San Diego group proposes ‘freeway lids’ to create open space, reconnect neighborhoods
Across the nation, some cities are ripping up aging highways to make room for open spaces that connect — rather than divide — neighborhoods. In San Diego, some advocates are looking to the sky for a similar solution to reunite neighborhoods that were split by interstate highways.
San Diego Commons, a nonprofit group led by architects and urban planners, is proposing that the city build bridge decks, often called freeway lids, above the 5 Freeway to reconnect several central San Diego neighborhoods that years ago were sheared apart when the interstates were built.
The nonprofit is proposing building two freeway lids over the 5 in the neighborhoods of Sherman Heights, East Village, Balboa Park, Bankers Hill and Cortez Hill. The concrete bridge decks could contain such features as parks, playgrounds, housing or parking — depending on what the community wants.
Roger Lewis, board president of San Diego Commons, said the freeway lids could reunite communities. He was standing near a 5 Freeway overpass in Sherman Heights looking down at the bustling traffic that runs alongside homes.
“These [highways] bifurcate communities and isolate communities,” he said. “By creating a place where people can meet, walk their dogs, providing passive recreational areas, then you’re going to be able to mend … the gash in the community. It creates the threads to pull networks back together.”
The nation’s interstate highway construction boom in the 1950s and ’60s created a vast network of roadways that ultimately enabled people to drive throughout the country with greater ease and efficiency.
But it also ripped apart numerous urban neighborhoods, as roadways sliced through largely low-income and majority nonwhite residential areas, often isolating them from surrounding communities and economic opportunity.
“Caltrans acknowledges that communities of color and under-served communities experienced fewer benefits and a greater share of negative impacts associated with our state’s transportation system,” the agency said in a statement Thursday.
“Some of these disparities reflect a history of transportation decision-making, policy, processes, planning, design, and construction that quite literally put up barriers, divided communities, and amplified racial inequities, particularly in our Black and Brown neighborhoods.”
Representatives from the California Department of Transportation and the San Diego Assn. of Governments were given a presentation on the freeway lids by San Diego Commons in May. Officials said the ideas are in their early stages.
This is not the first time a San Diego group has explored freeway lids. Less than 10 years ago, Center City Development Corp. called for lids on the 5, and 20 years earlier, community members in Sherman Heights advocated a similar proposal. But lack of funding halted the efforts.
Proponents believe now is an ideal time to resuscitate the proposals, given the nationwide focus on racial justice and climate change and President Biden’s proposed $20 billion in road safety spending as part of his infrastructure plan, which has been touted as a vehicle to bring opportunity and equity to disadvantaged communities.
San Diego Commons’ proposal includes a 4.5-acre freeway lid with public pedestrian space above the 5, from Market Street to J Street, between Sherman Heights and East Village.
The other proposed freeway lid would be about 14 acres, past 2nd and before 9th Avenue, in Bankers Hill, Cortez Hill and Balboa Park.
The estimated cost of the projects is not available without a feasibility study, Lewis said.
Current and proposed freeway lids elsewhere have ranged in cost from $2 million to $1 billion. The freeway lid proposed by Center City Development Corp. in 2012, which would have capped the 5 between 3rd and 8th avenues, was estimated to cost about $300 million at the time.
Aside from reconnecting communities, proponents say freeway lids can help park-deficient communities by creating more open recreational space and reducing the harmful effects of air pollution on neighborhoods adjacent to highways.
Lewis said the proposal calls for new public spaces over the freeway, but communities should decide what they want to see built in that space.
“The last thing we want to do, which we know would be a losing strategy, is say, ‘Here is what you need,’” Lewis said.
San Diego Commons is in the process of presenting the proposal to community groups to encourage input from residents. The group also plans to secure funding for a feasibility study.
San Diego already is home to one of the first freeway lids built in California — the Teralta Neighborhood Park in City Heights.
The 5.4-acre freeway lid above the 15 Freeway has a park on top with gazebos, picnic tables, a basketball court and a playground. The $2.6-million park was completed in 2000 with funding from the state and federal governments and the city of San Diego, a Caltrans spokesman said.
On a recent afternoon, a handful of children were playing ball on the basketball court in the park as a family ate at a picnic table. Noise from the traffic below was significantly quieter in the park than in nearby areas without the freeway lid.
Nationwide there are more than a dozen completed freeway lids. Most have parks that offer recreational space, public art and play facilities.
Jim Ellis Freeway Park in Seattle is a 5.2-acre park with fountains, plazas and pathways for pedestrians. It is used for community events and recreational activities.
A freeway lid in Phoenix is home to a 32-acre park over Interstate 10. There is a library, a center for the arts, a cultural center, a dog park, play facilities for children and open space for recreational activities.
An effort is underway in Los Angeles to build a park above a stretch of the 101 Freeway in Hollywood. Backers of that project envision a community center, retail, parking and recreational opportunities.
Other cities such as Rochester, N.Y., have chosen to take out segments of highways to build apartments and reconnect communities.
Louise Torio, a Sherman Heights resident, joined about 50 others in 2004 in a rally to lobby city leaders and Caltrans to build freeway lids over the 5 and 94 freeways to reconnect Sherman Heights with East Village and Golden Hill.
Community members were eager to reunite the neighborhoods, she said, but there was no public funding to move it forward.
Now, Torio said she is excited San Diego Commons is taking on the project. She believes her community would want to have an open space that offers recreational activities, not high-rises, she said.
“How can we make something out of nothing? … We do that through a freeway lid,” Torio said.
“It’s exciting to think that this could move forward. It would give us a focal point when we in the community wish to unite in a big way over something.”
She acknowledged it’s not likely to happen tomorrow. Advocates estimate it could be more than seven years before a project like this breaks ground.
The official community plans for the neighborhoods that San Diego Commons is targeting include freeway lids as development priorities.
Some advocates say other communities in San Diego could benefit from freeway lids to address disparities.
David Alvarez, a former city councilman who represented Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, San Ysidro and Sherman Heights, recently launched an effort called “Reconnect Logan” that is proposing a freeway lid to reconnect Barrio Logan and Logan Heights, split by the 5 south of downtown San Diego. He has started reaching out to community members in both neighborhoods.
He said he envisions adding open space and affordable housing, if that’s what the community wants.
“This seems like a really great opportunity to heal the unfortunate impacts of the past,” Alvarez said.
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