Interstate 375’s days are numbered. The mile-long freeway, which destroyed an historic African American neighborhood in Detroit 50 years ago and today forms a hard eastern boundary for the downtown business district, will likely give way to a boulevard configuration emphasizing improved pedestrian access and safety, a direct connection to the riverfront and creating more open space and buildable commercial property.
The project is still a ways off, with a projected construction date of 2022. But the Michigan Department of Transportation, which has been studying what to do with the crumbling urban freeway since 2014, has narrowed down its list of proposals to two from six.
Both alternatives would fill in the sunken freeway starting south of the I-75 interchange, do away with the Gratiot connector and convert what officials say is a dangerous high-speed curve at 375’s southern end, where it merges with East Jefferson, to a conventional intersection. Both would also add bike lanes separated by landscaped barriers, sidewalks, broad landscaped open space and a surface drive, and each would add various entrance and exit ramps to north- and southbound I-75.
The main difference is whether to located the four north- and southbound boulevard lanes to the east, bordering the mostly residential Lafayette Park neighborhood, or to the west, skirting along the edge of downtown.
One thing that is not being seriously considered: reconstructing the freeway in its present form.
“A freeway benefits one user, which is the automobile, the driver,” MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi told me at an open house event in Detroit Tuesday. “With a boulevard or a surface street, now you have more options.”
MDOT says I-375 no longer fits with a Detroit seeing massive new investment and redevelopment, and that converting the sunken freeway to a surface-level boulevard would better help connect people to the riverfront and accommodate transit and bicyclists.
“The reason would be to facilitate all users, which is kind of the direction, not only in Detroit, not only in the state of Michigan, but across the country, you’re starting to see transportation agencies look at a more multi-modal approach to transportation,” Morosi said.
I-375 was part of a wave of urban freeways that swept the country during the midcentury freeway-building and urban renewal boom. Built starting in 1959 and completed in 1964, the freeway wiped out what was left of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, the densely populated African American neighborhood and business district famous for entertainment venues like Henry’s Swing Club, name-dropped in the John Lee Hooker song “Boogie Chillen.”
MDOT says the freeway has reached the end of its useful life after 50 years, and the evidence is everywhere, with crumbling concrete on surface bridges, plywood keeping concrete from dropping onto the roadway and poor pavement conditions on the freeway itself. Having formerly worked for a business located right off I-375, I can also confirm the freeway presents a number of unsafe conditions, both for pedestrians trying to cross it and for motorists trying to cross the crumbling bridges during the mad scramble to enter the freeway at evening rush hour. I had mostly begun to avoid it altogether whenever possible for these same reasons.
I was recently in Los Angeles, whose downtown, like Detroit’s, is completely ringed by freeways. When I went for a run one night I noticed the effects this has on traffic flow and pedestrian safety. Cars zip to and from freeway entrance and exit ramps and clog local streets leading to them. It is not a friendly environment.
MDOT says its calculations show that converting the freeway to a boulevard will likely add only a few minutes at most to morning and evening commuting times. Next up are an environmental assessment report, a public hearing next spring, selection of a final alternative and preliminary engineering next summer. You can learn more about the project at michigan.gov/i375study, and MDOT is asking for feedback via email at MDOT-I-375Corridor@michigan.gov.