Motor City may start to turn from freeways

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News
The future of the I-375 freeway, a one-mile spur off I-75 that shoots traffic to and from the east side of downtown, is expected to be determined in the coming year.

In the Motor City, local leaders often talk smack about freeways. In 2015, expect to see major plans proceed to match their words with deeds, which could include wiping out I-375 downtown.

"Freeways cut off and isolate neighborhoods. We are still trying to recover from that," Mayor Mike Duggan said recently. Like many leaders, Duggan says the freeways that were dug, paved and then expanded decades ago played a major role in Detroit's steep economic decline.

"We cut out the fabric of communities. That impacted entrepreneurship and neighborhood businesses," he said.

In the mid-20th century, Detroit — center of the auto industry — embraced the freeway with gusto. The nation's first freeway, the 5.5-mile Davison, opened in 1942. Soon after came Interstate 94, also known as the Edsel Ford Freeway. In 1950, the John Lodge Freeway was dug on the west side of downtown to connect the Davison to the Ford. I-75 ripped through the southwest side. On the east side, at the edge of an important part of the African-American cultural and economic community known as Black Bottom, the Chrysler Freeway extended I-75 north along what used to be Hastings Street. In the northwest, the area was overhauled as part of the I-96 expansion.

By the '70s, Detroit politicians including Mayor Coleman Young and City Council members began to rally against the impact of freeways. Those city leaders vainly opposed highway expansion in the city.

Now, many top business leaders, foundations and others with money to give are backing plans that lessen the reliance of downtown freeways.

The Chrysler Freeway, shown looking east in 1964, extended I-75 north along what used to be Hastings Street.

"Business leaders and others aren't anti-freeway; but what you're seeing is many key people who have embraced alternatives," said Carmine Palombo, deputy executive director of Southeastern Michigan Council of Government, a regional planning partnership. "That's because studies show people want choices beyond freeways."

In 2015, expect to see the result of more policies and development plans promoting some of those choices, Palombo said. He has studied regional transportation issues for more than 30 years. "That includes making areas more pedestrian-friendly; bicycle paths, and M-1 Rail," he said, referring to the $137 million streetcar project downtown that's being installed now.

Big supporters of those plans include Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., and Quicken Loans Inc. founder Dan Gilbert, whose Bedrock Real Estate Services controls more than 60 downtown properties. Both Ilitch and Gilbert are leaders of massive development plans that will transform downtown and beyond. A goal of those plans is a cohesive, more walkable and sociable downtown.

The Ilitch organization is the main driver of a planned $650 million overhaul of a 45-block area on the northern edge of downtown. Much of that area is in a neighborhood called Cass Corridor, which is separated from an increasingly vibrant downtown by I-75. An anchor of the Ilitch development plan is the new venue for the Detroit Red Wings, which the family owns. Beyond the arena, the overall plan is to bring at least $200 million in new retail, housing and offices into an area that's been blighted and poor for decades.

"The freeway created both a physical and emotional barrier, and it wasn't good for that neighborhood," Christopher Ilitch recently told The Detroit News. "We need to get rid of that barrier in a creative way. No doubt about it: It's essential to connect those neighborhoods again."

In 2015, the Ilitch group is expected to release its proposal to mitigate the impact of three traffic bridges that span I-75, which is built below street level. The bridges link downtown with Cass Corridor.

The Ilitch group is exploring building retail structures on the Woodward Avenue bridge over I-75 — near its Fox Theater and Comerica Park — in hopes of reducing the pedestrian barrier between downtown and the Cass Corridor.

The future of the I-375 freeway, a one-mile spur off I-75 that shoots traffic to and from the east side of downtown, also is expected to be determined in the coming year.

The results of a year-long study are expected to be released; one option under consideration is eliminating the freeway, which serves nearby Greektown, Blue Cross-Blue Shield headquarters and the riverfront via Jefferson Avenue, and turning it back to surface street.

"The I-375 decision is really an example that many Detroit leaders are exploring ways of connectivity," said Matt Cullen, CEO of M-1 Rail, the 3.3-mile downtown streetcar rail loop being installed now on Woodward Avenue.

"You can point to a lot of plans that deal with that issue of connectivity, of how to pull the city's grid back together. You can cite the M-1 Rail but also the Detroit RiverWalk as examples," Cullen said. "I think many people in Detroit have become more analytical about what are the barriers that get in the way of the connectivity, and how do we get rid of those barriers."

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN