What if the movement to reimagine I-375 included Movement?

I felt the familiar thump thump, thump thump on Saturday during an al fresco dinner party in Hubbard Farms. The city's pulse broadcast in a 3-mile sonic wave. Last year, I attended Movement, Detroit’s annual electronic music festival, for the first time in a number of years. It was fun. That familiar thump felt good. I danced to Stacey Pullen. As music throbbed, my mind drifted. I couldn't help imagining things I wasn't seeing from my vantage near the Labor Monument. Like luminescent acrobats across Jefferson, writhing up and down One Woodward. Like huge barges of bonfire in the river. Like a million LEDs outlining the various concrete forms, garbage bins, vendor stalls, and trees of Hart Plaza. And afterward, I also began to imagine I-375.

I realize what might be interpreted as visual distraction isn't necessarily the point of enjoying Movement, which is firmly established as a Detroit cultural institution and vital reference for the world's lovers of electronic music. Whether or not you think Movement could have more color, or light, or intrigue, I do believe that the music of Movement could help push discussion about what's possible with 375 in the future. It could also begin to honor the musical legacy of Hastings Street and Paradise Valley. It could even provide revenue for the city.

Last year, many of us were underwhelmed by the proposals for a reimagined 375 that were shown during series of public meetings where Detroiters were asked what they wanted to do with America's shortest freeway. We haven't heard much since. Not surprisingly, the renderings presented at that time were more technical than visionary, created within the context of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and its view of 375 as a transportation corridor.

But to MDOT and its local partners' credit, officials are open to alternatives that would drastically change how 375 is utilized, including concepts that reduce the presence of motor vehicles and would open the highway, at least in part, for public access--and at least one of the proposals smartly connected 375 to the Riverfront. No doubt, the prospect of an $80 million price tag to completely rebuild a short stretch of road that one local planner claims is used, "Ninety minutes a day. One way," may also be motivating a different kind of thinking. Whatever the case, hats off to MDOT!

Now can Detroit seize the day?

Last week, we read how city after city after city around the world, and across the country, are increasingly seeing urban freeways in a new light. For some, this insight happened decades ago, while other communities are actively planning a freeway's demise today. These transformations seem to occur especially in places where freeways are in prime locations, near downtown real estate, or proximate to natural features, like waterways, that are best experienced on foot or bike, rather than speeding by at 55 (or crawling at 5) miles per hour in your car. What's incredible to consider is how transformative these changes can be. Sometimes starting to heal an old wound that divided neighborhoods. Sometimes creating a brand new public space. Sometimes allowing for new urban development to occur. Sometimes a combination of one or more of these.

Closing off all or part of 375 could do several things at once:

At just over one mile, 375 is pretty short. Whatever might happen impacts a relatively small and manageable portion of the city, a swath that cuts off the central business district from what was historically Black Bottom and Hastings Street, the commercial heart of Paradise Valley--Detroit's storied African American enclave, demolished in the 1960s to make way for Lafayette Park and I-75/375. Anything that could be done to highlight the important musical legacy and rich cultural significance of this part of Detroit's history--as simple as signage, historic markers, and better pedestrian connectivity east to west--would be a discrete intervention and homage to help the city heal itself.

At 350' across, 375 is pretty wide. The 12 lanes and medians and sidewalks are about the width of a 30-story building if it flopped over on its side. It's more than enough space to do a bunch of different things. According to one design idea by French architecture students Pierre-David Petit and Thomas Van Tomme, a portion of the freeway near Eastern Market could be redeveloped with five story student housing on either side, while maintaining both a four lane roadway beyond, as well as a sunken public open space in the center (see images). Is it conceivable that a vision for 375 could help pay for itself with new construction while providing vehicular passage and public access? Zut alors!!!

At 20 feet deep, 375 is also deep enough to be interesting. The sloping medians and spaces under bridges, overpasses, and ramps provide an interesting opportunity for performance space, and other areas for active and passive recreation, totally unique to the city (see William Stonehouse rendering). The same French students above also envisioned a series of stepped plazas where the grass currently slopes, perfectly sized to sit and read a book, or watch a performance. Under bridge space could be similarly converted to covered performance space and/or vendor space, or for a restaurant or biergarten...or for a special once-a-year event, like Movement.

We don't have to get ahead of ourselves. We did it before. Sort of. MDOT has a recent precedent where they allowed folks on the freeway. You may not remember last fall, but to celebrate the near completion of the Interstate 96 reconstruction project, officials opened it to pedestrians for the first time in its 40-year history. Thousands took to the street to explore a long and narrow stretch of concrete in an unfamiliar way. People got excited about the prospect of exploring a space that for decades was only accessible from within an automobile. The simple idea of using the dedicated car space differently drew masses.

Whatever we do, we need to do it sooner rather than later. Something that is creative and not wasteful of precious urban space. That builds value back into the city center. Reclaiming 375 represents the next step for Detroit, and a step that many other places have made successfully, for the benefit of their citizens and for the betterment of their cities' public spaces. We can do it too.

Maybe we could start small, just to get the hang of it. Like a bike ride during one of downtown's big events? How does a Slow Roll via 375 from Eastern Market to Hart Plaza during the Fireworks sound? Wouldn't that be fun? Or what about something similar to the I-96 event, where everyone is invited in for an afternoon to see what it's like to walk and ride on 375? The kids would love it.

Or maybe we could shut 375 down for a whole weekend a year from now? What if Movement grew into 375 next year? What if we tried that on for size? Can you feel it, Detroit?

This is the third and final piece in a series about reimagining I-375. Click here for the first piece and here for the second.


William Stonehouse. Master of Architecture Thesis. University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture.

Pierre-David Petit and Thomas Van Tomme. MArch (Architecture & Cultures Constructives) final year project, supervised by Tricia Meehan and Nicolas Dubus, Laboratoire Cultures Constructives, ENSA Grenoble. Funding: LabEx Architecture, Environnement & Cultures Constructives.

Thanks also to Tadd Heidgerken of et al. collaborative and the University of Detroit School of Architecture for his help with this piece.
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