Some see it as an opportunity to undo the freeway’s harm
For decades, Interstate 94 has cleaved neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul in two, bringing with it pollution and destroying vibrant and prosperous communities along the way.
One of which is the Rondo neighborhood, where Mae Adams, a retired teacher, grew up. “We had Black-owned doctors and lawyers and they took that away from us,” said Adams from the porch of her son’s house in Rondo.
But as the freeway nears the end of its useful life, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDot) is considering how to rebuild, if at all, the seven-mile stretch between Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis and Marion Street in St. Paul.
Meanwhile, two community organizations, over the span of 13 years, have proposed different ideas about how the freeway should look. One wants to build a cap over the freeway in the Rondo neighborhood. The other wants to completely take it out.
How Rondo got cleaved
Planning for a freeway connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul on its current route goes back as early as the 1920s, with the St. Paul city engineer designating St. Anthony Ave. for it, according to MNopedia. The route was approved by the Minnesota Department of Highways, now the Minnesota Department of Transportation, in 1940.
Even though not everyone supported the alignment, they couldn’t divert the highway elsewhere. In 1947, St. Paul city engineer George Harrold proposed I-94 should instead run in between today’s Energy Park Drive and Pierce Butler Route, sparing neighborhoods from destruction.
White flight, redlining, racism, and government support for highways for defense and to facilitate travel to and from the suburbs quickly sealed Rondo’s fate. “Their backs were up against a wall, like a lot of Black communities around the country,” said Josh Kohnstamm, who handles public relations for ReconnectRondo.
Construction began in February 1959, destroying 7,000 housing units, 6,000 of which were in St. Paul, and displacing 25,000 people. Construction in Rondo began in 1960 and involved displacing 600 families and 300 businesses. The Rondo stretch was the first to open, with the entire freeway open to traffic by late 1967.
In 2015, then-MnDOT Chair Charlie Zelle apologized to Rondo community leaders for destroying their neighborhood. A year later, MnDOT began engaging community members about how a rebuilt highway should look.
After pressure by local transportation advocates, MnDOT will study removing I-94 as one of the alternatives to rebuilding it as is, and plan to discuss why they need to do this project at an online meeting on September 26.
A land bridge
Even before MnDOT’s apology and planning, Rondo community members sought to reclaim what the government destroyed. Marvin Roger Anderson, who started the annual Rondo Days gathering to celebrate the lost community, fostered the idea of a land bridge where people can create a cultural enterprise zone to restore and bring prosperity back to Rondo.
“What we really are focused on is the land bridge being a tool for restoring an entire geographic area, to create an African American cultural enterprise district. That’s what Rondo was,” said Keith Baker, who runs ReconnectRondo. “[We envision] housing [and] businesses, business incubation, creating a social fabric within a community that was destroyed, creating a way in which a community can become vibrant now.”
They have won support from local community organizations and businesses, private companies, and the state legislature, which approved $6 million in 2021 to study the idea. And with the passage last year of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, sometimes known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the City of St. Paul may apply for a Reconnecting Communities grant with ReconnectRondo to study it further, and ReconnectRondo may apply for the grant themselves to draft a land bridge design.
Not everyone is satisfied with Reconnect Rondo’s vision. A petition created by Tish Jones and Pavielle French in 2021 questioned the organization’s transparency and efforts to engage the community, which ReconnectRondo says they have worked to address. Both Jones and French were unable to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, the transportation advocacy organization Our Streets Minneapolis doesn’t think the plan goes far enough. “It would leave a highway underneath and all of the related harms, like asthma rates, air pollution; life expectancy is often lower [for those who live near highways],” said Our Streets Minneapolis Advocacy Director José Antonio Zayas Cabán. “And more than that, the land bridge is limited to a small section of the entire project. We feel all communities should be reconnected at once.”
Why not remove the freeway entirely?
In February, Our Streets Minneapolis unveiled a proposal to completely replace I-94 between Hiawatha Ave. and Marion St.with a surface-level boulevard that includes walking and biking trails; fare-free fast buses, perhaps running on dedicated lanes; and housing and business development over a community land trust which ensures permanently affordable housing and business space.
“The highway has been immensely harmful for Minneapolis and St. Paul communities, not just when it was first constructed, but every day since then,” said organizer Alex Burns. “Is this something that we want to perpetuate, or do we want to build something that achieves better outcomes for the people that live along the freeway?”
The proposal is supported by a coalition of environmental organizations, as well as at least three neighborhood associations along the corridor that have different ideas about how the ultimate vision should manifest. Should their visions be fulfilled by MnDOT, it would become the longest freeway removal project in the United States as of today.
ReconnectRondo is skeptical that the removal could happen. “Two feasibility studies were done on [the land bridge] project,” said Kohnstamm. “You know, the [Twin Cities Boulevard, a coalition] hasn’t done that due diligence yet. So, it’s impossible to tell. We know [the land bridge] is a viable way of revitalizing the community.”
Ariane Long also does not think I-94 should be removed. “I-94 is the main highway. Why take it out of the main area?” said Long, who uses I-94 to get to her home in St. Cloud but is looking to move back to Rondo, where she grew up.
Nonetheless, ReconnectRondo appears open to retooling their proposal should MnDOT decide to remove I-94. “If MnDOT through its process decides to fill it in—through its process because it’s got to make those decisions, we don’t make those decisions—then we’ll figure out what our pivot is and what our incorporation is to still create an African American cultural enterprise district regardless,” said Baker.
Why not give Rondo their land back?
Some in the community, like Adams, wonder why not just return the land where I-94 is to the community. “Put down our businesses, our housing, our neighborhood that was grown before [the government] came and took it from us. Then it would be Reconnecting Rondo,” said Adams.
That’s what both proposals plan to achieve, but the two organizations are approaching it in different ways. “We’ve been advocating [for] a community land trust to ensure that private developers and speculators aren’t swooping in and buying up that land,” said Our Streets’ Alex Burns, adding that they need to understand from those along the corridor what a community land trust, which could include ownership opportunities, would look like.
ReconnectRondo has a similar idea, although they are not calling it a community land trust. “We continue to work with jurisdictional partners, community members and others to actualize a unique 4P financing mechanism—people, public, private and philanthropic—that allows ownership to be in the hands of the community,” said Baker. “We believe people in the neighborhood should be able to invest in it and reap the return and benefit.”
Those interested in participating, including offering comments at the Sept. 26 meeting, can do so at https://bit.ly/RethinkingRondoMeetingSept26.
H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.