Land bridge, boulevard, or business as usual?
A plan by a Minneapolis-based transportation advocacy group to completely remove I-94 and replace it with a surface-level boulevard is not sitting well with those in St. Paul’s Rondo community seeking to reconnect their neighborhood that was severed by the highway.
Our Streets, a Minneapolis-based climate activist group, is calling on the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to completely remove a seven-and-a-half-mile stretch of I-94 between Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis and Marion Street in St. Paul and replace it with a surface-level boulevard, citing climate change and longstanding health and socioeconomic impacts the freeway has on surrounding communities.
The Twin Cities Boulevard proposal comes at a time when MnDOT is asking community members what to do with the same stretch of freeway along the Minneapolis-St Paul corridor that is nearing the end of its viability, and as Reconnect Rondo is engaging the Rondo community around building a Black cultural enterprise zone over I-94.
If MnDOT decides to go with the Our Streets’ plan, it would be the largest freeway removal project so far in the United States. Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Rochester, N.Y. have removed segments of freeways one to two miles long, with plans to do so in Syracuse, N.Y. and Detroit in the works.
The proposal affects the Cedar-Riverside, Seward and Prospect Park neighborhoods in Minneapolis, as well as the Merriam Park, Union Park, South St. Anthony, Hamline-Midway, Summit-University and Rondo neighborhoods in St. Paul. It calls for a bike trail, sidewalks, and fare-free all-day express buses similar to Metro Transit’s Orange Line on I-35W that opened last December.
The surrounding land not used for a roadway could be given to a community land trust, which would guarantee affordable housing, retail, and office space for those historically impacted by the interstate, including Rondo descendants, regardless of whether it is rented or owned, as long as the trust owns the land.
Unveiled last February, the proposal is ambitious but vague by design, as Our Streets wants to work with local neighborhood organizations to further develop the concept. “This project provides the first opportunity that we, collectively, as a community, have the opportunity to ask ourselves, ‘Is [the environmental harm stemming from the freeway] something we want to perpetuate?’
“Or do we want to reconsider this infrastructure and build something that achieves better outcomes for the people that live here?” said Our Streets Minneapolis Transportation Policy Coordinator Alex Burns.
Our Streets’ proposal came about as a coalition of 28 organizations submitted a letter in 2021 to the Minnesota Department of Transportation to revise their I-94 project’s purpose and need to prioritize public health, transportation access, and climate outcomes. Although the agency did revise its purpose and need, advocates say it didn’t go far enough.
Opposition to Our Streets proposal
So far the biggest opponent to the Our Streets proposal is ReconnectRondo (RCR), which over the past decade has developed and promoted a vision to rebuild a Black cultural enterprise district on a land bridge over I-94. They’ve accused Our Streets of subverting Black leadership and making decisions for the community without any local connections.
In an open letter, RCR wrote, “Your action are reminiscent of well-worn past historical practices—unilateral decisions to launch, drive and force decision-making on a community without the voice of owners who have lost property and business, without the voice of descendants who carry legacy impacts in their everyday lives, and without speaking with the very organizations that have vigorously worked to assemble and re-stitch, as best possible, the fabric of a community torn apart by the construction of I-94.”
Reiterating that Reconnect Rondo has done numerous studies to conclude a land bridge is a feasible option to reconnect the Rondo neighborhood, Reconnect Rondo Executive Director Keith Baker suggests Our Streets should support RCR and their proposal.
“If [ReconnectRondo has] been here since 2009, and [another organization conceives of] another idea about an entire corridor that has the potential of impacting those African Americans leading a project that we’ve been working on a long time, it appears to me that you want to have a conversation [about the idea] before you announce something,” said Baker in an August interview.
Our Streets Minneapolis, which has had conversations with Reconnect Rondo about the Twin Cities Boulevard initiative, stated they have to refer to RCR in their outreach materials, because people keep asking about it. “One of the first questions we get whenever we present the Twin Cities Boulevard concept to anybody is ‘what about the land bridge,’” said former executive director Ash Narayanan last August. “We have no way of talking about our vision without addressing the land bridge itself.”
