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Road kill: the creative destruction of an urban expressway reclaims a city’s soul

May 14, 2018

By James Hofmann

Filling Rochester’s sunken Inner Loop rights a 50-year-old transportation plan gone wrong

It’s been a busy awards season for a 4,400-foot road project in Rochester, New York. As I’ve proudly accepted state and national kudos on behalf of our design team, and alongside City of Rochester and New York State Department of Transportation officials. I am grateful that the powerful impact of this complex reconstruction project has been so widely recognized. To me, the Rochester Inner Loop East Transformation project represents a multi-generational shift in the role of transportation in our communities. And, I predict, it will inspire cityscapes to come.

The Inner Loop has been a large part of my 30-year engineering career. Back in 2000, city officials in Rochester concluded the 1960s era sunken 4 to 6 lane below-grade expressway had become more akin to a moat. By the time we began design in 2013, the lightly used roadway was stifling growth and thwarting community connections.

The Inner Loop will transform Rochester’s East End by reconnecting the very neighborhoods it once divided and fostering a more vibrant community.


Today, the moat is filled, replaced by an at-grade two-lane street, with two-way cycle tracks, colorful outdoor furniture and artwork, vibrant nascent landscaping, and six reclaimed acres attracting a range of new mixed-use development. Instead of segregating cars from communities, the transformed site gives equal attention to cyclists, pedestrians, and transit.

While some cities are successfully re-imagining outdated elevated viaducts, we believe this is the first time a city has effectively buried an expressway that has outlived its useful life. Perhaps more importantly, the new roadway reconnects, as closely as possible, the original street grid, linking a thriving East End neighborhood and entertainment district with downtown Rochester.

Just last month, the Inner Loop East Transformation Project received Envision® Silver certification for sustainable infrastructure. It’s the first project in Rochester and only the third in New York State to achieve this distinction from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure. Rochesterians can take pride in this award, because Envision projects must demonstrate that they deliver a range of environmental, social, and economic benefits.

This project, and the attention it is receiving, elevates and enhances a trend across the nation—to shift design thinking from a primary focus on automotive mobility to community building.

What have I learned over these past two decades, including a mind-boggling nine-month design period followed by a three-year construction phase, that can help other cities see promise and opportunity in their obsolete roadways?

Stantec’s design buried this 20th-century homage to automotive mobility by filling in a 2/3 mile section of the sunken highway.

Unite and ignite partners

The City of Rochester’s leadership, across four different administrations, tenaciously advocated for the Inner Loop East Transformation project and worked tirelessly with federal and state agencies to identify funding to support their vision. In the end, this neighborhood metamorphosis was funded in large part by a federal TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant along with state and local support.

A residential and a commercial development will be breaking ground in summer 2018 on two of the six parcels created by the new at-grade roadway. 

Sell it

Complexity lies not only in the design but in shepherding a change of thinking by agencies and communities: a shift from only automobile convenience to a broader view of mobility. By employing detailed engineering, environmental studies, and complex cost-benefit analyses, the City could build the necessary momentum to undertake this major effort. A key to approaching a job such as this, is to show decision makers and business and neighborhood leaders future value that can’t be ignored.

In the planning phase, the City funded a major market study of the area to prove the viability of follow-on development for this $22 million investment. Now that promise is unfolding. Over the next few months, two major projects will break ground, two more parcels are in the planning stage, and RFPs are pending for two additional sites.

Break bread with the neighbors

Yes, community engagement is a staple of publicly-funded projects, as it should be. However, we took this process up a notch, including meetings around the kitchen table (literally) and came back with great ideas. For example, one original concept envisioned roundabouts at two significant connection points. Neighbors pushed back for controlled intersections in a nod to the area’s original street grid. We also ensured that the streetscape integrated a feeling of play, reinforcing the attraction of the nearby world renowned Strong Museum of Play.

Part of the Rochester, New York, design team stop for a photo during the “new” Inner Loop ribbon-cutting festivities in November 2017.

Over 50 years ago, in what was lauded as a modern engineering accomplishment, the City of Rochester finished digging a deep trench for a highway bypass to speed motorists out of the central city.

Today, the City has effectively buried that 20th-century nod to automotive mobility as the focus of transportation efforts by filling in a section of the sunken highway. A transformative project in its day, the Inner Loop will once again transform downtown Rochester by reconnecting the very neighborhoods it once divided and fostering a more vibrant community.

  • James Hofmann

    James develops transportation enhancement projects for state, local, and municipal agencies.

    Contact James
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