Southern California's most ambitious freeway "cap" proposal is still going forward – though there are literally mountains to move before the cap is constructed.

At a discussion Thursday of the so-called "Park 101" project, a half-dozen panelists debated methods for moving the cap forward. But all were enthusiastic – and it's clear that if the Park 101 cap by Union Street is constructed, several more in Southern California will quickly follow. "Let's get this thing into environmental," said Doug Failing of L.A. Metro, who formerly served as Caltrans District 7 director in Los Angeles. His comment summed up the day.

Park 101 is a proposal to cap several blocks of Highway 101 in the vicinity of Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles. But the cap isn't the only aspect of the project. The project's proponents have also suggested that several under-used onramps and offramps be reconfigured or eliminated, opening up lots of land either for development or for parks.  In 2008, CP&DR's Morris Newman praised the concept of Park 101, calling it "naïve but necessary".

Four freeway caps are under active consideration in Southern California right now, including three along Highway 101 -- Park 101, a cap to accommodate a park along Highway 101 in Hollywood, and a cap on Highway 101 in Ventura that would reconnect the downtown to the beach. Santa Monica is considering a cap on Interstate 10 that would reconnect the Civic Center with the rest of the its downtown. All are the subject of planning efforts funded either by their respective cities or by the Southern California Association of Governments.

Of the four, Park 101 is by far the most ambitious – seeking to reclaim several blocks of land surrendered to the freeway 60 years ago. The Highway 101 corridor was on the edge of downtown when the freeway was built in 1950, but development has gravitated toward it, as it now separates the Civic Center area from Union Station, Olvera Street, and Chinatown. One advantage that the Park 101 project has is that virtually all surrounding development is controlled by public agencies, meaning a joint agreement among all the agencies could facilitate both the public construction project and private development opportunities.  Panelists had several ideas to speed the process along, including:

1. Break it into small pieces.

Vaughn Davies of AECOM, the lead designer on Park 101, has suggested covering one block to begin with – the block between Main and Los Angeles streets, which would re-connect Olvera Street with the City Hall area. Daies estimated that such a cap would cost a relatively modest $20-25 million.

2. Don't build anything on the cap itself.

One of the biggest potential obstacles is to construction is Caltrans, which owns the air rights over the freeway. Caltrans typically wants to lease, not sell, the air rights; and insists on retaining the right to reclaim the air rights at any time. All the panelists agreed that keeping development off the freeway cap itself – and concentrating it on adjacent property, which will increase in value – will make the path to construction much easier. Indeed, by capping only one block, making it a park, and pushing development to the side, the Park 101 project – in the short run, at least – begins to look a lot like the freeway cap constructed over I-15 in the 1990s in the Mid-City neighborhood of San Diego.

3. Use the Transfer for Floor Area Ratio system to help fund the cap and related improvements.

A number of Park 101 proponents have suggested that the City of Los Angeles confer development rights on the freeway cap, which can then be sold to nearby developers as a way of raising money – a system previously used in Downtown Los Angeles on the convention center property. "The freeway is zoned PF, public facilities," said Park 101's Emily Gabel Luddy, formerly chief urban designer with the City of Los Angeles. "If we can write the cap into the community plan, the City could bestow development credits that could be used somewhere else."

Others cautioned that the market for such TFARs isn't currently strong. "There's already extra density available from the convention center," said developer John Whitaker of DLA piper. "Some people who can get 13:1 [floor-area ratio, compared to the 6:1 permitted under the code] don't want to build it? They're looking at smaller projects.

4. Combine the Park 101 project with the Union Station master plan.

L.A. Metro is about to undertake a master plan for the Union Station property – and, in fact, is about to interview several design teams. A number of panelists suggested that Metro fold Park 101 into this project. Metro's Failing didn't take the bait – "The teams themselves will be initially focused on the confines of Union Station," he said – but held out the possibility that in the long run Metro is "open to all ideas".

Park 101 BeforePark 101 After

The 101 Freeway through downtown LA, before and after proposed capping. Courtesy