The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is getting closer to replacing I-375 in Detroit with a surface-level boulevard. The project gives Detroit an unprecedented opportunity to simultaneously eliminate an outdated highway, better connect neighborhoods to downtown and correct historic injustices.
Yet there is little enthusiasm for the project despite its potential, with critics arguing that MDOT’s preferred design makes too many concessions to cars and lacks inspiration.
The I-375 highway, one of the shortest in the nation at a little over 1 mile long, connects the I-75 highway to East Jefferson Avenue. The city and state laid the groundwork for and built the freeway from the late 1940s through the early 1960s with federal help. To prepare for the interstate, the state demolished Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, a vibrant neighborhood and business district that had large concentrations of Black residents and businesses.
The current project would replace I-375 with a boulevard that is six lanes wide and divided by a median for most of its length. It will be as wide as nine lanes at one intersection, making it one of the widest intersections in the city.
Voices in opposition have been growing in volume in recent weeks, but it’s unclear how much they can change. Most of the deal is already in the bag. The project is estimated to cost at least $300 million with significant funding locked down and the design largely in place. MDOT is expected to hire a design and construction team early next year.
Transit advocates, planners, local stakeholders and residents say the current design is too focused around the concerns of drivers and puts pedestrian safety at risk.
“It’s a real missed opportunity for the city because the road is so wide that it’s going to effectively feel like a highway by another name,” said Bryan Boyer, a resident of nearby Lafayette Park and professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “Instead of reconnecting communities, it is going to make a bigger gulf between downtown and the eastside. Instead of being safer for people who are walking or biking, particularly in the east-west direction, it’s going to be more dangerous.”
The redesign, called the I-375 Reconnecting Communities Project, is happening during a larger movement across the country to undo damage caused by freeway construction in the 1950s and 1960s to Black and brown neighborhoods.
“This can’t just be another road project that disrupts an existing community,” said Anika Goss, CEO of Detroit Future City. “The opportunity to build community in the place where this happened is much, much greater than a road project … That is the conversation that we’re not yet hearing.”
Goss and others disappointed with the current I-375 initiative say more needs to be done to live up to the project’s promise. They want those directly affected by the freeway’s construction, their descendents or Detroit’s Black residents to have an opportunity to benefit from the new road and developments.
Jonathan Loree, I-375 improvement project manager at MDOT, says the design is “around 30% finished” with room to make changes before and even after construction. But he also admitted that MDOT is unlikely to modify the number of lanes and that the overall design will only see changes on the margins.
“There is not that much flexibility in terms of the number of lanes that are within the boulevard,” Loree said.
“The project has been around for some time and there’s already been a lot of work that’s been done into the design that we have today,” he added. “Not everyone understands or has been involved in that process, and they want to go back and redo that process, but we’re too far along to do that.”
MDOT began work on the plan to resurface I-375 as far back as 2013. Despite years of planning, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer then removed funding for the project from MDOT’s budget five years later. The project got another lease on life last year from a $104.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
MDOT selected the current design last year as part of a required environmental review it submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Loree said the funding requires projects not to have an adverse impact on traffic, though it may have been using outdated traffic numbers to determine the road width.
The current layout was designed using traffic data from 2017. MDOT said it’s going to conduct a new traffic study this year, which will take into account any changes in the number of commuters. Daily downtown traffic has likely declined since the COVID-19 pandemic as many of the city’s big employers have switched to hybrid office policies.
“We are beholden to federal requirements,” Loree said. “We have to design the road for the future. We can’t design it for yesterday or even just for today — it has to be able to serve future traffic as well. It’s a federal investment that looks out typically at a 20-year horizon.”
Some similar projects elsewhere in the U.S. are taking a different approach, but without federal money thus far. Plans are moving forward to build a “land bridge” over a stretch of I-94 in St. Paul, Minnesota that broke up a historically Black neighborhood.
Loree defends the design in Detroit as one that takes into account the concerns of drivers and pedestrians, as well as residents and businesses in nearby neighborhoods.
“It’s an important vehicular corridor,” he said. “But we are adding very robust pedestrian and non-motorized facilities, and it’s a balancing act to make sure everything works together.”
How safe will it be?
The redesign certainly isn’t making the road any smaller. The new boulevard will have approximately as many lanes as the freeway does now at most points.
Stakeholders from across the spectrum are calling on MDOT to reduce the number of lanes, saying it won’t be safe for pedestrians.
