Tear Down a Freeway? In Southern California? It Could Happen

The so-called Green TI, parkland served by a modest road, would replace a mile of the Terminal Island Freeway in SoCal.EXPAND
The so-called Green TI, parkland served by a modest road, would replace a mile of the Terminal Island Freeway in SoCal.
Courtesy of Melendrez

A number of West Coast freeways have been decommissioned and demolished over the years — Harbor Drive in Portland in the 1970s, the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco in the 2000s. Doyle Drive in San Francisco is currently being demolished. And the long-delayed project to remove the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a raised freeway that mars downtown Seattle's waterfront and will be replaced with a tunnel, resumed on Dec. 22 when Bertha, a giant tunnel-boring machine, finally got repaired. 

But in Southern California, the freeway is king. It may be impossible to build a new freeway in L.A. County, but it's damn near unthinkable to remove one. 

That may be about to change. A plan to remove a one-mile section of the Terminal Island Freeway in Long Beach and replace it with a plethora of park space is slowly moving forward. Earlier this month, the Long Beach City Council voted unanimously to green-light an environmental study of the freeway closure-and-transformation project dubbed the Green TI.

"It’s funny," says Brian Ulaszewski, executive director of City Fabrick, a nonprofit design studio that's among those promoting the idea. "This would be the smallest freeway removal in our nation’s history. It should be theoretically easy. But the goods-movement industry carries a lot of weight in our local economy. ... The fear of change is always out there."

Ulaszewski estimates the cost of the plan at between $20 million and $50 million. That's far cheaper than freeway-removal projects in Seattle, San Francisco and Portand, thanks to the fact that the Terminal Island Freeway is at grade, meaning it travels on the same level as the streets, so no bridges or overpasses need be removed, or tunnels bored. And the length of the teardown would be just one mile. 

A coalition of labor unions and business interests near the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are opposing the plan, which is still about a decade away from becoming a reality.

“When you close down this major infrastructure, or even send a message that you’re considering doing it, those start to impact decisions,” Pilar Hoyos, a spokeswoman for the Watson Land Company, told the Long Beach Post. “And those decisions have serious implications in terms of jobs.” 

Artist's conception of the Green TI park, which would replace part of the Terminal Island Freeway
Artist's conception of the Green TI park, which would replace part of the Terminal Island Freeway
Courtesy of Melendrez

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, when combined, make up the third-busiest port in the United States. They are joined together at Terminal Island, a mostly artificial peninsula. 

The Terminal Island Freeway is short, running roughly 3.5 miles, and leads from the Seaside Freeway to Willow Street. The last mile is owned by the City of Long Beach, which is why the teardown is even a possibility (Caltrans owns the rest). Only 11,000 vehicles use that section daily, and about half of those are trucks, picking up goods from the port and often dropping them off at a railway depot near the end of the freeway. 

Originally the freeway was supposed to be extended all the way into East Los Angeles, which was horribly chopped up by freeway planners anyway, and where residents are still deeply bitter about what happened there.

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Later plans had the Terminal Island Freeway leading to the 710 Freeway, but a nationwide movement against new freeways put an end to that idea. 

Now there's a small movement of environmentalists calling for freeways to be torn down and replaced by green space. 

"West Long Beach is infamously park-poor," says Brian Addison, a Long Beach writer and activist who supports the project. "For every 1,000 residents, they have [only] a soccer field of green space. This project will provide much-needed park space for an enormously marginalized population."

"If all goes well, it would be great to have this completed in 2025," Ulaszewski says. "It’s a long way away. Smaller projects have taken longer."


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