Leveraging San Antonio’s Downtown Highways

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Commerce and 281

The lighted, pedestrian-friendly underpass at Commerce and Highway 281.

The elevated freeways surrounding our downtown are dead zones.  On top, you have travelers isolated in their cars while spewing pollution at 70mph.  Underneath, the underpasses are even worse.  They’re mostly dark, empty and feature the noise of overhead traffic that sounds like a dragon or bear ready to devour us.  These spaces elicit our instinctual fear of caves (yes, that’s where bears and wolves nested in prehistoric times.)  At 6’6” and 220lbs, I’m bigger than 99% of people and even I’m reluctant to walk under our downtown freeways at night.

The Sunset Station area on the near east side is perhaps the most glaring failure caused by these freeways.  A lovely complex created by developers, it was meant to leverage the Alamodome.  It has failed and now contains an mostly empty entertainment complex, a few dying bars and is surrounded by a rarely traveled neighborhood.

Montana St. Depression

The “Montana St. Depression” just outside of the Sunset Station. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Dividing it from the convention center and tourist mecca that is Riverwalk is a 250’ wide stretch of elevated highway. Despite the best efforts to get people to want to walk under I-37 — including an expensive artistic light show — people don’t.  (Here’s a fun activity:  Google “San Antonio Underpass”.  You’ll get about 25 unique photos of the expensive installed light show meant to entice pedestrians.  Not a single photo on the first two pages has a person or any sign of life in it!)

Commerce and 281

The lighted, pedestrian-friendly underpass at Commerce and Interstate 37 / Highway 281.

As we look around our downtown, more situations similar to Sunset Station abound: east of Lavaca on Carolina the freeway divides a neighborhood on the ascent from one that isn’t. Near Pearl, the elevated columns of 281 create a dead zone where few tread at night.

‘Tear down the freeways’ is a modern urban-planner mantra. That would be a waste as San Antonio is one city in the USA where the 1950s sprawl has actually worked. Our freeway system is terrific and efficient. It works. Removing the freeways would just move those cars to surface streets.

Other cities have attempted to deal with the choking effects of legacy downtown freeways.  Boston’s Big Dig project is perhaps the

I-35 and St. Mary's St.

The underpass at I-35 and St. Mary’s Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick

most famous attempt to stop the automobile’s destruction of a downtown, but also is a glaring example of how the removal of downtown freeways can be a huge mess.  San Francisco and other cities claim to have had more success just by moving the traffic from freeways to surface streets as trumpeted by this study from Seattle.  However, notice the majority of those cities who have ditched downtown freeways share a common theme: reputations for terrible traffic congestion.

Is there another option?  Can we take inspiration from a creative approach like New York City and the conversion of the High Line into an elevated greenway? I think so.

I propose that we embrace and extend our downtown elevated freeways through an idea I call “Creator-steading.” Much like Oklahoma was born of homesteaders a century ago who migrated with the intention of making big things happen by farming new land, let us use the area under our freeways as an irresistible draw for creators and innovators from across the USA and the world. These people will come in and help grow our ranks of people actively designing new products, starting companies, making art and so on.

How would it work? We build basic empty live-work shells underneath the freeway dead zones using the freeway as our already built roof. Make them, say, 1,500 square feet large.  Rent them at a rate well below market to people from elsewhere who submit proposals of what they’ll do in San Antonio.  The determining criteria for selection is that selected applicants must be here to take a risk, build something new and add their energy to our community. Be founders of something — an art movement, a gallery, a tech start-up, and so on.  Oh, and they have to put down roots here. They must make things happen and be here 320 days a year for five years or they lose their spot.

Pearl Parking underpass

Interstate 37 underpass at Grayson St. and Broadway (Pearl parking). Photo by Iris Dimmick.

With this, we now have living, breathing spaces underneath our freeways. Our city will suddenly become walkable from downtown to the inner suburbs with our elevated freeways home for artists, designers, small business people and entrepreneurs.  And we will attract the types of driven people that San Antonio has been losing to Dallas and Austin for decades. As we are serious about growing into a premier city, those are the people we need.