Nonetheless, Our Streets and its allies hope they are able to work with ReconnectRondo to develop the Twin Cities Boulevard vision. “We want to work together to find a solution that repairs the highway’s harms in this broader corridor,” said Burns.
Even those who collaborate with Our Streets do not necessarily fully agree with the proposal. Britt Howell, who runs an Indigenous health practice, lives in Prospect Park and organizes bike rides with Our Streets, does not think the proposal needs 24/7 bus lanes. “I’m not against it, but I haven’t been able to find the need for that,” said Howell.
Is MnDOT responding?
Meanwhile, MnDOT appears to be responding to Our Streets’ vision. At least one alternative plan MnDOT developed in deciding what to do with I-94 is to replace it with a surface-level boulevard. They hope to have a refined list of ideas available for public comment this fall.
They also had a 12-hour-long open house at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in mid-October, soliciting feedback on how transit service on the I-94 corridor could look with some form of express bus service. But MnDOT is not exploring building any kind of rail line on the I-94 corridor, because they have already studied that when the Green Line was being planned.
They ultimately decided to put the Green Line on University Avenue. But if they anticipate transit ridership straining the express bus proposals they have, they will more closely look into building a rail line.
The Twin Cities Boulevard project is also supported by about 10,000 people along the corridor who think it should be studied, with about 800 signing a petition indicating so, according to Our Streets. It also has the backing of three St. Paul neighborhood associations: Hamline-Midway and Saint Anthony Park Neighborhood Associations, and the Union Park District Council, which declined comment for this story but to say they support Reconnect Rondo’s land bridge proposal as well.
The St. Anthony Park neighborhood in St. Paul stands to benefit from the highway removal, in part because the southern part of the neighborhood has high traffic noise and air pollution from an interchange that handles lots of commercial vehicles. “The [South St. Anthony Park residents] live with the effect of it [being] much closer to, both the noise of it, and then the pollution…because they’re right at the intersection of [I-94 and 280],” said Pat Thompson, who chairs the neighborhood’s transportation committee.
Removing the freeway, which could involve removing the I-94 and Highway 280 interchange, could help reconnect St. Anthony with South St. Anthony. “That’s like five super blocks worth of land reclaimed,” said Thompson.
Thompson is joined by several others from St. Paul who spoke in support of removing I-94 at a Policy Advisory Committee meeting hosted by MnDOT in late September, where they discussed the revised purpose and needs statement. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions has to be one of the number-one priorities when considering what this 60-year highway project is going to look like,” said Josiah Gregg, who lives two blocks from I-94 in St. Paul.
Although the Our Streets’ vision is backed by some local elected officials, the project is not officially supported by any local jurisdictions, which could play a big role in deciding the future of I-94.
The City of Minneapolis Public Works Department, for example, did not apply for the federal Reconnecting Communities grant—made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—to study removing I-94 within the Minneapolis city limits, despite urging by Our Streets and climate activists to do so.
“We don’t have a project ready to go,” said Minneapolis Public Works Director Margaret Anderson Kelliher after a ribbon cutting in downtown Minneapolis in late September, adding they can’t apply for money to study a project on land they don’t own; in this case, I-94 is on land owned by MnDOT.
“I think we are interested in working in partnership with either MnDOT or Hennepin County on future projects in that way,” said Kelliher. MnDOT anticipates releasing a list of alternatives on how it could rebuild the freeway — or not — sometime this year.
Although the comment period for studying transit options is closed, those who wish to comment on the website can either do so online at https://bit.ly/RethinkingI94 or call Ricardo Lopez at 612-441-1928. MnDOT does not have an option to receive comments for this project by U.S. mail.
Those who would like to get involved with Our Streets Minneapolis in developing the Twin Cities Boulevard proposal can visit twincitiesboulevard.org.
Read Part I of the series at https://bit.ly/MnDOTI94
Read Part II of the series at https://bit.ly/ReConnectRondo
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