Plan to Cap Los Angeles Freeways With Parks a “Chance to Mend Cities,” Backers Say

The cap would cover the freeway for the mile between Santa Monica Boulevard and Bronson Avenue

Decades after the notion of building a park over the 101 freeway was first floated, groundbreaking for a Hollywood Central Park may now be no more than two years away, according to its backers.

It is one of several pending proposals  for constructing concrete caps over stretches of freeways that run through trenches, and using the land above for parks and other development.

The obstacles are daunting, and only the Hollywood proposal has advanced to the stage of preparing an Environmental Impact Report. The EIR is expected to be published for public comment by the end of spring or early summer, said attorney Alfred Fraijo Jr., president of the Friends of Hollywood Central Park.

The cap would cover the freeway for the mile between Santa Monica Boulevard and Bronson Avenue. Envisioned amenities include athletic fields, a community center, eateries, retail, a parking structure and possibly even a small bed-and-breakfast inn, according to the the initial study by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

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In so doing, the park would link two sides of a community connected only by street crossings over the freeway since it was built in the early 1950s.

"Why wouldn't anyone want this?" asked booster Philip Mershon, a long time Hollywood resident.

As a devotee of Tinseltown history and founder of Felix in Hollywood tours, Mershon is usually loathe to see historic sites disappear from view.

He'll make an exception for the 101 freeway.

"I would rather see a beautiful park here," he said over the din of passing autos.

The cost is projected in the area of $1 billion, Fraijo said, and is expected to require a variety of public and private funding sources.  He sees the inclusion of Hollywood in one of the Obama administration's "Promise Zones" as an encouraging sign for obtaining federal assistance.

Capping freeways is not a new idea.

The Memorial Park in La Canada Flintridge was planted over the then-new 210 Freeway four decades ago. Nationwide, backers count more than a hundred freeway caps, but only a handful in California.

In the past decade, the concept has come into favor with urban planners, and freeway caps have been proposed in five Southland cities, including Glendale, Ventura, Santa Monica and San Diego, as well as Los Angeles.

Apart from Hollywood, there is another Los Angeles proposal  for "Park 101" above the so-called "downtown slot" that separates the Civic Center from the historic El Pueblo district, where the city of Angeles was founded.

"I really see light at the end of the tunnel," said Don Scott, president of Friends of Park 101 District.

The regional local government planning association known as SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments) has encouraged freeway cap proposals with grants for studies, and also by working with the California Dept. of Transportation (CalTrans) to develop standards, according to Carl Morehouse, SCAG President.

"It's a chance to mend cities that were torn apart," Morehouse said.

In his city, Ventura, where he serves on the city council, Morehouse and other council members envision a cap that over the 101 freeway to reconnect downtown with the waterfront. The cap is also proposed as the location for a multi-modal transportation hub, including a new train station.

Any freeway cap on an interstate would have to be  approved by both the federal highway administration and CalTrans.

"I like the concept," said Carrie Bowen, director of CalTrans District 7, based in Los Angeles.

However, she also sees specific issues which need to be resolved first, including safety standards for both those atop the cap, and the motorists below on freeway stretches that will in effect become tunnels. Bowen cited a fiery 2007 pileup inside a Newhall Pass tunnel that houses the connector between Interstate 5 and the 14 freeway. Three persons were killed.

Another issue is future freeway expansion. Locking down a freeway's dimensions with a cap would make it more difficult, if not financially infeasible, to add lanes.

"Those are discussions that have to be had," Bowen said.

Proponents of freeway cap parks should not count on state funding, Bowen said, citing budget constraints and the need to fund deferred maintenance for existing structures.

Rights to build in the airspace above freeways constitute significant assets that CalTrans leases to generate revenue, but does not sell.

The cap proposals also represent a response to the increasing cost of obtaining land for new municipal parks. "Space 134" over the 134 freeway through Glendale would provide the city needed park resources for its downtown south of the freeway, and the densely populated residential neighborhoods north of it, said Alan Loomis, Glendale's principal urban designer.

"We're kind of reaching the point where it may be as cost-effective to build over a freeway as to acquire a developed property to tear down," Loomis said.

The first phase of Space 134 could be built within a decade for under a hundred million dollars, Loomis figures, "if you can get the funding -- which is literally the billion-dollar question."  

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