I-94 plan seeks to resurrect a destroyed community
Advocates for a land bridge over I-94 in Rondo say their proposal goes beyond building over a freeway: They want to build housing, a way to generate Black wealth, and to right past wrongs.
“We envision housing, that was something [that was] certainly taken, and businesses, business incubation,” said ReConnect Rondo Executive Director Keith Baker. “Creating a social fabric within a community that was something that was destroyed, creating a way in which a community can become vibrant now.”
And to build it out, they’re taking advantage of transportation investments that may happen later this decade as well as funding from private companies and government sources, which they are also using as an opportunity to build a cadre of Black entrepreneurs.
The idea for a land bridge was conceived when Metro Transit and the Metropolitan Council were planning to build the Green Line in 2009. Activists were upset that the Green Line would not serve them, so they sued. Their victory inspired something bigger: Why not build a bridge over a freeway to replace the land that was lost?
Such an idea would not be the first in Minnesota, as Duluth has a park above Interstate 35 northeast of downtown. Similar caps exist in downtown Seattle over Interstate 5, in downtown Boston, and in a former Army base in San Francisco a mile from the Golden Gate Bridge. Communities elsewhere in the United States, such as the Bronx, Austin, Houston, and El Paso, are looking to do the same to their freeways.
Since the idea emerged, Reconnect Rondo worked with the community to understand how best to implement this idea, while also conducting studies to understand how the community was harmed so they can understand what the community needs. A “prosperity study” they commissioned found the neighborhood’s Black population decreased after the freeway’s construction and their finances were set back drastically, to the tune of $157 million by 2018.
“Wealth is important [to the Black community] because of education, ability to pay for college,” says Josh Kohnstamm, who volunteers public relations services for Reconnect Rondo and pointed out that many Rondo residents had to defer or even cancel plans for college because they lost their investments.
Planning a land bridge takes a lot of work, which involves studying its impacts on the environment, ensuring existing residents don’t get displaced, and determining how it will be owned and operated once it is constructed. To take on all that work, Reconnect Rondo plans to contract with Black professionals in fields where they are underrepresented, which include transportation and environmental planners, architects, and engineers who have the ability to connect with a community historically excluded from the planning process.
One of those tasked with laying out the master plan is Craig Vaughn, a Black Rondo descendant who is a transportation planner. “I never would have dreamed that I’d have the opportunity to come back to my childhood neighborhood and provide this type of support, helping them shape their future vision, especially considering my expertise in this type of work,” says Vaughn.
Reconnect Rondo is getting or plans to get financial support from different sources to pay for all of this work. The Minnesota Legislature appropriated $6 million to Reconnect Rondo in 2020 to study the land bridge, which Republican legislators tried and failed to take away last year.
And with help from Sen. Tina Smith, they also received $1.5 million from the federal government to build a net zero-emissions building with space for housing, office space for businesses, Reconnect Rondo, and other community-based organizations, as well as a community learning center on vacant Xcel Energy land on Concordia Avenue. They hope to build buildings similar to this on the land bridge once it is complete.
Additionally, Reconnect Rondo plans to apply for $5.4 million to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement, perhaps with the City of St. Paul, through the federal Reconnecting Communities grant made possible by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Some people are concerned about the impact the land bridge would have on the community. One is gentrification and displacement, which happened in communities such as Boston with caps built over freeways. Nonetheless, gentrification in Rondo is already happening, with or without the land bridge.
“Speculation based on the Central Light Rail corridor [University Avenue], that’s a geographic area right now that people cannot afford to live in. We can go down to Selby Avenue. Same thing, development is happening where communities are fighting…to survive and afford,” says Baker. “It’s our intention to ensure a forcefield of protection.”
ReConnect Rondo, through the city of St. Paul, applied for and received $150,000 in 2021 to study anti-displacement initiatives as part of the land bridge development, which includes a “right-to-return” framework, ensuring money generated on the land bridge is reinvested into the surrounding Rondo community, and mitigating tax increases. Meanwhile, in August the City of St. Paul announced plans to offer $100,000 for each Rondo descendant who wishes to buy a home near or in Rondo.
Perhaps the biggest sticking point with climate activists is that Reconnect Rondo is indifferent about whether or not the freeway itself should remain, in spite of the health and environmental impacts it causes communities along the route. Reconnect Rondo’s commissioned prosperity study found the Rondo community is among the worst 5% of neighborhoods in the United States when it comes to traffic volumes, and the community suffers high rates of asthma, strokes and COPD.
Statewide, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says the transportation sector is the biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. The EPA says 82% of emissions come from those who use freeways. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation, however, found that building a cap over a freeway in downtown Boston reduced emissions by 12%.
“Let’s think about things geographically,” says Baker. “Transportation is a contributor [to greenhouse gas emissions] statewide. But let’s do the analysis here in this geographic area. Is that the case? Do we know?
“Why [the freeway] should stay is not a determination that we make. That’s a part of MnDOT’s process,” says Baker.
If they are able to secure their approvals and more funding, they hope to begin construction around the same time the Minnesota Department of Transportation breaks ground on whatever plans they will develop for I-94, sometime in 2026 or 2027.
Updated 10/17/2022: According to Reconnect Rondo, the organization did not receive the $5.2 in federal aid as stated in a previous version of this story as Congress did not pass the bill with the funding.
H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.