The Deck Park Tunnel Opened 30 Years Ago. The Phoenix Neighborhoods It Cut In Half Are Still Recovering
If the Golden Spike at Promontory Point marked the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, then the Deck Park Tunnel in Phoenix is Interstate 10’s golden spike.
When the tunnel opened to traffic 30 years ago today, it was the last half-mile stretch in the transcontinental freeway that connected Santa Monica, California, with Jacksonville, Florida. It took almost three decades to build, in a process fraught with political battles over where the freeway should go and how it should look.
The tunnel — which is actually a set of 19 connected overpasses — and park were billed as a compromise that would keep a portion of downtown Phoenix intact, rather than be bisected by a freeway.
In the decades it took to plan, debate over the plans, make new plans and eventually build the freeway, though, neighborhoods along the alignment suffered from disinvestment and crime, and went from thriving middle-class urban neighborhoods to slums. They are just now starting to show serious signs of recovery.
Free Flowing Channels Of Concrete And Steel
When President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the Interstate Highway System in 1956, freeways were relatively rare. Promotional videos billed them as “The American Dream of freedom on wheels ... futurama’s free-flowing channels of concrete and steel.”
By the early 1960s, Phoenix was rapidly growing, and leaders wanted a freeway that served the downtown area. Designers presented two options: a southern alignment along Durango Street that would connect with what is now the Maricopa Freeway portion of Interstate 17, and an inner-loop option that would be built along Moreland Street north of downtown.
Eric Anderson is the executive director of the Maricopa Association of Governments, whose predecessor helped plan the freeway. What local leaders envisioned then was, at the time, futuristic.
“In the late 1960s, there was a plan developed by, at that time, the Arizona highway department to elevate Interstate 10,” he said. "The concept was also to build a big park underneath at ground level. And so we'd have this kind of perfect circumstance. You'd have this great interstate a hundred feet in the air, and you'd have this community space underneath it, and everybody would be happy."
Calling it elevated would be an understatement. Early visions for the freeway imagined it rising between 40 and 100 feet over Phoenix. Exits at Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue were to be served by gigantic helicoil structures.
“Think of the parking garage at Terminal 4 in Sky Harbor,” Anderson said.
This alignment would bring the freeway close to downtown, which local leaders wanted. But advocacy groups hated the idea of a 100-foot high freeway over downtown Phoenix. It would also slice neighborhoods in half, forcing the removal of about 9,000 people.
By 1979, after three hotly-contested elections, leaders settled on a plan: they’d sink the freeway below grade level and build a deck tunnel between Third Street and Third Avenue with a park on top.
“What they wanted was this idea of a civic space,” Anderson said. And so if we’re gonna have this freeway going through the heart of Phoenix, let’s have a civic space. And so that’s what was born, the Deck Park was built on top of it.”
At the same time local leaders settled on the finalized freeway plans, researchers like David King, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University, had found plenty of problems with the way freeways were constructed in urban areas in the preceding decades.
“By the early 1970s, (urban planning experts) had really stopped building freeways downtown,” King, who studies highway transportation, explained. “The social and economic damage to communities was well established with what happened in the 1950s and 1960s. For Phoenix to do this in 1990 was decades behind the curve.”
The prime example of this social and economic damage was the Garfield Neighborhood, east of Downtown Phoenix.
The Moreland Corridor
While all this debate over the freeway design was happening, the Garfield neighborhood began to change. As planned, the freeway would slice the neighborhood nearly in half.
Arizona Republic stories from the era show the neighborhood began struggling long before the freeway plans were finalized.
“Ten years ago, an estimated 9,000 persons lived in the (Moreland) corridor,” a 1975 article said. “Now, less than 1,500 remain. Bulldozers have scraped away most of the proud old homes — and the barely habitable shacks — that once stood in the area. Vacant city blocks that wait for the construction of the parkway, or freeway, that may be more than a decade away.”
In the same article, Virginia Castellanos, who lived at 2029 E. Moreland St., described the neighborhood as her “own personal disaster area.” She said her family built the house in the 1950s. That land is now part of the ramp that connects eastbound I-10 with northbound State Route 51 and eastbound Loop 202.
