Those were the days! They rarely fill the Southside hall half that size for two performances of each program now.)

    Does anyone remember the original concept for the civic center plaza? It was a huge pool, one end a 3/4 circle, that could be frozen in winter. But the powers that be decided that a “people space” was a better fit. The only problem is, the space is so dull few venture down there. A skate park would be more interesting than what is there and the gallery walkways would provide a great place to watch, though I know that is probably an incompatible use. But I digress (several times.)

  8. This is a terrific idea. The current elevated highway provides the feeling of a barrier from several blocks away in both directions. The “re-connection” happens as soon as the view from one half of the city into the other is no longer blocked. A great example of a similar condition is Portland, OR- where Interstate 405 is placed below grade. There are no plazas, just bridges across for most of the surface streets. The city does not feel divided at all, and you only discover the interstate when you come upon it. If you are not right next to the interstate, you wouldn’t even know it was there. Sinking the interstate also eliminates any dark, sad places where trash and undesirables may lurk.

    The money spent making this happen would almost certainly be repaid by increased tax revenue from the development and reinvestment that would be spurred in the convention center area. This could even spill over into the Fountain Heights and Druid Hills neighborhoods to the North.

    Also, sinking the interstate can be seen as a symbolic gesture- tearing down a piece of the old infrastructure that has served to segregate our city.

  9. I used to love the idea of sinking the interstate– and would still support it over rebuilding as is– but now I think the idea of completely relocating it to the north is the best idea, and might obviate the push for that damned beltline, which, of course, should never be built, as was so strongly stated in another comment. The Civic Center desperately needs rethinking, too– I try never to go and have been largely successful therein.

    I think that Birmingham has historically been guilty of a number of sins that have contributed to the present mess: cheapskate-hood, racism, and general brainlessness. I don’t think any of it was self–conscious or planned, just endemic and without thought. The stupidity about roads was, of course, shared by most of the nation at one time– we’re just the last to give up a bad idea, it seems.

  10. Have there been any formal studies done on moving the interstate to Finley? Sounds like a very interesting idea. I would love to have the interstate removed from downtown totally. I wonder if that would negatively impact the city center at all- by making it just slightly harder to access by 20/59. Would the benefit make up for any negative impact? Does anyone know of sources with more information about this idea?

  11. Andy, call me, I have a hint.


  12. At the very least, look at I-4 in Orlando by the new arena there. Lots more lighting and patrols so that people utilizing those lots (and they are proper lots, not the free-for-all by the BJCC) feel more secure and the arena doesn’t feel as isolated from the blocks on the other side.

  13. ALDOT just announced plans to replace the bridge decking, utilizing the current bridge footings and columns. Said sinking the interstate would have cost $700 million. Operation New Birmingham asked that a relocation of the interstate be added to long range planning.

    • Until ALDOT becomes less of a “road-building” outfit and more of a modern, comprehensive “transportation” department–which treats all modes of transportation thoughtfully–my hopes aren’t great. Let’s try to make the best of that area underneath the overpass now that we’re stuck with it. Thanks.

  14. This is very disheartening indeed. Folks can talk and talk about it, and the newspapers can write and write about it, and plans can include a change over and over, and ALDOT just goes on and does what it pleases. The spectre of the Northern Beltline, more horrible because it hasn’t done its damage yet, still looms large, even with all the negative press and public sentiment against it. The ALDOT people just figure– probably correctly unless we all get out in the streets about it– that they can nibble away at things, like the beltline route, until we’re all just exhausted with fighting and they can claim that they’ve already started and can’t afford to stop. Kinda like the sewer expansion, hmm? Which was, astonishingly, finally stopped, but at what cost!

  15. Pingback: New Haven’s doing it | Bhamarchitect's Blog

  16. I really thank you all should stick to your plans because I really like how this interstate is designed. It’s time to make a change for Birmingham. I really hope it goes as plan because this is going to look great!!!!

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