The Dead Freeway Society 

The Strange History of Portland's Unbuilt Roads

Scattered all over Portland are artifacts of a city that could have been. Bikes rush down a concrete ramp on the west side of the Hawthorne Bridge that 40 years ago originally connected to an expressway instead of grass. Tiny Piccolo Park off SE Division was the site of homes demolished to make way for the pylon of an unbuilt freeway. These vibrant sites are tombstones. We are a city of dead freeways.

While other American cities have built, built, built, Portland's freeway history is boom and bust: massive road projects were planned, mapped, and sold as progress by one generation, then killed by another. When current transit planners visit from exotic Houston and DC to admire Portland's progress, what they are really admiring are the roads not built—freeways erased from the maps decades ago.

"UNCLOUDED VISION"

The offices of Portland City Hall did not always boast bike maps. The city striving to become the nation's greenest still bears the signature of America's most famous car-centric transit planner.

Sixty-six Septembers ago, a Portland city commissioner invited the powerful (and, these days, infamous) transportation planner Robert Moses to come to Rose City and write its road construction plan. Moses, a freeway mogul whose most lasting legacy is the massive byways slicing apart New York's boroughs, brought a team of men and holed up for two months in a downtown hotel. After exploring the city and crunching numbers, the men whipped up an 86-page blueprint for Portland's future.

It was in this plan that Portland was first divided by the inky lines that would eventually become I-205, I-84, I-5, I-405, and Highway 26. It was Moses' men who first drew the Fremont Bridge onto a photo of Portland. In white ink, they imagined the freeway to be a suspension bridge running across the river and down into the current Overlook neighborhood. But they also imagined a lot more.

To modernize and meet the demands of a growing economy and expanding population, back in 1943 Moses argued that Portland must surround itself with freeways—an inner ring carrying traffic through the city with another freeway ring encircling its outer limits.

"Every citizen of Portland has a right to be proud of the fact that this community is prepared, while there is still time, to face the future with unclouded vision," wrote Moses.

In 1956, the US Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, promising the federal government would cover 90 percent of the costs of all new freeway construction, kicking off a freeway construction boom in Portland and around the nation. The last electric light rail company in Portland went out of business the day after the region's first freeway was built in 1958.

RELOCATION IN ACTION

In late August, just over I-405 from Portland State University, Shawn Granton stood on an orphaned section of the South Park Blocks. The measly chunk of lawn and the Southwest neighborhood around it was cut off from downtown when the freeway plowed through the area in the mid-'60s. The freeway was part of an urban renewal plan, Granton explained to a dozen gathered cyclists. It removed an entire block of high-density apartment complexes—the kind the city now wants to build downtown under its modern urban renewal policy that awards developers tax breaks as an incentive.

"Freeways become big walls in cities and divide neighborhoods," said Granton, who has led his dead freeways bike tour of the city for three years. In shorts and sunglasses, he shouted over the thunder of the freeway. The grassy nub on the south side of the freeway was left intact as a compromise after neighbors complained about the removal of a block of parkland.

In 1964, the Oregon State Highway Division put out a helpful pamphlet on how to remove people whose homes would be demolished by the construction of I-405. "Relocation in Action" follows one Miss Crosby, age 63, who lives on a $100 monthly welfare check and whose diverse, mostly lower-income apartment building is about to be leveled to make way for the road. Like everyone else in the building, she is nervous about finding a new home. All turns out well in the end, of course: a helpful highway employee helps Miss Crosby secure an apartment in the Northwest Towers, a 13-story "modern, fireproof" building near downtown.

BOOM!

Jumping on the federal government's desire to pick up 90 percent of the tab, the city and state tore out a path for I-84 through the Eastside and for I-5 through North Portland. The Fremont Bridge went up—white, just like Moses imagined. This was a glorious age of freeways. Construction rolled forward with few roadblocks.

"The I-5 through North Portland had a huge impact, but the people had no voice," says Val Ballestrem, education manager of the Architectural Heritage Center, who wrote his master's thesis on Portland's anti-freeway movement. "There were some people living in the path of I-5 who got together, met with city officials, and were told, 'There's nothing you can do.' And they just gave up."

"There was no requirement at that time to do an environmental impact study for big projects like this," explains Metro Planning Director Andy Cotugno. "City and business thought it was a great idea and the neighborhoods that got impacted had no rights at that time." A photo of the construction shows a street lined solely with empty porches—the homes behind them had already been razed.

By the time Portland wrote up a (failed) bid to host the 1968 Olympics, planners had built enormously on Moses' vision for a freewayed Portland. The map printed inside the glossy yearbook-sized Olympic sales pitch includes not just the freeways we know today, but also the Mount Hood Freeway running up SE Division, Laurelhurst Freeway along 39th Avenue, the Sellwood Freeway, Prescott Freeway, and a mile-long freeway tunnel running under the West Hills.

BUST!

