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People living along I-94 in Rondo debate: lid or rid?

Residents whose front porches oversee the freeway agree something should be done. There’s not much agreement after that.

Anthony Ware and Jenna Czapiewski live on the Concordia Avenue side of the freeway in St. Paul. The couple disagrees on what the fate of I-94 should be.
Anthony Ware and Jenna Czapiewski live on the St. Anthony Avenue side of the freeway in St. Paul. The couple disagrees on what the fate of I-94 should be.
MinnPost photo by Solomon Gustavo

The glorious mid-March sun was being taken in by Odester James as he sat in a wheelchair on his front porch and pop music played softly from a boombox. His home of 29 years at the corner of Chatsworth Street and Concordia Avenue overlooks Interstate 94. 

There are two plans to make major changes across the street from James’ porch: Reconnect Rondo wants to build a land bridge across the highway, and Our Street Minneapolis would rather remove the highway altogether. 

On top of those two efforts is MnDOT’s Rethinking I-94 project. MnDOT is still in the early phases, which includes asking residents what should be done. MnDOT has yet to release plans for rethinking the highway. MnDOT’s goal is to reverse some of the harm inflicted on a largely Black community by the construction of the freeway through the old Rondo neighborhood in the 1950s and ’60s. 

The freeway cleared homes and businesses and split the region and its sense of community. The traffic that’s taken the once-vibrant neighborhood’s place now pollutes the air with noise and vehicle exhaust.

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With MnDOT’s plans still being ironed out, people living along and near the highway are looking at two options; a land lid or get rid of the freeway. 

Reconnect Rondo’s vision for a bridge would keep the freeway intact but place a lid of land over the top of 94. It would be a bridge that completely caps the interstate, “approximately 2,600-3,200 linear feet,” according to the organization’s website, reconnecting one side of the freeway with the other. The cost estimate tops $450 million, which Reconnect Rondo hopes to gather from federal and state sources by 2024. On the landbridge, there would be space for housing, parks, and commercial spaces.

I-94
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
MnDOT’s goal is to reverse some of the harm inflicted on a largely Black community by the construction of the freeway through the old Rondo neighborhood in the 1950s and ’60s.
Our Streets Minneapolis’ plan to get rid of the highway is called the Twin Cities Boulevard. The plan is to fill in the valley with dirt, which would erase the highway and reconnect the neighborhood, and replace the freeway with commuter lanes. There would be green spaces, shops, bike and bus lanes, and other public spaces. And it would ease highway pollution. Proponents for ditching the highway argue that there are alternatives for long-distance highway travel, like Highway 36, Interstates 494 and 694, and the St. Paul-to-Minneapolis boulevard would be used primarily for the short trip between the two cities. The exact details of what would come with the Twin Cities Boulevard are being nailed down, according to the website for the plan, which is being done through engagement with the public. 

These plans do have one thing in common – they are just plans. Even in the best-case scenario for either proposal, it will take years, perhaps even decades, for them to be completed.

James said he doesn’t mind living on the lip of I-94. He lives directly in front of where the landbridge would be.

“I guess I’m used to the noise by now, it don’t bother me,” said James. 

When it comes to the big question – lid or get rid – James said he is unsure of either plan. 

“I don’t know, I cant’ figure (the landbridge) out,” said James. He said the exact plan has not been made clear to him by anyone – from what will be on the bridge, exactly, to how the engineering will work to pull it off.

ReConnect Rondo has been working for years to get the funding and infrastructure to build a land bridge, which would replace the current structure of I-94.
Design by Melo and Visuals by James
Reconnect Rondo’s vision for a bridge would keep the freeway intact but place a lid of land over the top of 94.
If building a land lid and placing buildings for housing and businesses on top can be pulled off, James said he’s worried about outside business interests rushing in and pushing out residents like him, who were there before the landbridge. 

He is dubious about getting rid of the highway. 

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“If anything, they should add a lane,” he said. 

James believes if something is going to be done it should be more subtle. A suggestion would be to build a land lid and simply place a park on top, which would be something nearby residents would enjoy, but isn’t something that would attract the sort of outside attention that might bring along gentrification. 

But, James, 75, expressed little confidence he would see anything built in his lifetime. He said, shortly after he moved in nearly 30 years ago, talks began about constructing and improving pedestrian bridges over the highway near his home. He said it took years just to break ground. 

“A (landbridge) will take 100 years,” said James. 

Keith Milham, 55, who has lived at the corner of Victoria Street and Concorida Avenue for more than a year, thinks the land lid idea is “really cool.”

“I think it would really help the neighborhood, help the local businesses, bring businesses to the neighborhood, ya know?” said Milham. 

Milham said he has no concerns about displacement. 

“I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I think growth is great. I think it’s awesome for everybody, everything to come. You stay the same and nothing ever changes,” he said. 

Milham had yet to hear about the plan to get rid of the freeway. When he did, he did not like it. 

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“It’s gonna screw up a lot of people’s lives, ya know what I mean? To me, (I-94) needs to be widened,” Milham said. “Going to downtown in the morning: (it’s) packed. Coming back … packed. Ya know? I just don’t see it,” Milham said. He added that it would “screw people up” to have to make it to another freeway, especially for those who live in old Rondo now (which is now the Summit-University neighborhood). 

Jenna Czapiewski, who lives on the St. Anthony Avenue side of the freeway with her boyfriend, is adamant that something needs to be done – specifically for the people who were displaced when the highway was built, and their descendants. 

“We need to bring back those families,” said Czapiewski, “I know a lot of the original people have passed away, but they have a lot of relatives and family members who are still alive. It needs to go back to them.”

Czapiewski said she would “love to get rid of the highway.” She said she knows of a woman who remembers losing her home and watching the freeway construction, and who has since refused to ever cross the freeway, let alone actually travel on I-94. 

“Because of what 94 represents, it needs to go,” said Czapiewski. 

Czapiewski’s boyfriend, Anthony Ware, disagrees. The two have owned their home since 2011.

Ware, 55, was born and raised in the neighborhood, living today in a home that is two houses down from where he grew up. There are people who he remembers from his youth, those who are now elders, like Odester James, who are retired and less mobile than they used to be and who enjoy sitting on their porch and watching cars whiz by on the freeway on a nice day. 

He thinks the plan to get rid of the highway was created by people who saw an opportunity to have a major plan funded – an opportunity created by the landbridge planning first made by Reconnect Rondo. 

“It’ll be the Rondo name, but it will be owned by (other people) or (MnDOT),” said Ware. He said he likes that the Reconnect Rondo landbridge plan came first and from people he knows in the neighborhood. 

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That being said, Ware said he feels the Reconnect Rondo group has done a woeful job of reaching out to people who live near the freeway. Czapiewski and Ware said they have never heard from the organization. Meanwhile, said Ware, the local organizer Tish Jones, who held a virtual town hall last summer on the landbridge, has stopped by his home to discuss her concerns that the landbridge plan may lead to gentrification.

Ware shares concerns about gentrification and said he only supports a landbridge if it is done so in a way that protects people from displacement. No matter what those guardrails might be, Ware said he and his neighbors need to hear more directly from the Reconnect Rondo organization, so they have a clear idea of what the plan is, and can feel confident that it’s the right plan for the region.