Paradigm-Shifting Highway Teardown Gaining Traction in Tampa

A rendering of what could replace Interstate 275 in Tampa. Image: Josh Frank
A rendering of what could replace Interstate 275 in Tampa. Image: Josh Frank

The proposed removal of I-275 is more than just a highway teardown.

A group of Tampa residents, led by local urban designer Josh Frank, have proposed turning the city’s most-hated freeway into a functional multi-modal urban boulevard. The 11-mile, six-lane highway — which is used by 142,000 vehicles daily — would become a street for pedestrians, cyclists, and even light rail users.

This is ground-breaking visionary stuff for Tampa — which right now has few alternatives to crowded highways — but it’s starting to gain some real traction at official levels. This week the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization voted unanimously to conduct a feasibility study.

“We’ve accommodated roads in the worst way possible in Florida,” Frank told Streetsblog. “People are starting to realize this is something we can’t do forever especially with sea level rise.”

Michelle Cookson of the grassroots group Sunshine Citizens, which has been opposing highway expansion plans throughout Hillsborough County, called the planning agency vote “very exciting.” The group pushed its members to contact the board and urge them to vote “yes” on the study.

The concept for an urban boulevard — which is being pushed with the hashtag #blvdtampa — would help restore 36 acres of city land in the Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and Ybor City neighborhoods, which were devastated by I-275’s construction in the 1950s. And it comes at a time where neighborhood residents are hungry for alternatives.

Photo: BlvdTampa.com
Historic photo, I-275 construction via BlvdTampa.com

When the Florida Department of Transportation introduced a proposal to widen congested highway to up to 20 lanes last year, the response was so fiercely negative, then-Gov. Rick Scott fired the region’s top DOT official.

“It’s barely been changed since the 1950s,” Frank said. “There’s no soundwalls. They didn’t want to spend money to elevate it. They never tried to do anything for the communities, so they hate it.”

Florida DOT's rendering of. proposed 20-lane widening. The idea was forcefully rejected by local residents.
Florida DOT’s rendering of. proposed 20-lane widening. The idea was forcefully rejected by local residents (perhaps the rendering had something to do with that?).

The fight helped propel Kimberly Overman, a Seminole Heights resident and opponent of the plan, into a position as County Commissioner. She is now one of the plan’s most prominent supporters.

“There was a pretty big shift here. We don’t want any more roads,” said Frank. “We want to shift toward transit and smarter people who will support transit.”

The idea for the boulevard started out as a graduate school thesis project for Frank, a St. Petersburg native who runs his own design studio.

It is gaining momentum at an opportune time. Hillsborough County residents passed a one-cent sales tax hike to support transit expansion and other safety improvements last year. The projects it will pay for have not yet been selected but fixed-route transit, like Frank proposed for the corridor, are part of what the $267 million annual revenues are going to be dedicated to.

Frank admits it would take a lot of work to make the teardown viable, including transit expansion. But that is looking more and more possible, thanks to the tax hike.

“We can’t tear it out tomorrow,” he said. “If we start thinking about it now, we can work toward that. We need to know that that’s a goal first.”

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