But 10 years later, everything had changed. The Mount Hood Freeway, Laurelhurst Freeway, and others were erased from the planned map of Portland's future. I-205 had been whittled down from a planned eight lanes to six—its extra space being designated for a public transit right-of-way that just last week finally became the much-celebrated MAX Green Line. Portland had essentially reversed direction in one short decade, while nearly every other major American city was still gung ho about the roads ahead.

The first freeway to dissolve was Harbor Drive. Built in 1942, the wide slab of asphalt ran over what is today Tom McCall Waterfront Park, now where tourists and idyllic children roam with ice cream, Barack Obama spoke, and once a year the Oregon Symphony shoots live cannons in a performance of the 1812 Overture. In the '50s and '60s, the freeway, streaming with big-finned cars, was featured on postcards promoting a modern Portland. By 1975, it was gone.

"There was a shift in local government in the late-'60s. It went from a good-old-boy network to a much younger generation of politicians," explains Ballestrem. Urban planning historian Gregory L. Thompson wrote that when one young politician arrived in Portland in 1973, the politico noted that everyone had a copy of anti-freeway handbook Rites of Way tucked into their hip pocket.

When the state began buying up land next to Harbor Drive to widen the waterfront freeway in 1968, a citizen alliance against the expansion found open ears at city hall and the governor's office. Old-school traffic engineers said closing the freeway would be a disaster, but Governor Tom McCall, Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, and County Commissioner Don Clark heard the citizens' opinion that most car traffic could be rerouted to the city's newly built freeways, like the I-5. Throughout the summer of '69, Portlanders organized "consciousness-raising picnics" to rally people against Harbor Drive. Three years later, a governor's task force declared that the low-traffic, 30-year-old road should be ripped out and replaced with a park.

SAVING SOUTHEAST

Riding high from the Harbor Drive victory, environmentally minded politicians and Portlanders took on the next freeway foe. Money was in the bag from the federal government to build a freeway like North Portland's I-5, which would cut through Southeast to aid suburban commuters. This Mount Hood Freeway would have been four city blocks wide for the entire length of SE Division. The highway commission had already started buying up the right of way and tearing down old homes along Division when opposition started picking up steam.

Unlike I-5, though, the neighborhood had legal channels for their protest. Not only were the freeway planners required to write up an environmental impact statement for the project, but also Portland was in the midst of a major downtown revitalization effort.

"You connect the dots. You had a freeway that would create more sprawl at a time [when] we're trying to do things to recapture downtown," says Metro's Cotugno. "In the process it would divide a community. Why should the inner-city neighborhood just roll over to produce a suburb?"

Neighbors worried about air pollution and the neighborhood filed a suit against the freeway, using the environmental impact statement to argue that the freeway's site was poorly chosen. Meanwhile, Oregon bigwigs pulled strings in Washington, DC. The alternative transit-minded politicians scored a big win in August of 1973: Congress changed national law to allow regions to kill planned highways and put almost all the federal money set aside for those projects into non-freeway transit projects instead.

Soon after, a judge decided in favor of the anti-freeway neighbors. If the state wanted to build the Mount Hood Freeway, the judge said, they would have to restart the nearly decade-long planning process. In fall 1974, Governor McCall officially informed the federal government that his state would be "deleting" the Mount Hood Freeway. Instead, $23 million of the $165 million freeway pricetag would go into building the region's public transit system.

THE PRICE OF "PROGRESS"

The Mount Hood Freeway's $165 million budget looks like pennies compared to the costs of our current freeway projects. Oregon and Washington are currently embarking on the largest single transportation project in the region's history. If the states' transportation departments get their way, the current six-lane I-5 bridge to Vancouver will become a 12-lane, $4.2 billion bridge called the Columbia River Crossing (CRC). Unlike the freeway projects of old, light rail and a better bike path are included in the CRC design. But there are many parallels. Modern environmental groups like Coalition for a Livable Future say the 12-lane bridge will increase traffic and promote sprawl. Some of the old-time activists who organized the anti-Harbor Drive picnics are these days attending rallies against the CRC.

"It's another one of these roads that's being espoused as 'We have to have it in order to make everybody's lives easier,'" says Ballestrem. "But it's going to do the same thing that all these other big roads did. Building a bigger road is just going to encourage driving the automobile."

Out of the national network of 43,000 miles of interstate freeway built with federal dollars in the 20th century, Metro's Andy Cotugno says only about 25 freeway projects did not get built across the entire country.

Then and now, Portland's pioneering spirit has always taken the road less traveled.

Historic postcards provided courtesy of local know-it-all Dan Haneckow (cafeunknown.com). Much of the historic information in this piece is from Gregory L. Thompson's article "Taming the Neighborhood Revolution: Planners, Power Brokers, and the Birth of Neotraditionalism in Portland, Oregon" (Journal of Planning History).

Download your very own copy of Robert Moses' 1943 plan for Portland, here.

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