The new boulevard would require pedestrians to cross a minimum of six lanes at all intersections north of Jefferson Avenue. At the East Lafayette Avenue intersection, there will be nine lanes of traffic. The plan calls for a median because it will take most people two traffic light cycles to cross, and they’ll need a place to wait.
MDOT contends that the new road will be safer for pedestrians, despite the fact that people will have to cross more lanes of traffic. The new sidewalks will be wider, and a two-way raised bike path will run next to the sidewalk for the boulevard’s entire length.
MDOT spokesperson Robert Morosi said that preventing traffic backups will also be better for pedestrians.
“There isn’t much length between the blocks,” he said. “You have to design it to safely allow for the flow of traffic, so we don’t have motorists taking unnecessary risks where they’re running yellows and reds because they feel they’re too backed up.”
Loree reiterated that MDOT is committed to collecting more data to potentially reassess the number of lanes.
Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Research from the Federal Highway Administration has found that narrow roads decrease the likelihood of crashes and improve pedestrian safety.
“Traffic tends to move slower on smaller, more active streets,” Boyer said. “When you start making really wide roads, you get people feeling like they’re on a highway, and they drive fast regardless of what the speed limit says.”
Who likes the new design, and who doesn’t
“I think that the current plans could use some improvements,” said Katy Trudeau, president of the Eastern Market Partnership.
Trudeau said business owners in the adjacent district are worried about several features of the project, including the lack of on-street parking and the width of the road.
“Overall, the project represents an opportunity for us, but we feel like it’s awfully wide and have asked that the width be reevaluated,” she said.
Other area development organizations are keeping their opinions about the project to themselves. Greektown Neighborhood Partnership declined to comment, and the Downtown Detroit Partnership did not respond to a request for comment.
A handful of downtown companies with employees that use I-375 to commute to work are some of the only stakeholders that have backed the current design. Bedrock Detroit and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) submitted statements to MDOT supporting the project during an environmental assessment.
But even Bedrock CEO Kofi Bonner wrote in his comments that, “We believe MDOT should reduce the number of travel lanes.”
Representatives for Bedrock, BCBSM, General Motors Co. and Ford Field either did not respond when asked about the project or declined to comment.
Antoine Bryant, director of the city’s Planning and Development Department, said the city is “really excited” about the project and the opportunity it presents. At the same time, he’s hoping that the updated traffic numbers demonstrate to MDOT that it should reduce the number of lanes.
“There has been a definitive shift in how many people use I-375 on a regular basis,” Bryant said. “(MDOT is) going to revisit their numbers, and I do feel that there may be an opportunity for us to adjust the lane width.”
By naming the project “Reconnecting Communities,” MDOT is invoking the history of disconnection caused by freeways.
MDOT acknowledged the injustice in its environmental assessment, saying the demolition of historic Black neighborhoods to build I-375 was “on its face discriminatory and can fairly be represented in today’s terms as an environmental injustice.”
“Reparations are due from the entities that actually created the harm,” Goss said. “That was the city, state and federal government — entities who are all contributing to this project.”
MDOT has been hosting meetings and giving presentations in the impact area around I-375. The city has been participating in these meetings in recent months as part of the early stages in developing a framework plan for the area.
There will be some opportunities for Detroiters to benefit from the project outside of using the roadway. MDOT will need to hire construction firms and workers. Green space and stormwater infrastructure could improve the health of local communities. There will be room for artists and historians to design aesthetic features and historical markers.
Nearly 30 acres of developable land will be created, and MDOT is working with the city to explore how to best use it.
Goss said these elements don’t decrease the importance of the overall design of the new road.
“If the design looks like an entryway to the casino, did we win?” Goss said. “It would be disingenuous for us to build a freeway over the previous freeway and call it reparative because we put up a historical marker.”
Bryant says the city largely agrees that there needs to be a reparative component to the project.
“There is a real opportunity for us to examine how best to redress that injustice, and that’s something the city would like to take an exhaustive opportunity to analyze,” he said.
The process to make these outcomes a reality is in the very early stages, but Bryant said there’s lots of time to figure it out. Construction isn’t expected to start until late 2025 and finish in 2027 at the earliest. MDOT and the city have at least several years to engage with residents and decide how to zone and disseminate the land.
“We have the time and the ability to engage residents and make a very comprehensive analysis of how to look at what can work best for our residents — and to redress some of those wrongs,” Bryant said.