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A plan to stitch Minneapolis together again: Cover a stretch of I-35W

The visionary plan would cover a portion of I-35W in Minneapolis with a park, apartment buildings and commercial space.

Last fall, students at the School of Architecture got together with the Metropolitan Design Center, a research outfit within the College of Design, to develop a plan to bridge I-35 with a park, taking the highway out of view (for a few blocks) and providing space for parks, businesses, stores and public facilities like schools and maybe a library.
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota College of Design

If you, like me, consider the tremendous amount of land the Twin Cities devote to freeways, not to mention their attendant ramps, walls and berms, to be somewhat appalling, then you ought to hustle down to the IDS Center’s Crystal Court. There you’ll find a model of a visionary plan to cover a portion of I-35W in Minneapolis with a park, apartment buildings and commercial space.

I live only a couple of blocks away, so I know the spot well. It stretches along Washington Avenue South, split in half by the I-35 gulch. On one side sit a Bobby & Steve’s Auto World and the Minnesota Super-Computing Center; in the other direction lie Seven Corners, with its lively bars and theaters, and much of the University of Minnesota. The walk from one end to the other presents you with a visual desert — the gray, dirty freeway, the sides and backs of buildings, and expanses of (usually) brown grass in the middle of the cloverleaf exits.

OK, so it’s not pretty. But, according to Thomas Fisher, dean of the U’s College of Design, this landscape is also incredibly wasteful. The vast space that spans 35W is doing basically nothing, as are the blocks on either side of it. For Minneapolis, which is seeing — at least momentarily — a resurgence of people and businesses that want to live and operate downtown, such a large undeveloped expanse could be a godsend.

“You’d be creating density where it would be accepted,” says Fisher. The plan does not contemplate tearing down or doing away with businesses already in place. Much of the land and the air rights are publicly owned; there wouldn’t be any NIMBY-otic neighbors to complain that the project would block their views or increase traffic.

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So last fall, students at the School of Architecture got together with the Metropolitan Design Center, a research outfit within the College of Design, to develop a plan to bridge I-35 with a park, taking the highway out of view (for a few blocks) and providing space for parks, businesses, stores and public facilities like schools and maybe a library.

Everyone praised it — for different reasons

To view and celebrate the students’ scale model, a batch of local notables and their acolytes gathered in the Crystal Court the other day. Everybody had praise for the idea — but for different reasons.

According to Steve Cramer, CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, the “lidding” would aid in achieving the group’s plan for 2025, one of whose aims is to double downtown population to 70,000. Jacob Frey, a newly elected City Council member whose Ward 3 includes Downtown East, waxed enthusiastic about possibility that the land bridge would connect currently separated income and ethnic groups —  in this case, I guess, the well-off condo owners of his district and the Somali population of Cedar-Riverside. City plans of yore, he observed, virtually assigned Jews and blacks to their own special districts. “Now we are all trying to come together,” he said.

Several speakers mentioned the importance of establishing (or re-establishing) a physical link between downtown and the U of M.

“If you don’t make the most of an educational institution in your area, you’d be crazy,” said Barbara Johnson, president of the City Council. And there was a lot of talk about how the University was the economic engine of innovation and downtown was the economic engine of the metro, the state, the region and so on, and collaboration between the two would  produce everlasting prosperity and other happy outcomes.

I am not sure why a physical connection over I-35 will necessarily bring about more synergy between the campus and the central business district. There’s nothing to stop folks in either place from collaborating now. (Everybody involved already has email and telephones.) But having a thriving neighborhood next to the university rather than the no man’s land that now exists certainly couldn’t hurt.

Idea includes apartments, schools, shops

That neighborhood, as envisioned by students, would be a place for families, said Mic Johnson, design principal at the Architecture Field Office and interim director of the Metropolitan Design Center. Apartment buildings would house 5,000 residents, and there would be an elementary, middle and high school. Also included: a day-care center, a food market, an LRT station, a fitness center and a bike repair shop. Fourth Street would be the area’s commercial spine, with office towers lining it.

Further tactical thinking went into the plan for the neighborhood. All buildings would have “green” roofs. Covered with vegetation, they provide environmental benefits, reducing rainwater runoff for example, and filtering out pollutants. Higher floors would be set back from the lot line to allow for sunshine, air and eyes on the streets below. And in the middle of the whole thing would be a ribbon of parkland covering up I-35.

Even though the plan is years from realization, I was totally ready to move in. But my inner accountant wondered: How much is this whole shebang going to cost? The answer is: not the bujillions I had imagined. Covering up the freeway and creating parking decks beneath (like Chicago’s Millennium Park) would range from $40 million to $60 million. The air rights over the freeway and much of the land surrounding it belong to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), whose commissioner, Charles Zelle, turned up to endorse the project. Such a walkable area, he suggested, falls in line with MnDOT’s latest strategic aim to maximize “the health of people, the environment and the economy.” But his eyes also seemed to glow brighter when he mentioned the revenues that selling or leasing the air rights would bring the department. Except for public facilities, all building would be private.

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Returns to the city could be immense. A study by the Minneapolis branch of Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real-estate company, estimated that the redeveloped land (some of it newly created) would boost tax revenues over a 10-year period by $288 million. Currently, the 11 blocks involved would pay about $8.1 million over the same period.

Will developers show up?

Few seemed worried, as I was, that “lidding” the freeway might create a glut of land in an area where its highest and best use has until recently at least been surface parking lots. Just because MnDOT creates more land by “lidding” the freeway doesn’t necessarily mean that developers will come flocking. It’s possible that we could wind up with a lid but no neighborhood.

Typical was the answer from one notable I asked. Pointing to the power brokers milling around the model, he said, “These people won’t let that happen.” Hmm, as though bankers and builders had never previously made miscalculations.

In fact, 5,000 more people downtown might be a lot for the market to swallow. Already, apartment towers are shooting up out of the soil like crocuses in spring. Whether they will all fill up immediately, whether enough people will want to stay in them, whether demand for downtown living will grow — all those questions remain to be answered.

In the meantime, however, Mic Johnson offered a long list of other areas that could profit by highway cover-ups — the huge freeway farm where I-94 and I-35 meet in South Minneapolis; in St. Paul, where the I-94 trench separates downtown from the Capitol, to name just two of 20 examples he had in mind. All of them could become parks and what he described as “a necklace of green connecting the city’s major landmarks.”

That image of a city putting back together what the federal highway system tore asunder is certainly a dream worth pursuing.