Off with the off-ramps! 

And other radical ideas for reshaping St. Pete.

Few concepts are as bold as dismantling a portion of an existing interstate. When this idea first surfaced in Portland, Oregon almost 40 years ago, it was radical. When New Yorkers stopped the expansion of the West Side Highway, people yowled. Now both initiatives are considered city-shaping successes, and a dozen more cities, from Milwaukee to Virginia Beach, have road removal projects underway.

The reason for peeling back an interstate is that the lives surrounding it are ultimately more vital to the health and prosperity of the community than the cars driving through it. During the 1960s and ’70s, American cities suffered from the “Attack of the 3 Digits.” That was when I-275, I-175 and I-375 cut a wide swath through Tampa Bay’s urban neighborhoods.

But now St. Petersburg has an amazing opportunity to reshape its core by dismantling two off-ramps. Removing the tail end of I-175 from Fourth Street to MLK, and I-375 from Sixth Street to MLK, would open up the neighborhoods to the south.

Bob McCloud, dean of the USF School of Architecture, observed that the experience of driving through most of St. Petersburg is elevated and fast-moving. “It would be an interesting proposition to get cars on the ground, moving at a different pace. Also, Tropicana Field’s 85 acres might be in play and offer an entirely new configuration for transportation in this area.”

Peeling back this part of the interstate highway would be like removing the Berlin Wall, literally opening Midtown to the commercial life to the north and easily allowing pedestrian and bicycle circulation where there is none. Currently, this area is the least used part of the central business district, generating neither tax revenues nor employment.

Unfortunately, the decision to locate the off-ramps here was based as much on social engineering as on transportation planning. City fathers used the federal funding to effectively wall off the traditionally black neighborhoods by constructing the impenetrable barrier of the interstate off-ramps.

Granted, reshaping the city’s core could cost millions of dollars and the process could take longer than a decade. But the benefit to Midtown could well be worth it. Isolated, impoverished, embarrassed by the exit of its hard-won grocery store, the area is a poster child for need. The jobs created by the demolition process would provide transportation-challenged neighbors a source of employment. The reinvestment sparked by the newly freed-up land, six blocks from I-175 and three blocks from I-375, would provide further jobs and dramatic physical improvements in the area. Karl Nurse, who represents this area on City Council, went to the Florida Department of Transportation to explore the possibilities of the Interstate peelback.

Additionally, removing nine city blocks of asphalt would be an environmental improvement. Noticeably, the housing boom taking place in St. Pete’s center has shunned the vacant areas near these ramps.

If you think that we should invest public money where the results would return the greatest benefit in terms of the triple bottom line — people, planet and profit — then the Peel Back Project is a sure winner.

Kudos to the enlightened folks in Pinellas County for considering putting transit on their 2014 ballot. The discussion promises to be rollicking.

To juice up public engagement, PSTA joined forces with the local MPO, creating a series of meetings throughout the county to glean public input. At the downtown location, six teams of engaged citizens, including professional planners and architects, developed potential route scenarios.

First, they considered the original proposal by Jacobs Engineering, which has the rail system basically forming a long, skinny rectangle, heading east on First Avenue South, turning at Third Street, then heading west on First Avenue North. Boring.

Andy Hayes, local architect and leader of the team “Make No Small Plans,” worked with his fellow stakeholders to rethink the route to connect employment centers. Their plan routes the light rail to Fifth Avenue North, turns at St. Anthony’s, then heads south on Eighth Street to Fifth Avenue, heads east to All Children’s/John Hopkins and USF/St.Pete. This new route would spur development adjacent to the cultural district with the Dali and Mahaffey.

“Make No Small Plans” was voted “best concept and design” among the six teams. The Chamber of Commerce’s Transportation Committee leadership responded to the idea that the light rail route should be weighted toward employment centers and spark future development, and endorsed the plan.

Not surprisingly, the skeptics were transportation engineers, primed to go for the path of least resistance — the straight line — and to value easy construction over community impact.

Cassandra Borchers, chief development officer of PSTA, encourages everyone to visit “People need to weigh in with their own ideas, and the process is very open at this point.”

There is plenty of time between now, August 2013 and the light rail vote in November 2014 for the public to get their collective minds around a better route. Hayes summarizes his goal in promoting the “Make No Small Plans” proposal: “This is a case of strategic planning by our community and deciding where we want to drive the future.”

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