“The families were the first to go,” she said in the article. “Transients moved in. I used to feel safe when families were here. I don’t any more.”
Dana Johnson moved to Garfield in the early 1980s. He recalls seeing the gash-like row of demolished houses and dirt lots along Moreland and Culver streets.
“It was strange, it was just like a strip of no houses as they kept getting torn down and torn down one at a time,” he said. “Nobody was buying houses because they were going to be torn down. It was kind of spooky, kind of strange.”
Because of the impending freeway construction, investment in the neighborhood dried up almost overnight. King, the urban planning professor, says this was a common problem that researchers discovered years before Phoenix finalized the freeway plans.
“The areas that are located right next to interstates tend to end up becoming areas of disinvestment, they tend to end up becoming low income areas, just because of the disamenity of the interstate itself,” King said. “This is true for inner-cities throughout the country. Often it was neighborhoods that were least able to stand up for themselves politically that ended up being where roads were established.”
What was different about Garfield is the time it took to build the freeway. It was announced in the mid 1960s, but construction didn’t start until 1983. So for almost 20 years, the neighborhood sat in limbo, with nobody willing to invest in it. It became known for gangs, drugs and dilapidated houses.
“Slumlords were taking advantage of undocumented people because, you know, ‘here, you can rent this piece of crap from me and not report me because it’s illegal to rent this thing that doesn’t have a flowing toilet,’ but he could rent to them because ‘hey, if you don’t like it, I’ll report you,’” Johnson said. “We worked with police to tear down a (drug) house with bulldozers. If you’d have gone into that house, it was a drug house for years. They’d bust one group, then another would move in.”
30 Years Later
After voters overwhelmingly approved the plans in 1979, construction of the below-grade Papago Freeway began in 1983 — between 15 and 20 years after the first houses were demolished along the route.
On Aug. 10, 1990, the tunnel opened to traffic. Present to give speeches were then-Gov. Rose Mofford, then-Sens. Dennis DeConcini and John McCain, and then-Federal Highway Administration head Tom Larson. Quoting Glen Campbell’s album and song "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," McCain joked “you can get there a lot earlier now.”
Johnson, the Garfield resident, remembers that day well.
“The day they opened it, we could hear it. It was there, you could start hearing it immediately,” he said. “And as it built up over the years, it kind of got louder and louder.”
The noise has been reduced thanks to sound walls and rubberized asphalt, but Johnson says many people in the neighborhood have fountains to drown out the noise. The fountains attract birds, and their singing helps too, he says.
Throughout the 1990s, 2000s and into the 2010s, though, the neighborhood still suffered from disinvestment. Downtown Phoenix wasn’t a big draw, and the problems that came from living next to a freeway began to manifest.
“I have one neighbor that lives in a beautiful Prairie style, two story house, right on Moreland,” which is adjacent to the freeway, Johnson said. “He had a guy come in and clean out his HVAC system and the guy was just shocked at his filters and he couldn't believe that the resident, the owner didn't smoke or something because the filters were so grungy.”
Given the neighborhood’s close proximity to downtown Phoenix, the city has begun investing in improvements.
“I think the city kind of looked at it and said, well, something needs to be done,” Johnson said. "This is right next to downtown. Something needs to be done to save this part of the neighborhood.”
King says developers are building small apartment buildings and townhomes in the neighborhood in a wave of urban renewal (or gentrification, depending on who you talk to). Restaurants and shops are returning, and the neighborhood is beginning to resemble neighborhoods adjacent to urban cores in other cities.
“Developers are putting on pressure for those (small apartments and townhomes) to grow out from the core,” King said. “You have a lot of homes which, by Phoenix standards, they're these historic homes. And so there's a lot of interest in buying and renovating these homes that are near downtown. There's a lot of development pressure that's associated with proximity. And the fact that we, as a region, are just growing substantially.”
Johnson, who has stuck with the neighborhood since he moved there in the early 1980s, says he’s glad with the progress made in the last four decades.
“You either let the neighborhood decay to s***, and have no community, or you try to build on what you have. I much prefer what we did,” Johnson said.
Now, 30 years to the day after the tunnel opened to traffic, more than 250,000 people pass through it every day. Some still hold their breath for good luck.
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