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The City of Arcata wants to cap a freeway to create new land

A freeway separates the university from the rest of downtown in the City of Arcata.
Cal Poly Humboldt
A freeway separates the university from the rest of downtown in the City of Arcata.

The plan would cover a freeway that bisects the city, building space for parks or even housing.

At Arcata’s annual State of the City event last month, officials shared an audacious proposal for a three-block land bridge over the town’s freeway. That would create enough area for essentially a new neighborhood. Plans are in the very early stages but the bridge could include housing and greenspaces and have a price tag in the billions. The proposal resembles an idea from Arcata’s current community ambassador Fhyre Phoenix. He sent a detailed plan for a land bridge to the city back in 2004. JPR’s Justin Higginbottom recently spoke with Phoenix about the project.

Justin Higginbottom: So you've been proposing something like this land bridge for a while in Arcata. Can you tell me about the general idea behind the project?

Fhyre Phoenix: Yes. So up until 1967, Highway 101, when it came to Arcata, just went up to G Street. It was just a regular city street. And that's where the highway traffic went. And of course, there was much less traffic back then. And then starting in 1967, Caltrans came in with a project to build a regular highway. And so it bisected the city, leaving the university and the community forest and Redwood Park on one side of the highway, and the rest of the town on the other side of the highway. And that has really had an impact these last several decades, as far as keeping the general townspeople and the student population sort of separate. And for a long time, we've wanted to bridge that gap.

Justin Higginbottom: What would be some of the benefits for connecting these two parts of town?

Fhyre Phoenix: The main benefits would be that the City of Arcata would reclaim prime downtown real estate. And my vision was to create very low cost housing. I actually gave the city a 36-page proposal back in 2004. It would create several miles of bicycle paths. It would mitigate the largest sources of noise pollution and light pollution in town, which is the highway.

Justin Higginbottom: Have there been similar projects in other cities that you've looked at for inspiration?

Fhyre Phoenix: Yes, well going back to the 1960s, there was a grocery store in Boston, Massachusetts, that bought the rights to the air above a section of highway going through Boston. And what they ended up doing was putting up pillars on either side of the highway, and literally building their grocery store right over the highway. Because the land costs are just so expensive, it was easier to purchase the air rights and then just to build above the highway. There's been highways covered over in Hartford, Connecticut. There's quite a number of examples around the country.

Justin Higginbottom: How similar is what you’ve proposed to what the city manager recently presented?

Fhyre Phoenix: I don't know about it in detail other than they are proposing covering three blocks of the highway. My proposal was to cover 1.6 miles. So my ideas are much larger in scope. I just spoke to an engineer with the city and apparently how this came about was a couple of years ago, Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, contacted the city and proposed covering over a small section of the highway. And so now they've applied for a grant so that they can enter into the planning phase.

Justin Higginbottom: It seems like it's still in pretty early stages. This proposal has a pretty big price tag. The city manager mentioned it could cost billions. Are you optimistic about the city actually finding the funding?

Fhyre Phoenix: I am optimistic. And the reason I am is for a couple of reasons. It's Caltrans that contacted the City of Arcata saying that we would like to do this. So apparently they've got some funding sitting there. And then also President Biden, since he's been in office, has been pouring a lot of money into infrastructure and into large projects all around the country that create jobs and create housing. And so 20 years ago it was thought to be too expensive. But actually, that money is out there and it is available and it's going to go somewhere to some project. And so why not here to this project?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Justin Higginbottom is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. He's worked in print and radio journalism in Utah as well as abroad with stints in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He spent a year reporting on the Myanmar civil war and has contributed to NPR, CNBC and Deutsche Welle (Germany’s public media organization).