The movement #BLVDTAMPA starts with an audacious idea and a simple call to action; “Converting 11 miles of I-275 into the future spine of Tampa starts with a conversation,” the website says. “Let’s talk about it.”
Convert 11 miles of I-275 into what, though? A wide, landscaped boulevard with bike paths, pedestrian areas and even light rail. At least that’s what Josh Frank thinks.
Frank, who turns 30 years old this month, is a St. Petersburg-born architect and urban designer with a Masters of Architecture and a Masters of Urban & Community Design from the University of South Florida. He also founded Wide Open Office, a Tampa-based urban design, landscape architecture, and community development studio. Frank also knows that the idea of demolishing I-275 — and beginning to undo a half-century’s worth of damage to some of Tampa’s downtown neighborhoods — is radical.
“The fact is, Tampa is not ready for this project,” Frank wrote recently.
He knows the city has years of transit projects to catch up on. There’s been a generation of previously unfunded improvements. There are schools without sidewalks and streets without bike lanes. Serious zoning and code reform is in order, and there’s a desire for robust commuter rail, ferries, and an expanded streetcar. Frank argues that the city also needs the political will to follow through on it all.
“We can and will do all these things. With All for Transportation, we will get there,” Frank wrote. “What we should do, is aspire to do more. Aspire towards a future where this isn’t a hard decision.”
He’s also made quite the argument on his website, blvdtampa.com, which goes in-depth on the history of I-275, its devastating effect on the communities it is built on and how a new generation can begin to undo the damage while paving the way for a future where the continued expansion of highways is not the solution to urban roadway congestion. It even provides real-world examples of municipalities like Seattle, San Francisco, Portland and Seoul that have all removed highways and transformed their cities for the better.
And now the nation is taking notice.
In a new national “Freeways Without Futures” report by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), I-275 was been named among 10 of America’s worst highways. It joins highways in nine other U.S. cities (ie: I-35 in Austin, I-70 in Denver, the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans, I-81 in Syracuse) as places that have highways that should, and can, be removed to make way for more cohesive, walkable, and equitable community development. The report argues that the economic benefits of #BLVDTAMPA are substantial.
“Estimates to rebuild I-275 range from $3 to $9 billion, much of which could be saved with the boulevard option #blvdtampa proposes,” the CNU wrote in a release, alluding to FDOT attempts to expand the highway. “The removal of the oversized highway would immediately open up more than 35 acres of land for development, boosting the city's tax base.”
The list of 10 highways was culled from 29 nominated freeways by a jury of nationally recognized transportation experts. Age and state of the highway, the quality of alternative boulevard or street design and the feasibility of removal, were all considered along with community support for removal, existing political momentum, redevelopment opportunities, potential cost savings, and potential to improve access to opportunity for underserved communities.
"Local, state, and federal resources are declining,” Lynn Richards, President and CEO of CNU, wrote. “We need to use investments that meet multiple community goals: enhancing all kinds of mobility, promoting economic development, creating jobs, and reimagining the possibilities for waterfronts, parks, and neighborhoods.”
At a recent Tampa Heights Civic Association presentation, Frank told a story of a traffic engineer who told him that removing I-275 was like squeezing a full water balloon. The engineer said the water inside of the balloon would simply expand it until it popped.
“I laughed and replied that I wasn’t trying to squeeze the balloon,” Frank said, adding that he’s trying to get people to take less trips, carpool, ride bikes, walk or use public transportation. “I’m trying to reduce the amount of water inside.”
Time will tell if Tampa can actually do that, but we won’t have a chance if we don’t start thinking — and talking — about it.