Highways have long been the bane of preservationists because of their alleged altering effects on surrounding communities.
Now, history lovers on opposite sides of the country are standing up for two venerable roadways that are undergoing some changes of their own.
This week, Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2010 list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the U.S. The National Trust accuses the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) of sacrificing the 70-year old, 37.5-mile road’s distinctive park-like character by realigning lanes, replacing bridges, and redesigning interchanges in order to keep up with increasing traffic volume.
Though the National Trust recognizes that ConnDOT has far more needs than funds to address them, it claims that the agency “has not performed necessary maintenance on the parkway,” and that the distinctiveness of the Merritt’s famed bridges “are being lost as well as the original landscape design.”
ConnDOT applied $66.6 million of its stimulus funds to safety, drainage, and bridge improvements at various locations along the Merritt Parkway. One project also included rehabilitating the landscaping along a nine-mile stretch to its original park-like setting.
At the other corner of the continent, the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles, the oldest freeway in the western U.S., is due to undergo $17 million in safety improvements that include installation of decorative concrete barriers to replace existing metal beam and temporary barriers, as well as historic reproduction lighting.
The California Dept. of Transportation (Caltrans) says the project will improve safety on the 70-year-old, 8.2-mile highway that now carries nearly five times its original design capacity of 27,000 vehicles a day, upgrade its appearance, reduce maintenance costs, and better protection for maintenance workers.
But according to an Associated Press story, preservationists worry that the improvements will compromise the Arroyo Seco’s historic character.
They claim the new decorative barriers fall short of replicating the stonework found in adjacent neighborhoods as Caltrans had promised, nor do the lighting units mirror those used in the 1940s.
Another point of contention is the Arroyo Seco’s distinctive median curb. Preservationists consider it “a character-defining feature of the old parkway.” Caltrans says it’s not compatible with modern traffic needs.
As more of the nation’s highways “mature,” other DOTs may well find themselves facing similar conundrums, even with those that are—pardon the pun—more pedestrian than the storied Merritt and Arroyo Seco. (Consider, for example, how the Capital Beltway has shaped the character of DC’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs over the past half-century. Will some of its features take on historic significance in the coming decades?)
As ConnDOT and Caltrans have already discovered, resolving them will require creativity and compromise. Both the Merritt Parkway and Arroyo Seco were designed for a time when the notion of travel was far different from today’s. And while few may notice a clearly concealed modern HVAC system inside an 18th century building, adapting a pre-World War II road for 21st Century speeds, vehicles, and driving habits is a bit more problematic.
That’s not to say all of us couldn’t benefit from a more “holistic” driving experience. But if the designers of the Merritt Parkway and Arroyo Seco knew what today’s traffic engineers know, they might well have done things a little differently.
They struck a balance given the needs, knowledge, and resources of their time. Let’s hope their successors can too.