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Cap Parks Getting Ready For Close Up

Cap Parks are logical solution for creating urban green space over city highways. Seattle's "Cap Park" solution over an interstate that cuts threw the heart of the city.

City Planners See Elegance of ‘Capping’

Freeways with New Park, Development Space

A “hit-you-between-the-eyes” simple improvement to urban living is what’s become known as the “Cap Park.” It’s one of those ideas that makes you shout, “Why didn’t we do this years ago?”

Cap parks are a two-for-one solution that removes the gash of city highways while at the same time creating instant open space for park-starved urban communities. It’s an elegant solution that’s now reality in several cities. It’s simply putting a “cap” over the top of freeways, often in the form of green space.

Seattle is one prime example. If you live there you know how Interstate 5 cuts a deep channel through prime downtown living and working neighborhoods, once filled with homes, shops, gardens, and a grand stairway called the Republican Hill Climb. Today, it’s all just another cement scar loaded with exhaust and bumber-to-bumber commuters.

A young architect/designer, Chris Patano, as local media like The Stranger points out, saw another option. He figured out a way to remove that scar.

The young architect envisioned a winding green meadow covering the freeway, with vehicles passing invisibly underneath. On top, residents strolled, picnicked, and settled in to watch the sunset.

"I could finally see it," Patano told The Stranger. "But we need to do it now. Or the moment will pass."

It’s been thought of before. Opportunities come and go. Cost is usually the wall these plans hit first, but maybe in this day of social media and political change, Patano can make this plan work. His sketches of green over gray highway make such sense that it’s hard to see how anyone would disagree with the plan. Urban planning, if nothing else, is a game of patience.

LA's planned "Cap Park101" covers the noisy and exhaust filled Highway 101 that divides the north side of the city.

LA’s Cap Park101

The discussion of Cap Parks is happening in Los Angeles, too.

In a recent LA Times op-ed, architect Wendy Gilmartin wrote about how the highway encircled city of Glendale wants to create a high-rise perch over ten lanes of freeway traffic.

She sees dogs chasing Frisbees, picnickers, and kids playing while the rush-hour grind travels underneath. The city recently unveiled a plan for a freeway cap park called Space 134 to do just this, but Gilmartin knows that these well-intended plans often go down in flames, or into a bureaurcratic black hole, as unaffordable pipe dreams.

Gilmartin rightly asks, what’s the alternative, gnashing our teeth and throwing up our arms as cars and the population numbers double?

Every city planning expert says Los Angeles needs more urban parks to make the city livable. So, why not create them in this obvious way, by covering up LA’s notorious freeways?

Cap parks are not new, Gilmartin points out. Phoenix has them. Sacramento has them. Dallas has them.

In downtown Los Angeles, a group called CAP PARK101 is pushing for a cap park across the 101 Freeway, between Hope and Alameda streets. This would connect the now totally cut off Chinatown and old town Olvera Street, key cultural districts, to Bunker Hill and the Civic Center, key government districts. Makes sense, right? Not so fast. There are loads of people that worry about cost, about reaching stalled cars in traffic, managing the fumes, and, well, the cost.

And another proposal, farther down the highway in Hollywood, would cover the span from Santa Monica Boulevard to Hollywood Boulevard. This one, called Hollywood Central Park, and it’s still (though nearly complete) in environmental review (started eight years ago) is nearly complete. The price tag may reach over $1 billion.

But as Los Angeles “densifies” something like 500,000 new housing units will be needed by 2050, according to city research. And with that comes the need for more parks and open space, too. Right now, only about a third of the city’s children have access to parks. The question is: how do you manage both more dense living and more open space?

Take A Cue From Paris

As Gilmartin explains, we can’t do what Napoleon did to Paris in the early 1800’s, when its population doubled.

The Emperor and his city designers drew up radical plans and laid out open spaces in 80 neighborhoods. Then, he went about demolishing the old for the new. The plan was to have no resident more than a 10-minute walk from a little park, gathering area, fresh air and sunlight. In the long run it worked out, even if it was an expensive and messy project in the short run.

In a much less destructive way the cap park offers a real solution for today’s highway-boxed cities, and it’s so obvious.

Why not turn our concrete canyons into recreational gold? Why not do something great for today and the future?

The solution is staring us right in the face. It’s over the highways we’re driving on right now.

Bob Chew is editor of Urban:Fix Magazine.

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