Wilmington lawmakers appeal to feds for I-95 cap to reunite the city

I-95 in Wilmington.

Some state lawmakers from Wilmington hope to convince federal transportation leaders to support their plan to put a cap on top of I-95 through the city and build a public park on top. (Google Maps)

As more than two years of construction work on I-95 through Wilmington nears the end of its first month, a group of state lawmakers from the city say now is the perfect time to think about undoing the damage done to city neighborhoods when the interstate was first built more than 50 years ago.

State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker is leading the charge to convince U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — and by proxy President Biden — to endorse a plan to put a roof on top of I-95 and build an urban park on top.

“That highway created a bit of a divide,” she said. “One of the things that [Buttigieg] talked about, he stressed it while he was on the campaign trail, is rebuilding communities that were literally torn down or endured great hardships when the highway went right through the community.”

In the ’50s and ’60s, the construction of I-95 carved a canyon through the western portion of downtown Wilmington, demolishing homes, businesses, churches and more as it split the city in two.

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Dorsey Walker says covering the highway and building a park on top would go a long way to reuniting Wilmington’s West Side with the rest of the city.

“We’re looking to completely revitalize our community and in the process of revitalizing the community, this is a great way to do it,” she said.

Dorsey Walker joined five other state lawmakers from the city in writing a letter to Buttigieg, urging him to back the project.

“In the midst of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Build Back Better initiative, and your willingness to foster inclusion through infrastructure, we are proposing a cap on I-95 in order to help heal our city and reconnect communities that were disconnected by the construction of a highway through neighborhoods in less affluent areas,” the letter says.

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Dorsey Walker said U.S. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware met with Buttigieg last week to talk about the I-95 cap project. Coons office would only confirm that the two met to discuss “a range of infrastructure issues.”

The idea for capping the highway has been around for a long time. Most recently, the project was included in former Mayor Jim Baker’s “Vision for Wilmington” plan issued in 2004. The long-range look at how to improve Wilmington over the coming decades included plans for a park and even some buildings on top of the highway between Delaware Ave. and 8th St. That vision never moved beyond the concept stage.

This conceptual drawing shows plans for a rooftop park and other construction on top of a capped I-95 as part of then-Mayor Jim Baker’s “Vision for Wilmington” released in 2004. (courtesy city of Wilmington)

And while the latest effort is still in the idea stage, with no schematics, artist’s conception drawings or price tag drawn up, Dorsey Walker says they’re drawing inspiration from other cities that have had success in similar efforts, including Dallas. That’s where the five-acre Klyde Warren Park was built over top of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway that runs through the downtown.

The Dallas park is not just a physical model for Wilmington, but is also creating the same type of unifying impact and drawing visitors from all walks of life, just like lawmakers from Wilmington want to see here.

The “big dig” project in Boston has also been inspiring for the Wilmington plan. After nearly two decades of construction, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway runs 17 acres through a mile and a half section of the city.

However, unlike the Boston effort, which required a massive tunneling project, I-95 in Wilmington is already below ground level, so it would be much simpler.

“We have the infrastructure in place. We just want to build up, so build back better,” Dorsey Walker said. “We have a golden opportunity to do something great that can last for generations to come.”

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