Michael Girdley is an entrepreneur, real estate investor, budding start-up investor, reformed programmer and author, part-time Crossfit instructor and writer living in Southtown, San Antonio. He can be reached at Michael@girdley.com,

10 thoughts on “Leveraging San Antonio’s Downtown Highways

  1. Important topic and right approach (“embrace the problem”)but I am curious about your rationale for focusing the human element only on people from “elsewhere”.

    • Cities benefit from the network effect. The more of the right (engaged, thoughtful, creating) people you get on board, the more attractive your city becomes more attractive to people innovating and creating. The city becomes self-propagating. Or, another way to think about it: the best way to get a bigger snowball at the bottom of a hill is to start with a bigger snowball at the top.

      Cool books that talk about this more in depth are Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class and Brad Feld’s new book Startup Communities.

      • Yes, I buy all of that except for the a priori assumption that the “right” people are not currently here or that, if here, are already fully engaged (i.e., no net gain to be had from offering them the additional opportunity). Why not simply have a competitive assignation, open to all interested individuals irrespective of their geographical location?

  2. Great idea! We live on the Eastside, and while we are only six blocks from the Museum Reach, one of those blocks is under the freeway, and it’s harrowing! We hate it. I-37 is one of the main things that cuts off the Eastside and keeps it looking inhospitable. If there were vitality under there, I think that the Eastside (St. Pauls, Denver Heights, Dignowity) would feel like part of downtown.
    We’ve been trying the scheme up what could become of the space. Your idea is great! Our thought has always been that shade is such a premium in this city, and here we have all of this wasted shade running right through downtown.

  3. These are interesting comments and really quite pertinent at a time when the city is focusing its efforts on the revitalization of the downtown area.

    Many cities are dealing with the problem of community separation. As you show in your report, successfully too. In Europe the movement to relocate facilities to these areas goes back well past the automobile. In London many of the elevated trains build in the 1800’s left these types of spaces that were used for workshops et al.

    The problem with the spaces we have now is the depth of the overpass – that is how wide they are. To place housing/ workshop spaces that are enclosed, would require most of the space be artificially lit and need very complicated HVAC management for toxicity. One can not imagine someone in the depths of these things enjoying a commitment of 5 years, even if the space is cheap, to be working in a space with no daylight.

    The problem should be answered differently I believe. Many of the overpasses in SA have very complex adjacency conditions that can not be solved simply with a broad-based approach as you suggest. These are matters of connection and movement – both visually and otherwise. If you infill the spaces you would reinforce the separation of the two adjoining communities heightening the problem.

    Maybe the solution, like that of creating art projects as they one on Commerce by Bill Fitzgibbons, is more nuanced and appropriate. The real problem with that connection is that the adjoining communities are not pedestrian friendly in the first place. They lack walkability.

    At this link you will find a few solutions that don’t enclose, but open up those spaces and make them less cave-like and thus welcoming. These types of projects would bring in the artists, designers and tech people to the city because they provide the most important quality any city can have and that is livability.

    http://pruned.blogspot.com/2006/11/underpass.html
    http://www.west8.nl/projects/infrastructure/carrascoplein/

    • Thanks for working on a thoughtful response!

      1) I don’t believe width is the problem. Even the narrow ones are scary.

      2) The Commerce St underpass is a failure in the sense of getting pedestrians in there. (It’s lovely art, no doubt!)

      • Michael, you misunderstood Kevin’s comments. I encourage you to reread and consider them, because he has some very valid and important points.

        I would also add that the noise inside these structures would be unbearable, and that the engineering issues would be complex and expensive.

        Ultimately your proposal is a nice first stab at a solution, but not workable. I hate to be a naysayer– I prefer to play with an idea extensively before discarding it. But this is not viable.

        The first step in making any area within the freeway corridors more human-friendly would be to cut the noise levels. Lowering the freeway speed limit, say to 45 mph, would accomplish this quickly and nearly cost-free. It would also save lives with fewer and less-lethal accidents.

        And paradoxically, I believe lowering the speed limit would reduce traffic congestion. That’s my uninformed opinion; there’s probably evidence out there that supports or refutes this claim.

  4. Hrmm. I love the concept in theory. The Californian in me who vividly remembers the 1989 Quake and the I-880 collapse makes me a little terrified of spending too much time under freeway overpasses….

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