Will the Under I ‘bridge district’ reunite downtown Orlando?

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Photo courtesy of Florida Trend

We are roughly half done with the I-4 Ultimate Improvement Project, and by 2021 the new “bridge district” also known as the “Under I” park area below an elevated I-4 in downtown Orlando will open.

The Orlando City Council approved the project in May 2016, and FDOT has provided $3.5 million for it. Plans were updated in October 2017. The 9.5-acre urban park is expected to feature a soccer field, basketball courts, a splash pad, skate park, space for food trucks, and community rooms. Plans call for reaching out to businesses for sponsorship.

Have similar bridge districts succeeded in reuniting divided downtowns?

Cities across the country are addressing the expressways that divide their downtowns. Unlike Orlando, most cover their expressways.

In Dallas, the recessed Woodall Rodgers Freeway used to divide downtown (mostly offices) from uptown (mostly an affluent, urban residential area), so it’s not an exact comparison, but the Klyde Warren Park turned a loud, ugly concrete canyon that pedestrians avoided into a peaceful, green gathering spot that has reunited Dallas’ downtown and uptown. The park includes food truck stalls, a restaurant, restrooms, game tables, game carts, bike racks, lawns, trees, and a stop on their Uptown Trolley.

Atlanta hopes to do something similar to Dallas with “The Stitch” park, covering I-75/85 from West Peachtree Street to Piedmont Avenue, which separates downtown from midtown Atlanta. Downtown Atlanta, like Dallas, is mostly offices and hotels, and midtown is mostly affluent, urban residences, but the area on both sides of the interstate is largely blighted. The project aims to “create a vibrant public realm with quality civic infrastructure, interconnected open spaces, best practices in sustainable living and people-centric built environments” while also fostering “transit-oriented development”(atlantadowntown.com/initiatives/the-stitch).

Other cities that have covered or capped — or plan to cap — highways with parks include Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, St. Louis, San Diego, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle. But most highway capping projects are not between downtowns and poor neighborhoods.

Photo courtesy of City of Orlando

The ReConnect Rondo project in St. Paul, Minnesota, might be a better comparison to Orlando’s Bridge District, since it plans to reconnect the working-class Rondo neighborhood that was divided by I-94. According to an article by Brian Martucci on Ozy.com, this makes the project radical “because [highway] lid projects disproportionately favor upscale or densely populated areas with already-elevated land values.”

In the same article, Martucci explained the origins of the Rondo division: “In the early 20th century, St. Paul’s African-American community clustered here, building businesses on old Rondo Avenue and keeping tidy homes on leafy side streets. Widespread housing discrimination kept Rondo residents from buying or even renting elsewhere. Then, in the 1960s, state and federal authorities routed I-94 through Rondo, erasing Rondo Avenue and severing the community. Locals had no voice in the decision.”

In Pittsburgh, the proposed I-579 “Cap” Urban Connector Project will build a 3-acre park over an expressway to reconnect the historically black Hill District to downtown. According to a local NPR report on wesa.fm, the project “provides a means of restoring a physical — and psychological — connection between the Hill District and Downtown, something that hasn’t existed since the mid-20th century. In the 1950s, widespread demolition scarred the Hill District, displacing 8,000 people and more than 400 businesses.” The Hill District was the cultural center of Pittsburgh’s black community and had a major jazz scene until the 1950s.

Expressways constructed across America had the same effect, including I-4 and SR 408 in Orlando. Like in so many cities in the 1950s and ’60s, expressways were built through poor neighborhoods, often cleaving them away from central business districts — their downtowns.

In Orlando, this was paired with a racist practice called “redlining,” in which local zoning laws discriminated against largely African-American communities. In 1924, the City of Orlando enacted “Negro zones,” mostly in the neighborhoods west of downtown such as Parramore. Division Avenue along the railroad tracks literally divided black and white Orlando.

I-4, built in 1959, reinforced that division.

In “The Rise and Fall of an American Inner City: The Case of Parramore, Orlando,” researcher Yuri Gama wrote: “The construction displaced 551 properties in Parramore and reinforced the separation that already existed between the neighborhood and downtown Orlando. The elevated structure of I-4 ran along Division Street, and separated Amelia Avenue, Livingston Avenue, Robinson Avenue, Washington Street, Central Avenue and Church Street into east and west sides. Before I-4, all of these streets directly connected Parramore to downtown Orlando.”

Affluent Winter Park successfully lobbied against building I-4 through its city, but no input was included from the Parramore neighborhood in Orlando.

According to NextCity’s Bruce Stephenson, “integrating Parramore into the downtown could reverse decades of discrimination.” With the UCF-anchored Creative Village, Stephenson said that “the energy and expertise of the nation’s second-largest university will activate the area; Parramore could become an epicenter of ‘cradle to career’ opportunities in an unprecedented partnership among government, higher education, Orange County School Board, civic organizations, private enterprise and the community.”

Being next to so many entertainment venues, the downtown bridge district will certainly not lack for nearby people, and it may become a destination in its own right. We will soon see if it can successfully reunify downtown Orlando.

Certainly, a well-equipped park will be more unifying than the previous parking lots and earthen berms.

To learn more about the projects and reports referenced above, please visit these cited sources:

—ozy.com/fast-forward/america-begins-capping-freeway-scars-of-the-past/85513 —reconnectrondo.org —wesa.fm/post/park-reconnect-hill-district-and-downtown-edges-closer-construction#stream/0 —tropicsofmeta.com/2016/03/02/the-rise-and-fall-of-an-african-american-inner-city-the-case-of-parramore-orlando/ —nextcity.org/daily/entry/orlando-bridge-district-design-planners-nature

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